Pachuca making late playoff push after miserable start

Keisuke Honda Pachuca Jorge Villafana Santos Laguna
Manuel Velasquez
Tuzos' 3-1 win over Santos Laguna means they'll control their own destiny with the Liguilla rapidly approaching

Everything felt right again at the Estadio Hidalgo.

Opponents have found vulnerabilities in Pachuca's fortress - and Tuzos' defense - this season, but the home side rolled to a 3-1 win against second-place Santos Laguna on Saturday night, delivering fans the type of performance they've become accustomed to.

Keisuke Honda scored the first goal and set up the second in a victory that took Pachuca to 21 points and into the final playoff position with two weeks to play. That means the club controls its destiny heading into the postseason. Pachuca has one of the easier run-ins in the league, and the team's final game of the season will be against an Atlas team sitting in the penultimate place. 

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The match before that is against Queretaro. The Gallos Blancos have lost their last two matches and sit just above Atlas. With Pachuca having two winnable matches remaining, those fans at the Estadio Hidalgo now can expect to see their team in the playoffs once again.

Pachuca is the reigning champion of the region and has become a frequent entry in the Liguilla. Last tournament, fans could tolerate Tuzos missing the playoffs. They had the Club World Cup to prepare for, and many expected the team to struggle after star Hirving Lozano made his move to PSV. This year, though, as Pachuca struggled through the first half of the Clausura, the frustrated comments started to come.

Diego Alonso, who at three and a half years is the second-longest tenured manager in the league behind Tigres boss Tuca Ferretti, had hardly been criticized. In fact, the worry was less about sticking with Alonso and more about him sticking with Pachuca. The Uruguayan was a candidate to take over at Deportivo La Coruna this winter but lacked the proper coaching licenses to take over at Spain. The 43-year-old likely will continue to have his name linked with jobs in Europe.

The interest won't be based on this tournament's performance, though. An inconsistent Pachuca looked like it had no direction as it started the campaign with one win in its first five matches. That victory came against the team currently sitting the basement, Lobos BUAP.

To rescue the season, Alonso has returned to the formula that first earned him acclaim. He's taken chances on young players, mixing in a few veterans from abroad and watched both get better over time. Honda struggled to adapt to Liga MX but has locked in as the dangerous playmaker the team had missed since Lozano's departure.

Sebastian Palacios, the Argentine winger signed to replace Jonathan Urretaviscaya, also seems to have plugged in to his new league. Palacios has scored in his last three matches, including a four-goal showing in a 6-2 rout of Puebla last weekend. Erick Aguirre, 21, has moved into an advanced role and excelled next to Erick Gutierrez (himself only 22), while 18-year-old Erick Sanchez also has been able to give the team heft in the midfield.

All in all, it's a team that looks like it knows what Alonso wants again, that understands how he wants them to approach matches and that understands what their teammates will be doing in the manager's system. 

"Pachuca is a team that thrives on competition and when it feels like things are reaching their limit, we're able to do our best. Today we did that again, the team responded in a great way," Alonso said after the win over Santos. "Little by little we've recovered our identity. The team pressed hard, it was intense and dynamic and this captured the fans' attention."

Alonso knows that while the competition won't be as difficult in the final two weeks as it was Saturday, his team needs to come out with the same enthusiasm to clinch a spot in the postseason and ensure the fans continue to like what they see.