If Atlas winning the Liga MX championship last season was a sporting miracle, then how do you even begin to describe back-to-back titles? When the club lifted the trophy in late 2021, 70 years had passed since the last time they earned a championship in Mexico's top flight. But with confetti likely still scattered across the city of Guadalajara from the previous season, supporters of Los Rojinegros only had to wait another 168 days to once again celebrate a league title when Atlas defeated Pachuca 3-2 on aggregate to end the 2022 Clausura season.
With a clear ambition of "Transformation 21-22" written across the chest of their kits (instead of a sponsor), Atlas paraded around Pachuca's Estadio Hidalgo stadium after stunning the Mexican soccer world for a second time in a matter of months. "We're making history," Atlas captain Aldo Rocha said after the final whistle. "We continue to transform this team that was asleep for years."
Since Grupo Orlegi took charge as owners in 2019, Atlas and their players have undoubtedly evolved. Not too long ago, they were a team that represented more of the past than the future. Far removed from their golden era in the mid-20th Century, they were lethargic minnows who were lost in the shadow of crosstown rivals Chivas. The only moments of positivity, which were irregular, were usually found through the development of young prospects in their academy and occasional wins over Chivas in the Clasico Tapatio.
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Playoff appearances were infrequent and, if lucky enough to be there, they almost always stumbled out in the early stages. Although eyebrows were raised with Grupo Orlegi stepping in a few years back, due to the company also running Santos Laguna in Liga MX, the change has already paid off for Atlas.
Key additions such as invaluable starters like goalkeeper Camilo Vargas, forward Julian Quinones, striker Julio Furch and midfielder Aldo Rocha, were eventually brought in. Investment began to flow with start of construction for a new academy and updated training facility, and also into the women's team that haven't missed the Liga MX Femenil playoffs since Grupo Orlegi became involved.
However, the biggest impact has so far been seen with the hiring of manager Diego Cocca in the summer of 2020 for the men's senior squad. Defensively organized but also able to play direct when needed, the Argentine was a perfect choice for a roster that arguably remains at the level of a mid-table team, despite the investment. In a 5-3-2 system, Cocca loves to frustrate opponents in Atlas' own half, while also quickly building up pressure that can transform his formation into a 3-5-2. Over the last two regular seasons, no Liga MX team allowed fewer goals than Los Rojinegros.
That said, there were doubts about Atlas earlier in 2022. As impressive as their backline and Vargas' performances in goal was, it felt like something was missing from the No. 3 seed up front -- they would go on to finish with the fewest goals from the top six in the league table. Draws and wins were often narrow in the Clausura tournament, leading some to wonder if their 2021 Apertura title would prove to be a flash in the pan.
For the national team, even Mexico manager Gerardo "Tata'' Martino seemed to have questions that linger to this day. Martino's latest 38-man squad for upcoming friendlies and the CONCACAF Nations League didn't include a single Atlas player. In fact, no Atlas player has been given minutes for Mexico in the eight games so far this year.
National team opportunities and scoring issues aside, there was also the serious matter of Atlas experiencing firsthand the ugly scenes of fan violence during a March 5 game in Queretaro's Estadio Corregidora. Months after their players and fans were forced to flee through stadium tunnels, it's astonishing that members of the roster have been mentally able to continue playing this season, let alone being able to win a second championship in a row.
Having a level-headed manager like Cocca has likely helped. A former Atlas defender in the late 1990s/early 2000s who lived through playoff runs that failed to amount to anything, the Argentine coach is often heard talking about "playing with heart" and praising the perseverance of his squad that tends to find a way out of tense battles. For all of his calm demeanor and tactical emphasis that puts the utmost attention at remaining organised, the X-factor for Cocca is the tenacity that he expects from his players. In the playoffs, this was on full display in each and every round.
After defeating rivals Chivas 3-2 on aggregate in the quarterfinals, Atlas sneaked past Tigres with a nervy 5-4 advantage in the semifinals. They would go on to win 2-0 in the first leg of the final against Pachuca last Thursday, but then had their backs against the wall when Sunday's second leg was at 2-1 in favor of Pachuca by half-time, thereby giving Cocca and his men just the slightest of an aggregate lead at 3-2. Needing one more goal to equalize and send the match into extra time, Pachuca pushed forward and, by the 83rd minute, they were also given a one-man advantage when Atlas' Anibal Chala was shown a red.
And yet, Los Rojinegros held on. Compact and decisive in defence, they accumulated more tackles, clearances and interceptions as the clock began to wind down. Once the final whistle blew, several Atlas players hit the ground in relief knowing that somehow, someway, they had defied the odds again.
"Earning a back-to-back championship was something unthinkable. Not even the most optimistic of people thought we'd make it, but we finally did," said Furch, who scored the lone goal for Atlas in Sunday's result.
It should also be said that Pachuca, regardless of how things turned out, deserve credit for nearly securing a comeback. Had a couple of shots from distance or refereeing decisions gone their way, the script could have easily been one about Los Tuzos winning their seventh Liga MX title since 1999. With a good balance of homegrown talent and clever international signings, it's no wonder they were able to finish the regular season at the top of the table. On paper, Atlas might be looking at what Pachuca are doing and taking notes on a program that is churning out some of the most exciting young prospects in Mexican soccer.
Nonetheless, Atlas will be the ones celebrating this week. Over in Guadalajara, the festivities have already kicked off once again in the streets of Jalisco as Atlas join Pumas and Leon as the only back-to-back champions in Liga MX's short-season format.
In a new era for Atlas, the sky is the limit for what they could achieve in the future. The foundations are there for them to continue making progress, and perhaps another miracle is just a few months away, rather than in another 70 years.