After Monterrey lost its second league final in two years, Mexican media speculated on manager Antonio Mohamed's future. The narrative focused on his disappointment at being unable to deliver a title despite having arguably the best squad in the league. There was also the growing chatter around Mohamed taking the Independiente back in his native Argentina. Ultimately, hours before the Copa MX final, he addressed the rumors.
"Losing the final was a caress, compared to the other challenges I've faced in my life," said Mohamed.
The two-time Liga MX champion as a manager with Tijuana and Club America has so far been unable to replicate his success despite solid backing from his board. After Monterrey went on to beat Pachuca and claim the Copa MX, Mohamed's first title with the club, the manager made it clear he would stay on, effectively quashing the rumors. Even then, a sense of now or never permeates around the Estadio BBVA Bancomer. As good as Monterrey have been in the regular season, they've been frustratingly unable to equal their form in the decisive moments of the league playoffs under Mohamed.
Since taking over in the 2015 Clausura, Mohamed has amassed an impressive record of 54 wins, 27 draws and 29 losses overall, but has zero victories in four championship stage matches, including a crushing defeat to city rivals Tigres in the latest Liga MX final to decide the Apertura 2017. For a fan base looking to celebrate its first title since 2010, patience is beginning to wear thin.
Monterrey's board might also be looking for a change, especially with former Rayados boss Victor Manuel Vucetich on the market after his recent tenure at Queretaro ended in 2017. Vucetich ushered in a golden era for Monterrey when he managed the club from 2009 to 2013, winning two league titles, three CONCACAF Champions' League trophies and delivering a third-place finish at the 2012 FIFA Club World Cup. During the period in which Mohamed allegedly mulled his continuity with the club, Vucetich was named as a potential replacement. Therefore the pressure is on for Mohamed to deliver, especially after other teams outside the Monterrey metropolitan area have understood they need to beef up their rosters to compete with Tigres and Rayados.
Mohamed & Co. can expect serious challenges this season from semifinalists Club America, who are reportedly in the market for the likes of France winger Jeremy Menez and Dutch striker Luuk de Jong, as well as Colombia-born forward Andres Ibarguen. Cruz Azul, now managed by former Rangers and Santos Laguna boss Pedro Caixinha, is also expected to continue their growth. He's already made a splash by signing former Sevilla midfielder Walter Montoya and right-back Jose Maduena from Atlas.
Regardless, the biggest obstacle to overcome for Monterrey will undoubtedly be their biggest rivals, Tigres. Coached by Ricardo Ferretti since 2010, Rayados' trophy drought has coincided with a massive surge from the other Monterrey club, who have conquered the league four times since then. Armed with arguably the deepest squad on the entire continent, Tigres is primed for a back-to-back title run, the first of its kind since Leon completed the feat over the Apertura 2013 and Clausura 2014.
To that point, Monterrey is seemingly taking a page from their rivals and adding depth. Though they have a wealth of attackers in Dorlan Pabon, Aviles Hurtado, Rogelio Funes Mori and Jorge Benitez, Mohamed made a move for Uruguay winger Jonathan Urretaviscaya in the winter. The former Pachuca player will be deployed out wide in an attempt to give his new team even more options in the final third.
Despite the improvements elsewhere in Liga MX, it seems likely Monterrey and Tigres will continue to be the favorites heading into the 2018 Clausura. Statistically speaking, both teams dominated the league from pole to pole. Monterrey lead the league in goals scored during the regular season with 29, while Tigres was second with 28. Additionally, Rayados allowed just 12 goals in the same span, with Tigres again claiming second place with 16.
Barring injuries and maybe a surprise signing here or there, it seems likely we'll see a redux of last season's final in May. If Monterrey once again comes up short for a third time under Mohamed, it might very well be -- to borrow a baseball term -- three strikes and you're out.