After watching Pachuca hoist Liga MX's 2022 Apertura title on Sunday, one can't help but make comparisons to the last time Los Tuzos clinched a Mexican top-flight title in 2016. Little more than six years ago, the script felt oddly similar.
Both stories feature a Uruguayan manager from Montevideo (Diego Alonso then, Guillermo Almada now) utilizing an efficient style of play, a strong foundation through the regular season (8W-6D-3L and 30 points in 2016, 9W-5D-3L and 32 points in 2022) and most notably, a well-balanced roster that featured promising academy players.
Well known in Mexico for producing some of the country's most exciting up-and-comers -- which led to an announced partnership in August with fellow talent architects Ajax -- Los Tuzos thrived a handful of years ago with youthful options such as Hirving Lozano, Erick Gutierrez and Rodolfo Pizarro taking charge as key figures. Before becoming household names, the trio were budding stars that had been given starting roles by Alonso as the team worked their way into the 2016 Clausura final against big spenders Monterrey.
Gutierrez, then at just 20 years of age, wore the captain's armband in the first leg. Alongside him, Lozano (20) and Pizarro (22) were pivotal with their attacking efforts that eventually pushed them past Los Rayados and to a 2-1 aggregate result that secured the Clausura championship.
For Lozano and Gutierrez, moves to Europe followed, with the former now at Napoli and the latter at PSV Eindhoven. Pizarro remained in North America but increased his stock with additional league championships and individual awards such as a CONCACAF Champions League Best XI appearance in 2018 and a Liga MX Best XI appearance in the Clausura 2019.
With 30-plus caps each for Mexico, the three players are success stories from Pachuca's academy. During this past week's final, it was easy to spot the Tuzos prodigies who can become the next luminaries to emerge from Liga MX.
In the heart of the midfield, there has been an enormous amount of intrigue in 23-year-old Erick Sanchez. Shining as one of the top players in the 8-2 aggregate pummeling of Toluca in the final, Sanchez covered an astounding amount of ground with his defensive interventions and playmaking. After making his senior debut with Mexico in the summer of 2021, the midfielder is now in the running for a World Cup spot this November.
Behind him at left-back, 21-year-old Mexican-American Mauricio Isais has been a revelation for Pachuca with his ability to make dangerous runs while also providing crucial tackles in the back. Discovered in 2017 by Alianza, the largest amateur grassroots soccer program in the United States for Latino players, the Texan now has a Liga MX title in hand, a goal in a league final and an upcoming invitation to train with Mexico before the World Cup.
Fellow Pachuca defender Kevin Alvarez has also turned into an indispensable member of the XI. Often making runs down the flank as a pacey right-back, the 23-year-old native of Colima was constantly threatening against Toluca, and looking ahead for El Tri, the defender is a possible starter for the national team in Qatar.
The list goes on when you look further into Pachuca's academy setup and full roster, and depending on how things go in the transfer market this winter -- TUDN reported on Sunday that clubs from abroad are already eyeing midfielder Luis Chavez -- their latest title could prove to be the catalyst for the next big things in Mexican soccer. Even so, producing talent with thrilling potential is only part of the equation for Los Tuzos.
While providing the correct platform for players has remained a constant for the club in the 21st century, the other part of the puzzle has required a coach who gives opportunities to youngsters and also finds a good roster harmony with more experienced names and foreign additions. Since late 2021, Almada has been that perfect manager.
"It speaks to the effort we've made this year since the arrival of Almada, who proposed an intense and forceful idea of soccer," said defender Gustavo Cabral after cementing Sunday's championship.
Stepping in late last year, the expressive and passionate coach has employed an attack-minded and direct style of play that has given significant roles to academy options. Surrounding them in a 4-2-3-1 formation, veteran players like Romario Ibarra, Oscar Murillo, Oscar Ustari and Golden Boot winner Nicolas Ibañez are the glue that have maintained consistent performances.
In last year's Clausura season, Almada and his roster qualified for the Liga MX final, but landed just short after narrowly losing to Atlas. Months later, they returned and made a statement with their rout of Toluca.
"We're going to carry Pachuca to the place it deserves," Ibañez said after helping lift the Apertura trophy. "Today is a step forward and we're going for much more."
But will Almada, and perhaps a few of his players who are gaining much more attention, stick around?
A vacancy could soon appear in the Mexico dugout. There have long been reports that manager Gerardo "Tata" Martino will leave El Tri after the World Cup, and if that is the case, then someone like Almada -- who is not only a proven winner but also has a track record with supporting young Mexican players -- would be a perfect fit. Through a lengthy process in the build-up to the 2026 World Cup, the Uruguayan coach is an ideal name that could usher in a new era and generation.
The same could also be said for his recent opponent, Toluca manager Ignacio "Nacho" Ambriz. Despite the calamitous 8-2 scoreline in the Apertura final, Ambriz and his squad soared past expectations in recent months. Once 15th in the league table last season, Ambriz helped mastermind a serious roster overhaul this summer that is a work in progress but also cohesive enough to qualify for the final.
Outcoaching and outmaneuvering every manager in the playoffs this season, outside of Almada, Ambriz helped restore his image as one of Mexico's top coaches after a less-than-exciting stint in Spain's second division that lasted just a few months with Huesca in 2021.
"He's a genius," said Toluca midfielder Sebastian Saucedo to ESPN in October about Ambriz. "The way he works training sessions, possession, all those little things ... this guy is the real deal."
Ultimately though, it was Almada and Pachuca who secured the Apertura championship on Sunday. Decisive with their chances and carried by their skillful academy players, Los Tuzos earned their seventh piece of Liga MX silverware since 1999 and are now tied at sixth (with Pumas and Tigres) in the all-time table for Mexico's top flight.
In 2023, Pachuca will get an invaluable opportunity to increase their recognition and reputation even further through the CONCACAF Champions League and the expanded Leagues Cup that will feature every MLS and Liga MX club. Within their roster, extra competitions will create even more chances for minutes for developing players from the club's famed academy.
Six years ago, Lozano, Gutierrez and Pizarro were the ones who were hyped up. This October, Sanchez, Isais and Alvarez gained similar acclaim. And in 2023? Expect to see even more new faces that emerge from the country's most admired futbol factory.