Get ready for the Liga MX final! Beginning with Thursday's first leg at Toluca and wrapping up with Sunday's second leg at Pachuca, this week will define the winners of the 2022 Apertura tournament.
Will Toluca clinch an 11th title and move one step closer to surpassing the trophy tally of Liga MX giants Chivas and Club America? Will Pachuca avoid back-to-back final losses in 2022 after previously falling just short in the previous season? Here's everything you need to know about the two finalists.
Toluca (Regular season: 6th place, 7W-6D-4L)
There were initially worries before Toluca's blistering run through the playoffs. Despite a brilliant start to the Apertura season that saw them lose just one of their 10 games, Los Diablo Rojos lost energy at the end of the regular season with just one win in their last seven.
Once in the Liguilla, they've appeared entirely reinvigorated. Toluca thrashed FC Juarez 3-0 in the play-in round, scored a handful of goals against Santos Laguna in a 6-4 aggregate victory in the quarterfinals, and then stunned title-favorites and No. 1 seed Club America with a 3-2 aggregate win in the semis.
Manager Ignacio "Nacho" Ambriz stands out as one of the more important strengths for Toluca. Stepping into the playoffs with his underdog roster, Ambriz has outcoached superior teams through an efficient style of play that has strengthened the backline and forced errors from opponents.
"He's a genius," said Toluca midfielder Sebastian Saucedo to ESPN about Ambriz. "The way he works training sessions, possession, all those little things...this guy is the real deal."
There's a discernible unity in Toluca's squad that is greater than the sum of their parts. As part of the group, Ambriz literally put on the Toluca jersey in the semifinals as well. In the first leg against Club America, the manager wore the home kit on the sideline and after the second leg he once again sported the Toluca jersey in the post-game news conference.
According to Saucedo, Ambriz told his players: "I want to be a part of you guys," about wearing the jersey.
All that said, Toluca at times appear as a work in progress. After a serious roster overhaul over the summer, there are occasional disconnects in their own half that have forced goalkeeper Tiago Volpi to make countless saves. For reference, while fellow finalists Pachuca have amassed an expected goals against (xGA) tally of 22.72 through the playoffs, Toluca have a total that is nearly double at 37.17.
Who is their MVP?
Volpi, who has even provided a goal and assist in the playoffs for Toluca, is worthy of a mention as one of the top goalkeepers this season. In the attack, midfielders such as Jean Meneses and Leonardo Fernandez are also in the conversation. While Meneses has provided eight goals and four assists, Fernandez has been just as influential through six goals and nine assists. On paper, both of the playmakers and goalscorers would be deserved members of a Liga MX best XI for the Apertura season.
Marcel Ruiz -- who Salcedo calls the "most underrated Mexican soccer player" -- shouldn't be ignored either. Typically utilized as a left central midfielder, the 22-year-old does an immense amount of work through his tackles and distribution that help provide the foundation for plays going forward.
"The fluidity of the game that he gives us...[Ruiz] doesn't get the credit that he should. He's better than a lot of midfielders in this league," Saucedo said.
What a title would mean for the club
For their coach, Ambriz would regain his status as one of the country's top managers, if not the best. After winning titles with Club America, Necaxa and Leon, Ambriz's stock then fell in 2021 when he was dropped by Huesca in Spain's second division after just a few months. Now back in Liga MX with Toluca, he's once again highlighting that he still has much to offer in the Mexican soccer world.
As for Toluca, some well-earned respect could be claimed as well. Despite having more titles (10) than members of the "big four" like Cruz Azul (9) and Pumas (7), Los Diablos Rojos aren't typically in the conversation of an equipo grande in Liga MX. If they moved further past those below them and are then just one title behind Chivas (11) and two behind Club America (13), Toluca could claim status as among the league's elite squads.
"[Toluca] don't get any respect and they're the third-most winning team in the league. People can't sit here and tell me that they're not worth being one of those top teams," Saucedo said.
Pachuca (Regular season: 4th place, 9W-5D-3L)
Pachuca were one of the more consistent squads in the Apertura that remained in the top four of the league table for 12 of the 17 weeks in the regular season. After a shortened preseason due to reaching the previous championship series in the 2022 Clausura -- where they lost to Atlas -- manager Guillermo Almada and Los Tuzos eventually hit their stride by the mid-point of this campaign, losing just once in their last nine regular season games.
In the playoffs, they sneaked past Tigres in the quarterfinals thanks to a higher seed tiebreaker in a 2-2 aggregate result, before dominating Monterrey 6-2 on aggregate in the semifinals.
Like Toluca, the manager is owed a huge amount of credit here. Almada is adept at not only utilizing an attack-minded style that has produced a league-leading average of 14.7 shots per 90 minutes, but is also able to have his team sit in a compact 4-2-3-1 formation that can shut down opponents.
A crucial part of this is striker Nicolas Ibañez, who finished as the Golden Boot winner for the Apertura season thanks to his 11 goals. More than just a goalscorer, what makes the 28-year-old Argentine striker so dangerous is his ability to drag defenders away from the final third that allows his teammates to then run into open spaces. As for whether he'll aim to be more of a goalscorer or someone who is trying to be creative with positioning, Ibañez was coy with how he saw himself
"Hopefully in the upcoming games I can do both," Ibañez said smiling at news conference. "That's what the manager sometimes asks of us, to try to create space and pull a marker that leaves a teammate alone."
It's entertaining to watch Pachuca when they typically throw numbers forward in these situations that involve overlapping runs, but it has also led to opponents taking advantage of counters that can catch them off-guard. A defensive approach is the solution here, particularly in the first away leg, but there seems to be no indication they'll be cautious on Thursday in Toluca.
"We lost the first leg with Atlas [in the 2022 Clausura] and in the second leg we were one goal behind. The first game is going to be very, very important. We have to give our all," Ibañez said.
Who is their MVP?
Choosing Liga MX's Golden Boot winner is the easy answer here. Ibañez is the focal point of the attack and a crucial target man with his aerial abilities. With his strength and aggression, he is also a defensive asset when providing clearances off set-pieces or corners.
Midfielders Erick Sanchez and Luis Chavez deserve some of the spotlight as well. Both are part of Mexico's preliminary World Cup roster, and their central midfield partnership is arguably the best in Liga MX. Both are incredibly well-rounded, but while Chavez has been a game-changer with his shots and progressive passes, Sanchez is more of a playmaker that provides crucial interceptions.
Once the season is over and once Qatar 2022 is wrapped up, it wouldn't be a shock to see either midfielder in Europe.
What a title would mean for the club
A title would support the club and manager's philosophy of finding success through a balance of academy products and experienced foreign additions. Unlike more wealthy teams like Monterrey or Tigres that attempt to throw money at their roster problems, Pachuca have thrived under a system that boasts some of the most exciting up-and-coming names in Mexican soccer.
Pachuca had already wrapped up the series by the final stages of the second semifinal leg against Monterrey, but notably during the last minutes of that match, it was impressive to see Almada close out the series on a high note with four U23 academy players on the field.
Coupled with an attractive style of attack-minded soccer, Pachuca would be rightful winners in the Apertura, especially after Almada and his squad narrowly lost 3-2 on aggregate to Atlas in last season's Liga MX final.
The odds -- 72% for a Pachuca championship, 28% for Toluca, via FiveThirtyEight -- support the back-to-back finalists who finished five points above Toluca, but does this mean they will be the easy favorites this week?
"Favorites? I don't think so," said Ibañez this week. "Toluca eliminated the team [Club America] that was supposedly already champion or was on the path to becoming a champion...It's going to be a close final."