Double the dominance
Club América prides itself as one of Mexico's best and most historic clubs. With legions of passionate fans throughout Mexico, the U.S. and beyond, and a mantle full of trophies collected over the years, it is difficult argue.
América now has an opportunity to distance itself from the rest of Mexico. Alive and kicking in both the Mexican Clausura playoffs and the Copa Libertadores, América can make its claim as the top club in the Western Hemisphere over the next few weeks.
With another strong Clausura campaign, América won its group and finished third in the overall table. On Thursday, las Águilas and Atlas pieced together a pulsating 3-3 draw in Estadio Jalisco in the first leg of their quarterfinal series.
Two days before, América fell to Chilean outfit Colo-Colo 2-1 but still advanced to the Copa Libertadores quarterfinals, where Brazilian power Santos FC awaits.
All América needs is a draw against Atlas in the return leg on Sunday and las Águilas will be in the league semifinals and cup quarterfinals simultaneously and a few steps away from making history.
América vice president Manuel Lapuente told reporters in Mexico City this week that the club is obliged to play to its abilities but stopped short of saying that winning both competitions was an obligation.
"An obligation? No," Lapuente told reporters after the club's arrival from Chile on Wednesday. "But to have a good showing? Yes, that's precisely what we intend to do."
Since Mexican clubs began competing in Copa Libertadores in 1998, América has been one of the most successful teams in the tournament. Twice the club has reached the Libertadores semifinals. Chivas de Guadalajara has also reached the semifinals twice while Cruz Azul reached the '01 final before bowing out to Boca Juniors on penalty kicks.
This squad, though, seems special. The club's heart and soul is Cuauhtémoc Blanco, who would elevate his already-lofty status among the azulcrema faithful if he could deliver the club's 11th league title and the first Libertadores championship before joining the Chicago Fire. Goalkeeper Guillermo "Memo" Ochoa is likely the best Mexico has to offer. When you consider his athletic ability, poise, accomplishments and age, there is no better option anywhere in the league.
Salvador Cabañas is playing at a high level and is perhaps the most dangerous weapon heading into the Clausura playoffs. German Villa is playing some of the best soccer of his 17-year career. Defenders José Antonio "Gringo" Castro and Ricardo Rojas are solid and complement each other well, Diego Cervantes is an emerging force on the backline while veteran Duilio Davino ... well, you can't win them all.
Still, competing in league and cup simultaneously is a challenge, and one that coach Luis Fernando "Flaco" Tena has met head on. Tena has struggled with the possibility of fatigue all year. América had little rest between the FIFA Club World Cup in December and InterLiga in early January. Since then, the club has played 17 league matches as well as two Copa Libertadores play-in games, six group matches and now two Round of 16 contests.
Tena has not only relied on the established players, but he has also shown faith in the second-stringers. Goalkeeper Armando Navarrete started in a 4-1 loss to Libertad in the second group match but showed faith in Ochoa's backup and sent him out when América played Libertad in Paraguay. The result was a 2-1 América victory in a match where players like Rodrigo Iñigo, Daniel Bilos and Luis Saritama played key roles, even though they have all played in fewer than half of América's league games.
"I think the moves [Tena] has made have been the right ones and we hope it continues like that," Lapuente said.
Some players, though, are too valuable to sit. Tena used four players in both the second-leg loss to Colo-Colo in Chile and Thursday's match against Atlas in Guadalajara: Ochoa, Castro, Cabañas and Alejandro Arguello.
"América will try to overcome the obstacle of competing on two fronts," Rojas told reporters after the match in Chile. "We just have to deal with whatever is in our path was best we can."
For now, Atlas is in América's path. Should the top four clubs advance past the quarterfinals -- and each is in a position to do just that -- América would play Chivas in the semifinals while Pachuca would face Cruz Azul.
Regardless of how this historic double attempt turns out, América will have the opportunity to fight for another double in the fall. América secured a spot in Copa Sudamericana because of its overall records in the last two league campaigns. Along with Pachuca and Chivas, América will compete in both the Apertura '07 season and Copa Sudamericana '07 (and SuperLiga over the summer to boot).
As far as club officials are concerned, the more cups the club is in, the greater shot for América glory.
"It is a dream to play in Sudamericana, Libertadores and league. That interests us tremendously," Lapuente said. "We want to win them all, and you can't do that without dreams, effort and enthusiasm."