Smoke, mirrors, and younger legs are fueling Chivas’s survival hopes

Disaster porn makes me feel embarrassed and shameful and terrible as a human being, but I can’t get enough of it. Why? Because suffering equals drama. Why do folks get caught up in March Madness and watch games of basketball played by teams they care little about? High stakes drama. The World Cup group stages? Ditto. It’s simple: the higher the stakes, the greater the rush, hence the intrigue behind this weekend’s face off between Puebla and Chivas. Not only was the game great, but it also had the implications of a traditional relegation six-pointer, in so much as anything can be traditional about Mexico’s crazy relegation system.

First and foremost, Liga MX’s Clausura has been pretty helter-skelter. Basically, the universe imploded and then flipped over. Tijuana didn’t even qualify for La Liguilla last season and sold some key players, but Xolos top the table with seven wins in 10 games. Four of the teams that battled relegation last tournaments are in the top eight spots or on a winning streak: Veracruz, Puebla, Chivas, and University de Guadalajara, a uniquely Mexican mix of teams playing pretty well yet paradoxically fighting for their first division lives. In Europe, at season’s end your point total disappears. In Mexico, the prior three seasons hang around your neck like an albatross.

When I touched on relegation last September, I predicted that University de Guadalajara would implode and allow Chivas and Puebla to stay up by default. However, I sorely underestimated the dual powers of stasis and incompetence. Basically, neither Puebla nor Chivas took the necessary steps or spent the needed funds to land game-changing players. In desperation, Chivas hired El Tri flop José Manuel “Chepo” De la Torre as coach. Owner Jorge Vergara did not exactly bankroll a transfer wishlist in the winter, but the team welcomed the return of Marco Fabián and on-loan Erick “Cubo” Torres. Yet somehow, this crazy combination of a flawed coach and arguable player flops has worked.

Trinidad & Tobago v Mexico - 2013 CONCACAF Gold CupDe la Torre’s problem with El Tri was that he had a quartet of great strikers but no reliable midfielders. He gambled on ludicrously offensive formations, but the realities of international soccer crushed his plans. The midfield-less Mexico failed to keep the ball, shield the defense, and even create chances. De la Torre (right) asked forwards to defend and it was a disaster. At Chivas, he’s largely fielded a balanced 4-4-2, but the 12 goals in 10 games show they are far from adventurous. Rather, everybody works hard off the ball and holds their breath for a moment of Fabián magic. When that doesn’t work, Chepo throws on strikers in the last 20 minutes to spice things up.

Early in the season, Chepo tossed on aging El Tri striker Aldo de Nigris, who scored a later winner versus Chiapas. Chepo then started de Nigris (instead of Omar Bravo) in the 3-0 romp over Monterrey and survival (and a really good season) looked all but assured. However, in a season of false dawns, this was the falsest. Instead, the offense continued to sputter and still does whenever the opposition man-marks Fabián because, surprise, 30-year-old-plus strikers like de Nigris lack the pace to get separation from defenders. Last weekend, when Leones Negros won (pulling themselves off the bottom) and, away to Puebla, Chivas went down a goal, Guadalajara spent a decent stretch of time firmly rooted to the bottom of the relegation table.

Ramiro Ballivian, Erick TorresSo Chepo did what Chepo now does best: he gambled by tossing on a strikers in the second half. On came Cubo Torres (right), beforehand solely a Copa MX fixture and Chivas USA refugee. The future Houston Dynamo star responded with a brace that turned the table on Puebla. Momentarily, Goats fans could relax and realistically hope Mediotiempo would not mock them with a Monday morning relegation cartoon. The dusty, forlorn regional cities and empty stadiums of Liga de Ascenso left their head and were replaced by blissful thoughts.

Now, however, the buzz fades, and Chivas fans are again left fearing the future. De Nigris and defender Carlos Salcedo are no spring chickens. Omar Bravo is a club idol, but old and largely ineffective. Cubo Torres heads off to MLS in a few months. Even worse, now motivated Marco Fabián, who has left the Goats before, could do so again this summer. The flicker of hope brought by youth could fade abruptly.

The current Chivas run is either a made-for-TV Bad News Bear knockoff or an illusion – a Frankenteam held together by fraying stitches and shitloads of luck. Of course, that may not matter. In a just world (or basically any other league with relegation), all three teams — Chivas, Puebla, and Universidad de Guadalajara — would be sent down at season’s end. However, Liga MX’s slanted promotion system means only one team will go down.

For now, Chivas knows that to survive, they don’t have to play like the best: just better than Puebla.