By Gerardo Martínez Gómez
Considered one of four big teams of Mexican soccer for its history and prestige, Pumas is likely the favorite for many pundits to win this season's CONCACAF Champions League.
History and reputation may not be enough this year for the Mexico City club.
From its origins as an amateur club comprised of players from the many schools of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the team has distinguished itself for its work with youth, a policy that has been a priority over the last few years.
But that youthful emphasis has manifested itself in an inexperienced roster, aided by the key departures such as Leandro Augusto, Jehu Chiapas, Dante Lopez, Efrain Juarez and Pablo Barrera over the past few seasons.
Youngsters such as Emilio Orrantia and Javier Cortes show great promise to possibly even be better than the players that they replaced, yet are still new to the first division.
Added to this comes the retirement following the Mexican Apertura of Juan Francisco "Paco" Palencia, who won two titles with Pumas and was a leader on and off the field in recent seasons.
For the second straight season, Pumas did not acquire any new players in the offseason, resulting in more reliance on the club's youth system. While it won its group in the Champions League in October, it finished one spot out of the Mexican Apertura playoffs and was in 12th place after five games in the Clausura with only one victory.
Players such as Orrantia are expected to feature when the club faces Salvadoran rival Isidro Metapan in San Salvador March 8 and at Estadio Olimpico on March 15.
This is the third time in the last four years Pumas has reached the Champions League quarterfinals. Two years ago, Pumas, then coached by Ricardo Ferretti, also faced a Central American opponent, Marathon, losing the first leg away 2-0 before claiming the return leg 6-1 and winning on aggregate.
It eventually was subdued by Cruz Azul in the semifinals 5-1 on aggregate.
With Guillermo Vazquez Jr. as coach, Pumas has lost twice and drawn twice in the Clausura, averaging a goal a game through five weeks.
During the Group Stage of the Champions League, Vazquez often employed a reserve lineup compared to his choices for the Mexican league matches. With the Champions League knockout round approaching, a youthful approach could get even more young.