Monterrey could be on the cusp of a golden age if Victor Manuel Vucetich has his way.
The Rayados are heading to Copa Libertadores for the first time since 1999 after following its Mexican Primera Division Apertura title with the InterLiga crown, and their coach believes it could be the start of something big.
Monterrey claimed the InterLiga title, and the Libertadores berth that goes with it, by beating Club America, 3-1, on penalty kicks following a tense, at times spectacular 0-0 draw Wednesday night in the second of two finals at Home Depot Center.
Jonathan Orozco was the hero, diving to stop spot kicks by Salvador Cabanas and Aquivaldo Mosquera as the Rayados overcame America in a knockout situation for the second time in less than two months.
"It is an outstanding achievement that Monterrey is in Copa Libertadores," said Vucetich, who again gave a coaching clinic is sparking the Rayados' second-half dominance after a difficult first 45 minutes. "It is the greatest tournament in South America, with all the best teams from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay - all the best teams from South America - and I think this could open the door to a new world."
Vucetich outmaneuvered America coach Jesus Ramirez, just as he did against Puebla's Jose Luis Sanchez Sola in Monterrey's come-from-behind victory in Sunday's Group B finale. The Rayados, under intense pressure from America through the first half and into the second, took control as Vucetich redefined players' roles and made incisive substitutions.
It almost paid off in two goals - Osvaldo Martinez, who netted the stoppage-time winner against Puebla, twice struck the right post - while throwing momentum toward the Rayados, which held through the shootout.
Ochoa, superb all game, dived to his right to stop Cabanas with the first kick of the tiebreaker, then to his left to save Mosquera on America's third attempt.
Luis Ernesto Perez, Walter Ayovi and Martinez converted for Monterrey, and when Pavel Pardo - the Aguilas' fourth shooter - sent the ball well over the crossbar, the Rayados' celebration quieted most of a capacity crowd of 27,000.
"Everybody's upset," Ramirez said afterward. "There was so much expectation for this team to be in Copa Libertadores."
Monterrey, en route to its third Mexican top-flight title, knocked off America in the Apertura quarterfinals in late November. This time, it denied the Aguilas a ninth trip to South America's club championship.
"It's very important that we beat a rival," Vucetich said, "an extraordinary rival that was really tough, that had a lot of quality and deserved to win as much as we did. The intensity was without a doubt really high, with so many battles in midfield, and luck was on our side."
Monterrey, which finished second to Puebla in InterLiga's Group B and went 1-0-3 in the tournament, takes the "Mexico 2" slot in Copa Libertadores and will open Group 2 play Feb. 10 at Brazilian powerhouse Sao Paulo. Nacional (Paraguay) and Once Caldas (Colombia) also are in Group 2.
Estudiantes Tecos claimed the other Libertadores berth in the first of Wedenesday's twin finals, rallying for a 3-2 victory.
Monterrey was eliminated in group play in its previous Libertadores appearance.
America was the much sharper side in an eventful first half, with Pardo and Rosinei dictating much of the pace from central midfield. The Aguilas employed a patient possession game, looking for entrances to Monterrey's box through combination play.
It didn't lead to a whole lot. The Rayados' backline was solid, and America's only chances in the first half-hour came from distance, just one of them troublesome.
It was product of a 30-yard run up the gut in the 25th minute by Daniel Montenegro, who let loose a low blast as he neared the Monterrey box. Orozco stopped it, but he needed quick work from Severo Meza - outsprinting Rosinei to clear the ball - to keep it scoreless.
The Aguilas switched tactics not long after, pulling back into their end of the field and attacking through counters. It led to two decent chances, but Orozco parried Cabanas' shot in the 33rd minute, and the post got in the way of a Cabanas header three minutes later.
Guillermo Cerda set up the opportunity in the 36th, pushing the ball past William Paredes, then beating the Monterrey left back to the ball, crossing it into the goalmouth. Orozco bent backward to palm the ball away, and Cabanas' header rammed squarely into the post.
Orozco came up big once more, in the 39th minute, clearing the ball under pressure from Rosinei after a poor touch in the box by central defender Jose Maria Basanta.
"Orozco is a keeper having a great moment, truly growing as a goalkeeper," Vucetich praised. "He gave us a lot of security during the game, and also during penalty kicks. He gets the credit in getting us the ticket to Copa Libertadores."
Vucetich included in his starting lineup Martinez and Neri Cardozo, the heroes of the Puebla win, but Monterrey didn't really find its way until, to start the second half, he moved Ayovi from the right flank into central midfield and Martinez from up top to the right side and brought on Aldo de Nigris to play up front.
"We needed to change our rhythm," explained Vucetich, who wasn't done. He inserted Sergio Perez in the 70th minute to provide better shape and Sergio Santana to stretch America's backline and give the Rayados a bigger aerial threat.
Ayovi, supported by right back Severo Meza, was Monterrey's most dangerous player for at least the first hour, and the Rayados' best chances in that span were his. He fired a 35-yard bullet just over the crossbar from a free kick in the 19th minute, then nearly beat Guillermo Ochoa with a low blast toward the right post in the 43rd. The America goalkeeper went low to push it just past the post.
The action grew more frantic in the second half.
Juan Carlos Valenzuela, superb all night in central defense for America, blocked Basanta's shot, then cut him off from an Ayovi cross in the 58th minute. Basanta headed wide on the ensuing corner kick.
Ochoa had to tip de Nigris' header over the crossbar two minutes later, and after Cabanas fired at Orozco after beating two defenders in Monterrey's box, de Nigris was at it again, pulling Ochoa well off his line to block one shot, then chase the Rayados forward to the byline. De Nigris' ball through the goalmouth provided no danger.
America managed to get into Monterrey's box much of the second half, mostly through Cabanas and left back Oscar Rojas, but Orozco and the Rayados' backline prevented the Aguilas from finding many open shots. When openings did arrive, Cabanas and Montenegro fired straight at Orozco.
Martinez had golden chances in the 72nd and 75th minutes. He blistered a 34-yard free kick toward the upper-right corner of the goal, and it was uncertain whether Ochoa's touch pushed the ball onto the right post, just below the crossbar, or had no impact.
Martinez hit the outside of the post from Ayovi's feed on Monterrey's next foray.
America had one last shot in stoppage after Paredes took down Cabanas just outside the Rayados' box, but Cabanas' free kick went over the crossbar, and the game was headed to penalties - the seventh time in 14 InterLiga finals over seven years a tiebreaker has been required.
Monterrey went three for three on its tries, but only Oscar Rojas converted for America.
Monterrey and Tecos are among five Mexican teams in the Libertadores. Morelia qualified straight from the fall Apertura, and Chivas de Guadalajara and San Luis received invitations into the final 16 after they problems related to the H1N1 epidemic led to their withdrawal from last year's competition heading into knockout stages.
Morelia will open Libertadores play Feb. 10 at Argentine club Banfield. Its other Group 6 opponents are Nacional (Uruguay) and Deportivo Cuenca (Ecuador).
Tecos, as the "Mexico 3" entrant, will face Juan Aurich in a preliminary-round playoff, Jan. 27 in Peru and Feb. 3 at home. A victory would put the Owls in Group 3, against defending champion Estudiantes de La Plata (Argentina) and two lesser sides, Bolivar (Bolivia) and Alianza Lima (Peru). The opener would be Feb. 11 at Estudiantes.
Scott French is a contributor to InterLiga.com.