Brilliant Liga MX Femenil final the cherry on top of a groundbreaking debut season
MONTERREY, Mexico -- The loud cheers after Norali Armenta's dramatic 91st-minute goal for Rayadas sent the Liga MX Femenil final into a decisive round of penalty kicks seemed wholly out of place.
A few minutes later, after Liliana Mercado buried the decisive penalty kick to award Tigres their first-ever title, the entire stadium erupted into loud chants and cheering. Again, the euphoria seemed awkward.
Mind you, these cheers were taking place in the middle of a Major League Baseball game.
In the midst of Mexico's first regular-season big league game since 1999, fans in Monterrey could not help but stay abreast of the futbol final going on just a few miles away. Though the baseball game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres would make history of its own, the whole of the city's attention -- even if only briefly -- was placed on Mexico's second-ever women's soccer club final.
"It's a dream just to be here," said Tigres captain Nayeli Rangel after the title win at the Estadio BBVA Bancomer Friday night. "What I'm living right now is indescribable."
A total of 51,211 fans (a world-record crowd for a women's club match) again proved what once seemed like a pipe dream to skeptics: that women's soccer could work in Mexico, a country historically riddled by issues relating to gender equality. Moreover, a federation heavily criticized for its issues as it relates to the men's side would run the league.
When the Liga MX Femenil kicked off last summer, few could have predicted the rapid growth the league would enjoy in its first year. A rushed inaugural pre-season cup featured only 12 of the league's 16 teams. Initial league games were played not in stadiums, but on the practice fields where the men trained.
There were questions about the player pool, too. Teams were required to field mostly youth products, with only two players over the age of 23 allowed on each roster. No foreign-born players are allowed, even if they are the daughters of Mexican parents.
Though companies signed up to capture television rights for the competition, only a select number of matches were distributed to a wide audience. Issues in regards to payments were also uncovered, with some professional players forced to stop playing due to the fact they earned as little as $75 USD a month.
As it turns out, most of those concerns were put to rest quickly. Within the end of the first full tournament, the majority of teams had moved out of the practice fields and into the stadiums, as attendance exploded out of the gate.
In fact, the Apertura 2017 final between Chivas and Pachuca saw a then-record crowd of 32,466 fans for the second leg, setting the tone for recurring headlines in big Liga MX Femenil games for months to come.
"Initial efforts can always be improved," said Eva Espejo, the 32-year-old Pachuca manager. "I think it's been a surprise for all of us, the fans identified with the players. What comes next for us is to make sure we leave a lasting impression," she continued.
Adopting the European model of linking women's teams with the historic men's franchises has boosted fan identification, as Espejo noted. Fan bases have overlapped quickly, and the Liga MX Femenil has made it a point to sign players identified with their franchises. Rangel, for instance, left Spain's Sporting de Huelva to play for her childhood club, Tigres.
"Coming to Tigres was the best decision I've made, I don't regret leaving Spain," said Rangel, moments after lifting the Clausura 2018 trophy.
Throughout the competition's second tournament, the positive trend continued, with average attendance rising amid new stars beginning to emerge in support of Mexico's middling national team. Club America's Lucero Cuevas won back-to-back scoring titles, notching 31 goals in the 2017-18 season and earning a Mexico call-up last November.
Though most players are still recalled from the United States and Europe, the Liga MX Femenil has seen several players like Cuevas make the jump to the national team. For the most recent friendlies against the United States this past April, four of the 21 players called up came from the domestic league, including Marcela Valera, a 31-year-old defender who prior to joining Atlas had never played pro soccer.
This season's final between Tigres and Rayadas added another wrinkle: local rivalry. Like the men had done six months before, Monterrey's two Liga MX Femenil teams squared off in the final, creating expectation among fans.
Both games set attendance records, with the second leg at the Estadio BBVA Bancomer shattering the mark with a listed 51,211 fans. As Mercado struck the decisive penalty to win the title, the reaction from fans in and outside the stadium seemed to represent not a first step toward relevance, but rather the consolidation of a league with the potential to be a standard-bearer around the world.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.