MEXICO CITY -- Santos Laguna cemented one of Mexico's most memorable playoff runs in recent history on Sunday, beating Toluca 3-2 on aggregate to win their sixth league championship.
On the way to glory, they defeated three teams with 28 league titles between them -- a feat never accomplished before in Liga MX. In addition, they did it without the benefit of the big names that have seemingly been flooding the Mexican league for years now.
There was no sight of Andre-Pierre Gignac, Keisuke Honda, or Jeremy Menez hoisting the Liga MX trophy in Toluca. Mostly, it was a group of talented Liga MX veterans and youth players representing a team who smartly built their roster without the benefit of a massive payroll.
The recognizable faces of Jonathan Orozco, Osvaldo Martinez and Djaniny Tavares are reminders to the rest of the league that you do not need to break the bank to produce major results, even in the era of big budgets and limelight signings.
Orozco, a national team-caliber goalkeeper bought at a cut rate from Monterrey, and Martinez, a seasoned playmaker who came over in a trade with Club America, were massive contributors to a team who clicked under Robert Dante Siboldi. The Uruguayan manager was himself an afterthought of sorts, a former youth team manager and interim boss who gained his full-time contract without any pomp last year. Even Djaniny, now arguably the most valued commodity in Liga MX, was signed for a mere €2 million in 2014.
In time, Santos fed off the narrative that few in Liga MX respected their chances of winning. Even after a 2-1 win in the first leg of the Clausura 2018 final, owner Alejandro Irarragorri promptly ended a phone interview with ESPN Mexico after taking issue with the insinuation that his star signings were "castoffs" other teams didn't want.
"They're players we acquired and who are showing what they're made of, but all you want to do [is criticize]," said Irarragorri on Friday morning.
"Enjoy the final, you only have negative comments and you want to attack."
Whether Irarragorri's comments hold any weight, it's clear this team felt overlooked and underrated. If they did in the Clausura 2018, Liga MX teams will not make the same mistake next time around. Furthermore, the win offers a glimmer of hope for those unable to sign top-tier players due to budget restraints.
A semester ago, it was easy to predict that the arms race of roster building was reaching a crescendo. Emboldened by the success of Tigres, who won their sixth title off the strength of players like Gignac, former West Ham striker Enner Valencia and Argentina goalkeeper Nahuel Guzman, other teams were following the model nearly identically.
The thought of a team with a mid-tier budget and no marketable stars winning in the near future seemed impossible, albeit with the exceptions of Liga MX's traditionally big clubs like Chivas and Pumas, who have turned middling rosters into championship contenders on more than one occasion.
Now, it is tempting to think more teams will try to copy Santos' model moving forward, as it depends less on big splashes of spending and rather, a more nuanced approach that can still yield results in the short-term.
The effect is apparently already taking hold.
Pressed by the media to reveal their off-season plans, usually cash-rich Club America sporting director Santiago Banos said not to expect any major signings.
"We're not thinking about [star signings], we need players to come in and make a difference under Miguel Herrera's system," said Banos after being eliminated by Santos. Days later, Banos signed young Mexican left-back Luis Reyes from Atlas.
Tigres, perhaps the team most accustomed to big-name transfers in recent years, are apparently following a different path this summer, as well.
"Right now, we're only looking at one position to fill the team out," said Miguel Angel Garza, the sporting director for the club.
Garza assured the signing would not be one that rocked the Mexican market.
In short, the changing of the guard in Liga MX has humbled those who attempted to take hold of a traditionally difficult and unstable league by spending their way to the top. Irarragorri and Santos have made those teams take a long look at their strategy by outsmarting them with impact signings at a fraction of market cost.
Consider the signing of Uruguay's Gerardo Alcoba, for instance. The 33-year-old defender was brought over by Siboldi at the start of the Clausura 2018 from Pumas. Nevertheless, he backed up Mexico international Nestor Araujo for most of the season. When Araujo went down to injury in April, Alcoba stepped in and filled the void admirably.
"Not a lot of people believe in me, in us," said Alcoba after the trophy celebration on Sunday. "I left Pumas, a big club, by walking out the back door.
"Santos believed in me, and I can tell you my reward isn't the medal around my neck -- the reward is being here, on a team that believed in me."