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Pachuca makes a name for itself

The defending champion of Mexico and CONCACAF could be the best soccer team in North America.

August 28, 2007|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

In 1901, a group of English miners found themselves working in the Mexican state of Hidalgo, several hours by horse and cart from Mexico City. For amusement, they founded a soccer club and named it after the town in which they lived. They called it Pachuca.

Now, 106 years later, Pachuca is arguably the best soccer team in North America.

It is the defending champion of Mexico, the defending champion of CONCACAF, soccer's North and Central America and Caribbean region, and the defending champion of South America's Copa Sudamericana.

If it defeats the Galaxy on Wednesday night in Carson, Pachuca would become the first winner of the SuperLiga tournament, giving it four simultaneous titles. No other team in the hemisphere can make such a claim.

Two men are behind this unprecedented success. One is Jose de Jesus Martinez, the visionary president of the club. The other is Enrique Meza, Pachuca's unflappable coach.

Traditionally, Mexican soccer has been dominated by four clubs: Chivas de Guadalajara, Club America, Cruz Azul and the UNAM Pumas. That quartet no longer holds sole possession of the high ground.

"Pachuca is definitely in those ranks," said Martin Vasquez, a former Mexico international who is now assistant coach of Chivas USA. "It has earned the respect of the big clubs as well as the fans and the media. I think it is up there with those teams."

Under Meza, Pachuca has won three Mexican championships in a row. Earlier, Meza led Toluca to three consecutive titles.

In December, the 59-year-old coach guided the "Tuzos," or Gophers, to their Copa Sudamericana title. They defeated Colo Colo of Chile in the two-game final to become the first Mexican team to win a South American tournament.

To win the CONCACAF title, Pachuca edged the MLS champion Houston Dynamo in a semifinal series and beat Chivas de Guadalajara in the final.

Houston Coach Dominic Kinnear, whose Dynamo team also was ousted by Pachuca on penalty kicks after a memorable SuperLiga semifinal earlier this month, is more than impressed by Meza's players.

"For me -- and this is by no means a slap or insult -- they don't play like a Mexican team," Kinnear said. "They play like a Spanish team. They're very up-tempo. They pressure the ball better than any team I've seen from south of the border, just in the numbers they have on the ball."

Meza's team is composed of a mix of Mexicans, Argentines and Colombians and features such noteworthy players as goalkeeper Miguel Calero, defender Fernando Salazar, midfielders Christian "El Chaco" Gimenez, Jaime Correa, Gabriel Caballero and Andres Chitiva and forwards Damian Alvarez, Juan Carlos Cacho, Rafael Marquez Lugo and Luis Gabriel Rey.

"I believe Pachuca is the best team in Mexico," said Chivas USA veteran defender Claudio Suarez, who played under Meza when the coach had charge of Mexico's national team. "When you have great players, it's difficult to get them to play a simple kind of soccer, but [Meza] has achieved that, and I think that's why Pachuca is playing so well. It doesn't matter who is scoring the goals, they all combine well with each other. I think that's been the key to his success."

Dennis te Kloese, the Dutchman who was chief scout for Chivas de Guadalajara and now is director of soccer for Chivas USA, said Meza's personality is one of his strong points.

"He's a great people manager," te Kloese said. "He's very honest with the players. They can really trust him. He's reliable. He's a gentleman type of coach. He would never speak badly of his players in the press. He gives them confidence."

According to Kinnear, the Galaxy, which beat Pachuca, 2-1, in the group stage of the SuperLiga, will have its hands full with Pachuca on Wednesday.

"Gimenez is a great ball-player. Caballero is kind of the glue. Correa is the underrated guy. He just runs everywhere. The goalkeeper's good too. His distribution is excellent," Kinnear said.

"I don't think they have any weaknesses. They always seem to play at a high tempo. They don't give you a rest. Scouting them, I enjoyed watching them play."

--

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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