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Happy Uruguayan Independence Day, fans! Uruguayan soccer is back, and so is El Bolso, now filing his reports from sunny Southern California! It’s been a pretty busy couple of weeks for Nacional fans, so let’s get right to it!

 

Out with the Old, In with the New

 

Shave and a haircut? No time; too busy WINNING LIKE A BOSS! (Montevideo.com)
Shave and a haircut? No time; too busy WINNING LIKE A BOSS! (Montevideo.com)

 

Overall, it was a fairly quiet offseason for the team. Alvaro Gutiérrez became the third coach in the last decade to lead Nacional to a title in his rookie season and then immediately jump ship (Juan Ramón Carrasco and Marcelo Gallardo did it back to back in 2010/11 and 2011/12), as he parlayed his success into a big contract with Saudi side Al Shabab. After batting a lot of names around, the Tricolor executive committee hired a suprise candidate: Gustavo Munúa, Gutiérrez’s starting keeper. Like Gallardo before him, Munúa came to Nacional to finish out his career, led the team to a title, and then immediately took over as coach. Hey, it worked then, why can’t it work now? Besides, once the initial surprise wore off it came out that Munúa had been planning a move to coaching all along: he formally trained for the job in Spain and even had his technical team already assembled. He has promised a new Nacional that relies on the Barcelona model of defensive pressure, short passing, and ball possession. Can he deliver?

 

Munúa wasn’t the only player to hang them up following last June’s convincing finals victory over Peñarol: TCR favorite Alvaro Recoba finally called it quits. Recoba thought about offers from Australia and India, and considered a plan to team up with long time Peñarol hero Antonio Pacheco to help newly-promoted Villa Teresa face its first ever season at the top level, but eventually he decided to quit whie ahead, and is now considering a run for club President in December’s elections (because why the hell not). Also leaving the team were Diego Arismendi (he followed his coach to Al Shabab), Gastón Pereiro (moved on to PSV Eindhoven, where he promptly broke his nose in his first match but is still playing), Cristian Tabó, backup keeper Jorge Bava defenders Guillermo de los Santos and Juan Manuel Díaz, and forwards Sebastián Taborda and Gonzalo Bueno. That’s a lot of names, but not much impact. Arismendi’s place is being covered by finals hero Santiago Romero, now back to his preferred position in the midfield, while the goal will be manned by veteran Esteban Conde and Panamanian up-and-comer Luis Mejia. With Recoba and Pereiro gone, the biggest question mark is who will step up and run this offense, but even there Nacional had an answer waiting in the wings: Ignacio “Nacho”González, who was all but useless last season because of injuries and house arrests, decided to stick around and prove himself to the fans, even going as far as significantly reducing his salary. As you’ll see below, the gamble is paying off pretty well so far.

 

As far as new faces, there aren’t many; the team maintained its core from last year’s championship season and added parts here and there to improve areas of need. In addition to keepers Conde and Mejia, the Tricolores brought in defenders Matias Malvino (who almost played here last season) and Mathias Abero (a former Tricolor who came up in the club’s youth divisions before going to Europe) and Argentinian forward Alejandro Barbaro (who was signed in case Carlos De Pena is transferred). Young striker Juan Cruz Mascia returns after a season on loan to Wanderers, as does fullback Damián Eroza (who was at Juventud). From the team’s youth divisions come a couple of heralded forwards who have made names for themselves wearing the Celeste: Rodrigo Amaral and Leandro Otormín. And finally, a couple of familiar faces showed up as well: Sebastián Eguren was brought in to fortify the midfield, and Sebastián “El Loco” Abreu is here to do whatever it is he does. Wait, what does he do again? Oh, right! THIS.

 

The Battle Abroad

 

Carlos DePena has been an absolute nightmare for opposing right fullbacks. (La Nacion)
Carlos DePena has been an absolute nightmare for opposing right fullbacks. (La Nacion)

 

The Copa Sudamericana has begun with 4 Uruguayan teams in the running. Nacional, Defensor Sporting and Juventud were all drawn against Bolivian opponents (because God hates Bolivia), while Danubio was paired up with Chile’s Universidad Católica. I’ll be focusing on Nacional’s exploits here, but first let’s recap how the other teams did:

  • Danubio stayed true to its roots, falling 1-3 on aggregate (0-1 in Chile and 1-2 in Montevideo. This is Danubio’s 8th participation in the Sudamericana (the most of any Uruguayan side) and its 8th first round elimination. Guys, how about you let someone else try? For shame. I’m not even linking to highlights for this one.
  • Defensor started off strong against Bolívar, winning 3-0 at home, and escaped the altitude in La Paz with a 2-0 defeat that was good enough for a spot in the next round. They will face Universitario Lima of Peru.
  • Juventud de las Piedras, making their international tournament debut, got all up in Real Potosí’s face, winning 4-1 (the only Bolivian goal was from the penalty spot in added time, too). Like Defensor, they then managed to only lose by two goals in the return game in Bolivia, and will face Ecuadorian side Emelec in the second round.

