The start of the Mexican season is just two weeks away, and few Primera Division clubs will feel the pressure to produce this fall as much as Club America and Cruz Azul.
The Mexico City powers are coming off disappointing Bicentenario campaigns last spring, and both are counting on Saturday night's preseason prep at the Rose Bowl to be the first step toward the Apertura championship.
America, which hasn't won a title in 10 seasons -- or five years; the Mexican league splits its year into two championships, the Apertura (fall) and Clausura (spring) -- has turned to Manuel Lapuente, who guided Mexico at the 1998 World Cup and the Aguilas to 2002 “Verano” title, as the Clausura used to be known.
“To win championships,” says Lapuente, who stepped down as an America vice president to take charge of the club for the fourth time. “The first is to qualify for Copa Libertadores (by finishing among the top four clubs), and then to win the championship.”
Cruz Azul has come much closer to trophies than America the past two years or so, reaching five finals -- and losing all of them.
“I always set high expectations for myself,” said coach Enrique Meza, who retained his job after the Cementeros failed to qualify for the playoffs during the spring campaign. “We all aspire to win championships and be the best we can be. Unfortunately, Cruz Azul has been very close to winning championships the last few years, and for whatever reason, we haven't been able to capture it.”
Cruz Azul has lost the last two CONCACAF Champions League finals, falling to Atlante last year and on away goals to Pachuca earlier this year. It dropped three of four Mexican Primera Division title series in 2008-09, losing to Santos in the 2008 Clausura (under Sergio Markarian), to Tolica on penalties in the 2008 Apertura (under Benjamin Galindo) and to Monterrey in the 2009 Apertura (under Meza).
Cruz Azul returns every pivotal figure except Paraguayan World Cup midfielder Christian Riveros, who has moved to English club Sunderland. Back are Mexican World Cup midfielder Gerardo Torrado, Argentine midfielder Christian Gimenez and Argentine forward Emanuel Villa, who scored 25 goals in 39 games during the 2009-10 seasons.
The biggest acquisition is midfielder Gonzalo Pineda, who played for Mexico at the 2006 World Cup and has arrived on loan from Guadalajara. Former Mexican national team defender Joel Huiqui hopes to make an impact after missing most of the last year with injuries.
America has brought in Uruguayan forward Vicente Sanchez and Argentine-born forward Matias Vuoso, who was in the running for a Mexican World Cup roster spot, to fill the shoes of Salvador Cabañas. The Paraguayan striker scored 14 goals in 20 league games from the start of the 2009 Apertura until he was shot in the head at a Mexico City nightspot in January.
Sanchez arrives following 2½ difficult years with Germany's Schalke 04 after scoring 85 goals in seven years at Toluca. Vuoso, who played part of 2006 with America, has been a regular scorer for Santos since 2003.
America has friendlies scheduled Wednesday against England's Portsmouth in San Diego and July 17 against Italy's Juventus in Arlington, Texas. Saturday night's game begins at 7 p.m. and will be televised on Fox Soccer Channel and Fox Sports en Español. Organizers are anticipating a crowd of 25,000.