Hernan Cristante has Toluca on course to break the 'Curse of the Leader' once again
MEXICO CITY -- It's Valentine's Day in Puebla. The middle part of the Clausura 2018 season in Liga MX is fast approaching, and two midtable teams square off at the Estadio Cuauhtemoc.
Inside the first half hour, Canada international Lucas Cavallini puts the home team ahead 2-0 over Toluca. On social media, calls for Toluca's manager -- Hernan Cristante -- to be fired intensify. The visitors are unable to crawl back in the match and return home defeated and mired in 10th place, while Puebla rises to fifth.
Although just two months in the past, that cold February night might as well have been epochs ago. Toluca has rattled off eight consecutive wins since then, climbing to the top of Mexico's first division while Puebla has lost its past five games, dropping out of playoff position.
Appeals for Cristante to leave the club have vanished, although excitement among players is still tempered. If Toluca wins this weekend, the record for consecutive victories in a Mexican short season will be all theirs.
"Being first doesn't guarantee you the title," said midfielder Leonel Lopez. "The title is very different, we have to keep working on this path."
Indeed, Mexico's playoff system is often harsh on teams that finish at the top in the regular season. In the past five tournaments, Monterrey (twice), Tijuana (twice) and UNAM have each finished first dating back to the Apertura 2015. None has won the championship in that span.
In fact, since Mexico moved to a short tournament format in 1996, 36 of the 43 teams that have finished the regular season in first place have not won the title. The trend has been widely noted in the country, even garnering a name: "Maldicion del Superlider," or "The Curse of the Leader".
Thus, the muted statements from players like Lopez are understandable. It is, however, foolish to dismiss the Diablos Rojos as serious playoff contenders, even in the age of big-money signings creating larger expectations for teams like Tigres, Club America and Monterrey.
Besides, Toluca has busted the Maldicion del Superlider three times. In 1998, 1999 and 2000, the team lifted the trophy after finishing first each time. Cristante was then their goalkeeper.
"The base of our success is in our humility," said Cristante. "My players have it, and they've responded quite well on the field. They want to leave their mark in the team's history and now is the time to do it."
Toluca has already gone up for silverware this season, falling 1-0 in the Copa MX final to Necaxa earlier this month. Its women's side is also making waves, playing the semifinals of the Liga MX Femenil against Monterrey, despite their best player (forward Natalia Mauleon) off with Mexico's U-17 side in the qualifying tournament for this year's World Cup in Uruguay.
Nonetheless, the story has been largely ignored outside of Toluca, Mexico's fifth biggest metropolitan area with just over 2.6 million inhabitants. With heavyweights America and Chivas in the conversation for titles of their own in Liga MX and the CONCACAF Champions League, respectively, Toluca's fantastic run has been largely overshadowed by Mexican media.
"Obviously we're working to be better than ever," said goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera. "If we're looked upon as favorites [by the media], we welcome it. But we're not overconfident by any means, anyone can beat anyone [in the playoffs]."
Devoid of any major stars on its roster, Talavera, the Mexican national team's second-choice goalkeeper, is one of the major reasons why the team is on its run of form. Returning in February after a serious injury, the former Chivas man has allowed just five goals in 11 games since reclaiming his starting spot, with five clean sheets.
Up front, Argentine forward Alexis Canelo, a low-key signing imported from Puebla in 2017, has been a worthy companion to Colombia's Fernando Uribe, the team's only bona-fide star other than Talavera. Pulling the strings in midfield are two reclamation projects: 34-year-old Rubens Sambueza, booted off Club America after the player was deemed past his prime, and 33-year-old Angel Reyna, who spent last season in Mexico's second division.
With two games remaining in the regular season, Toluca needs one win to secure first place and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Whether Cristante's men can go on and once again, as he did, buck the trend and lift the championship after finishing first is still a long way ahead. In the meantime, the manager isn't concerned with the lack of outside pressure from media, instead focusing on motivating from within.
"We have the same inertia, the same amount of desire to move forward," he said. "Being top of the table doesn't secure anything, and our players want more."
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.