 

Nacional, meanwhile, traveled to Bolivia to face Oriente Petrolero in Munúa’s first official game as coach, and they took the Bolivians apart, winning 3-0 and pretty much making the return game obsolete. Defender José Aja opened the scoring while 4 Bolivian players stood around watching him (he even got enough time to show some nifty moves before hitting the volley home). It was Aja’s third goal in a week, after he tallied twice in a friendly against Argentina’s Gimnasia y Esgrima. Leandro Barcia, one of last season’s revelations, doubled the advantage just before halftime after a ridiculous gaffe by the Bolivian keeper. The last goal came off the foot of a Bolivian defender after a tremendous run by Nacho. Munúa benched several starters for the return game, and Nacional was able to come away with a scoreless tie against an Oriente side that never really looked like they wanted it. Up next for Nacional is Colombian side Independiente Santa Fe, which is likely to present much stiffer opposition. Coaching the Colombian’s is old friend Gerardo Pelusso, who led Nacional to the 2008/09 Uruguayan title and a spot in the Libertadores semifinals in his first run with the team. His second one was not as good: he was fired after a 5-0 loss to Peñarol 2 years ago, clearing the way for Alvaro Gutiérrez to take over.

 

Overall, this has been a great tournament so far for Uruguayan fans: I can’t remember the last time three local teams made it past the opening round, and with Danubio involved that was the best that could be expected. Let’s see what happens when the teams play non-Bolivian rivals, though. By the way, if you are curious, the 4th Bolivian team, Aurora, lost 7-2 in aggregate to Paraguay’s Deportivo Luque, ending the country’s participation in the tournament. Better luck next time, boys.

 

The Home Front

 

"Welp, looks like I should have chosen the blue pill." (Montevideo.com)
“Welp, looks like I should have chosen the blue pill.” (Montevideo.com)

 

The local tournament began as well, and Nacional has gotten off to a strong start there too. In their opening game, the Tricolores played spoilers in Villa Teresa’s first ever First Division game, beating them 4-1. De Pena opened up the scoring after a sweet Nacho assist, and Iván Alonso extended the lead with a ridonkulous header. It hasn’t been the best of starts for the defending Uruguayan League scoring champion, as he’s been too busy complaining about every single referee call to do much damage, but he was right on cue there. Villa Teresa pulled one back near the end of the first half to delay the inevitable (their first ever goal in the Uruguayan top flight, so congratulations), but second half goals from Nacho and DePena sealed the win. It could have been much worse for Villa Teresa, as Nacional dominated the game and missed several easy chances, but I’ll take it.

 

The second round of games brought a stiffer challenge: River Plate, now coached by the aforementioned Juan Ramón Carrasco. Carrasco started his coaching career at Centro Atlético Fénix but made his reputation while at River, turning the team from a perennial also-ran into a top 5 squad. Now he’s back to try to take the next step, winning River’s first ever title. It didn’t start well, as his team lost its opening game 2-1 (to Fénix, coincidentally) and now Carrasco had to face his first love, the team he starred for in the 80s and 90s and the one where he won his only trophy. Never one to let his players take the spotlight, Carrasco showed up for the game wearing tinted shades and never took them off, even though they were playing at dusk and into the night. The glasses were the top story in the Uruguayan media on Monday, with several sources claiming that Carrasco got in a fight as he entered the stadium and was covering up a shiny black eye.as for the game, River took it right to Nacional in the first half and went to the dressing rooms up 1-0 thanks to some soft defending and an amazing scissor kick finish from former Nacional striker Santiago “El Morro” Garcia. As is his custom, García apologized to the Nacional fans, but the damage is done. How about you just stop scoring against us instead, Morro?

 

In the second half, Nacional regained the form that they’d  shown in earlier matches and pushed River back against its own goal, but luck and some great goalkeeping kept River ahead. In the 80th minute, 18-year-old Amaral made a run through the middle of the field, passed the ball off to the right wing as he neared the penalty box, then drifted towards the far post; De Pena sent a long cross, the River goalie made a poor decision and missed intercepting it, and Amaral headed it into the goal for his first career goal with Nacional’s main squad. Ten minutes later, DePena once again crossed the ball into the box; the goalie made another error and was stranded in the middle of the box as one of his defenders headed the ball right to the oncoming Romero, who put the ball into the back of the net with a low shot that eluded the entire River defense. It all adds up to a 2-1 win and a share of first place, made all that much sweeter because Peñarol, which made significant investments to bring World Cup Hero Diego Forlan home and surround him with a talented supporting cast, is  2 points behind after tying El Tanque 2-2 the previous day.

 

Where We Stand

 

Attention defenders: if you see this coming at you, you're in trouble. (El Observador)
Attention defenders: if you see this coming at you, you’re in trouble. (El Observador)

 

So, we’re 2 weeks into the Gustavo Munúa era, and so far you have to like what you see. It’s not just that the team has won all 4 games; it’s the fact that they have done so while showing off an attractive and efficient style of play, especially up front. There’s still work to be done on defense, but that’s to be expected becauset that’s the one aread of the field where the team has had to make significant changes with respect to last season (for one, all-world center back Diego Polenta missed some games because of a previous suspension). Alonso is another worry, as he has not been the focused scorer he was last season, and more closely resembles the whiny crybaby of 2013/14. Still, DePena is making his runs and Barcia is finding open space, and Nacho Gonzalez has been a revelation, setting the pace and creating danger everywhere he goes. If he can maintain his form, this team could go places. We’ll see what happens in the next few games.

 

That’s all for me this week, fans. The toughest decision I had to make this week was which Pasión Tricolor video to show you, but I think I’ll go with the River game, as it was the only one where the outcome was in doubt. See you next week!

 

El Bolso

About El Bolso

El Bolso is Uruguay’s foremost soccer-fan-in-exile, a true authority on the Celeste and its favored son, the Club Nacional de Football. He believes in precision passing, tireless marking, and strong finishing, and is not above the occasional slide tackle from behind when the situation calls for it.

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