Cuauhtémoc Blanco's place among Mexico's all-time greatest players is secure. His astounding goals and impressive accomplishments for both club and country have set him apart from all but a handful of his countrymen. But even for a legend, Blanco continues to dazzle.
In a move that caught nearly all of North America off guard, Blanco returned to Mexico to play for Santos Laguna and help the club defend its Clausura 2008 championship. The short-term loan deal is good through the end of the Apertura '08 playoffs, but that may be all that's needed to further elevate the Chicago Fire star's already lofty status among Mexico's elite.
How's this for a storybook tale? Blanco gets unexpectedly dropped into the starting lineup of defending champion but underdog Santos on the eve of the playoffs, and having spent but three days in his new surroundings, instantly connects with his new team and makes it a far greater threat in the postseason.
Strange as it may seem -- seeing him sporting a No. 9 Santos jersey still prompts a double-take -- Blanco is now pulling Santos' strings and, three games into the postseason, the move has worked wonders for the defending champs.
Through the quarterfinals, Santos had scored more than half as many goals as it had in winning last season's championship. Los Guerreros reached the semifinals on the strength of a 5-2 aggregate-goals win over top-seeded San Luis. Blanco had a hand in most of their goals -- he set up one and converted a penalty kick in a 2-1 second-leg road victory and set up another in a 3-1 playoff-opening win.
On a team that already features a midfield maestro in Daniel Ludueña and a top-notch scoring threat in Matías Vuoso, Blanco has nonetheless become the focal point in the club's attack. What makes that more noteworthy are the differences between Blanco and the guy he replaced, Christian Benítez (more on that in a bit).
On Thursday, however, Toluca shut down Blanco and Santos' attack in the first leg of the clubs' semifinal series. With the clean sheet, Toluca's Hernán Cristante set a league record of 746 scoreless minutes, and los Diablos Rojos haven't allowed a goal since Week 12 of the regular season.
Scoring on Cristante, however, isn't something new to Blanco. In fact, the last time Blanco played in Toluca, he scored a memorable goal and could be poised to repeat history. After all, a history of success against Toluca is nothing new for Blanco, either.
Neither is Blanco's penchant for success in Liguillas. Blanco has scored 15 Mexican postseason goals and led Club América to the Clausura '05 title. He also guided América to the Clausura '07 finals. Despite losing to Pachuca, Blanco left his mark on that series and in América history with a remarkable goal and one that, until Nov. 29, was his last strike in the Mexican league.
While that goal would be a more fitting finale to his career in Mexico than a penalty-kick against San Luis, Blanco's best may yet be to come. It seems strange that less than a month ago, his shot at postseason success was the Chicago Fire's charge at MLS Cup '08. Santos' quest to repeat as Mexican champions wasn't one in which Blanco was supposed to have had an influence.
But an injury to Benítez allowed for the return of the Mexican icon. The 22-year-old Ecuadorian striker, who was reportedly a target of English side Wigan, broke his leg prior to the start of the Liguilla. Once he was lost for the remainder of the season, Santos was able to search for a replacement and found one in an unlikely place.
With Blanco's Fire eliminated from the MLS playoffs in the Easten Conference Final by eventual champ Columbus, the Mexican national-team icon was available, and Santos snatched up the 35-year-old to the surprise of many. Blanco is one of three MLS stars to go out on loan this offseason. David Beckham and Landon Donovan are on their way to AC Milan and Bayern Munich, respectively.
Despite that duo's glitz, glamour and talents, it's difficult to imagine either walking into a more perfect scenario than Blanco has. It's even harder to picture either player enjoying the levels of success or having more of a direct impact than Blanco stands to gain with Santos.
But while the other two high-profile loans have sparked speculation as to whether each will return to the U.S., Blanco will come back. Santos officials have vehemently denied even an attempt to pry Blanco from MLS for good and are seemingly content with having their hired gun walk away whenever the postseason comes to an end. When Chicago opens up its '09 season against FC Dallas on March 21, Blanco figures to be in uniform for the Fire.
Whether he joins the Fire with another trophy to his name, he will have had this experience of returning home under his belt, and he'll be better off because of it.