Jon Arnold - @ArnoldcommaJon
Monterrey has achieved something nearly impossible. By getting to the semifinals of Leagues Cup and being the only Liga MX team to make the penultimate round, Rayados have united Mexican soccer fans.
It’s not as obvious as past moments in Concacaf club competitions when a whole country was behind a certain team. Many watching Leagues Cup will remember the #MLS4RSL hashtag that dominated American soccer Twitter when RSL fell short in the 2010-11 Concacaf Champions League final against Rayados.
But even fans of Tigres may be gritting their teeth and admitting they want to see their crosstown rivals get past Nashville on Tuesday night, get into the final and earn another continental crown for a Mexican club.
It’s about bragging rights, about a history of dominance in the region after winning 17 of the last 18 Concacaf club titles, about extending the perception that Liga MX remains a cut above MLS. It’s also worth noting, if Rayados secure one of the Concacaf Champions Cup places awarded to the top three finishers in Leagues Cup, it would open up another CCC place for a Liga MX club.
Rayados manager Fernando “Tano” Ortiz isn’t using the fact that Rayados are the only Liga MX team remaining as a huge motivating factor, but he’s not shying away from it either.
“We’ve carried this responsibility since the first day we left Monterrey. That’s the reality. We knew that leaving Monterrey and coming to face all these MLS teams brings with it a sporting responsibility,” he said at Monday’s pre-match news conference. “We never shy away from that rivalry. They guys understand it. It’s not about putting it to one side. They do know that an entire country is behind Monterrey, hoping we can get to the final.”
Monterrey goalkeeper Esteban Andrada said Rayados got to this point by approaching each game of the tournament with respect, with the team well aware all eyes are on them with fewer and fewer Mexican teams getting into the subsequent rounds.
“The demands of the days, the matches, we’ve taken those things on with a lot of seriousness. The fitness coach is doing his job. It’s not easy with all the games we’ve had,” Andrada said. “Monterrey’s objective is to put Mexico on high. We know it’s a competition that is being watched all over the world, and even moreso with Miami bringing in Messi. We have to be up to the standard.”
There was no question Rayados would have fans at every match it played, such is the popularity of the club and the bond it has with its backers. And, even at neutral site games like the Clásico Regio in Houston, it was basically a given the players in blue-and-white shirts would hear their fans singing and rooting them on from the stands.
The surprise, though, has been how many fans who aren’t Rayados die-hards have jumped on the bandwagon, especially after just they and Queretaro made the quarterfinals and only Rayados landed in the final four.
“We’ve felt the support,” Ortiz said after Rayados scored a trio of second-half goals to rally past LAFC 3-2 in the quarterfinal at the Rose Bowl. “Wherever we go, there are Mexicans there making themselves heard. It’s a responsibility the guys take on, and they know leaving the country well-represented on Monterrey’s part is very important.”
The lone team standing of the 18 Liga MX clubs that started the tournament, Monterrey feels the weight of representing Mexico, even in a club tournament. Fans of Liga MX clubs have responded by lending their support as well.