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Pumas seem to be at their best when deck is stacked against them

Winning in unlikely circumstances is sort of their thing under Andres Lillini.

FBL-COSTA RICA-MEXICO-CONCACAF-SAPRISSA-PUMAS Photo by EZEQUIEL BECERRA/AFP via Getty Images

Recent history has not been entirely kind to Pumas UNAM, traditionally one of Los Quatros Grandes of Liga MX. In fact, it has been more than a decade since their last title — the 2011 Clausura. They have not won a Concacaf title since 1989 and are actually the last Liga MX team to lose a continental final to a foreign opponent, falling to Saprissa in 2005.

While their spot among the Mexican elite may not be what it once was, they still play with a level of pride that is impressive.

If there’s one reason for Seattle Sounders fans to be worried about Pumas’ chances to spring an upset in the second leg of the Concacaf Champions League final on Wednesday, it’s that they seem to be at their best when their backs are against the wall.

That has been especially true under manager Andres Lillini. Pumas have repeatedly exceeded expectations and scored some very impressive comeback wins during Lillini’s two years in charge.

“It’s something I admire a lot about Andres,” Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer told reporters earlier this week. “He’s a very similar coach. They’re very similar to our team in that way. That’s kind of been Pumas’ deal for quite some time. It’s in the culture of their club.”

The 47-year-old Argentinian had an inauspicious playing career. In fact, his Wikipedia page only says that he played for Newell’s Old Boys until 1999, with no start year and no actual statistics. Prior to taking over Pumas in 2020, his coaching career wasn’t particularly notable either, with one-year stints as an assistant at some smaller clubs in South America before becoming Pumas’ director of the academy and reserves in 2017.

But the day before the start of the 2020 Guardianes, Pumas’ coach resigned and Andres Lillini was appointed his temporary successor. Lillini led them to a second-place finish in the regular season — their best finish in any tournament since the 2015 Apertura. They rode that momentum all the way to the finals where they lost to León. Along the way, though, they scored perhaps THE signature win over Lillini’s tenure, a comeback from 4-0 down to beat Mexico City rival Cruz Azul. Juan Dinenno, Pumas’ hero from the first leg against the Sounders, scored two goals in the comeback.

After missing the playoffs the following year, Pumas were again struggling throughout the 2021 Apertura and were outside postseason qualifying position virtually the entire campaign. That changed on the final day when they jumped from 14th to 11th courtesy of a 4-3 win over Cruz Azul in which they trailed 3-1 in the second half with Dinenno providing the assist on the equalizer. They rode that momentum to a semifinals appearance in Liguilla.

Perhaps most familiar to Sounders fans was Pumas’ comeback against the New England Revolution earlier in the CCL. The Revolution won their home leg 3-0 and seemed ready to coast into the semifinals, only for Pumas to win the second leg 3-0 and advance on penalties. Dinenno scored twice and converted the winning penalty in the shootout, as well.

But that’s not even the most recent example. Just this past Sunday, Pumas needed to win on the final day of the 2022 Clausura in order to qualify for the playoffs. Not only were they playing on short rest and sitting several starters to prepare for Wednesday’s match, but they were facing first-place Pachuca. Thanks to two late goals from Dinenno, Pumas ended up winning the game to survive.

Cesar Hernandez covers Liga MX for ESPNFC and confirmed this is a bit of a pattern.

“It is the Lillini X-factor,” Hernandez told Sounder at Heart. “I feel like you see that in the players. He’s able to exude that [heart and passion]. Even when things look like they’re going awful, they have always found ways to make it work.”

Notably, most of these standout performances have come at home and have never been in a game of this magnitude. But Pumas will have about 1,600 fans in their designated away section and perhaps another few thousands sprinkled throughout the stadium. While they’ll be vastly outnumbered by Sounders fans, they will surely be heard if Pumas can get some momentum going.

Most seem to agree that Pumas are the rightful underdogs in this final, but Lillini doesn’t seem at all worried about that.

“It is not important to us whether or not we are the favorite,” he told Fox Sports Mexico. “We have to win.”