History aside, has Cruz Azul lost its spot as one of Liga MX's big clubs?

MEXICO CITY -- The statistics are staggering. One Liga MX title in the last 38 years. Only two trophies, a Copa MX and a CONCACAF Champions League title since 1998. Seemingly countless stories of heartbreak from lost finals, ranging from painful to downright backbreaking. And finally, a verb. Oh yes, the famous term which has co-opted their name and turned it into a synonym for futility.

"I think to say cruzazulear is just trolling, something fans from other teams can make fun of us for because of recent events," said David Flores, a 28-year-old lifelong fan of Cruz Azul who says he has missed only one league home game since 2013. "It was my sister's wedding. I begged her not to have it on a Saturday, but she didn't care."

Indeed, Cruz Azul, once a mighty team whose style and success inspired the nickname La Maquina (literal translation is "the machine", but in this case it is used to describe a locomotor), is now known mostly for its futility. The verb cruzazulear is a national punchline, described when a team snatches defeat from the jaws of victory. For obvious reasons, failing in such a manner has been a staple of Cruz Azul for the better part of the century, with the term being coined a few years ago.

The prime examples of cruzazulear have come at the most inopportune times, with silverware and pride on the line. There was the Clausura 2013 final against Club America, in which the team had a 2-0 aggregate lead into the 89th minute -- and coughed it up when Aquivaldo Mosquera and goalkeeper Moises Munoz famously scored toward the game's end to force the final into extra time. There was the 2010 CONCACAF final, in which a 93rd minute goal from Edgar Benitez sent Pachuca into the Club World Cup on away goals. And more recently, coughing up a 3-0 lead in 2016 to Club America only to lose 4-3.

Despite the lack of trophies, the consistent mockery and the general mediocrity of the team since their last league championship in 1997, fans like David still cling to the core principle that Cruz Azul is one of Mexico's undisputed heavyweights.

"Look, there are four big clubs. Cuatro grandes. Why? Because we have the most fans, and a lot of championships," he said.

Those four clubs that make up that list are America and Guadalajara (tied with 12 league titles apiece), Cruz Azul (eight), and Pumas (seven). But the bulk of Cruz Azul's glory days came in the 1970s, decades before David and most of the team's newer generation of fans were born. For those not born into the club through parents who are also supporters, there's been little reason for the club to accrue new followers.

"You have to win. All they are is popular [but] they're not making new fans like Tigres," said Herculez Gomez, the former Liga MX scoring champion and now an analyst for ESPN. "A big club somewhere in the world could not go through this and consider themselves a grande."

Even former Cruz Azul manager Paco Jemez agrees with Gomez. During a post-match press conference in 2017, Jemez shook off the notion his team was at the level of Chivas or Club America after a 3-0 loss to Lobos BUAP.

"We're not a big team and today we've made that clear," he said.

Though Jemez might have been speaking out of frustration from the result, it was still hard to hear for the team's ample fan base. The argument for Cruz Azul's popularity might itself be in danger. According to Mexico's largest polling company, Consulta Mitofsky, La Maquina has lost ground among Liga MX's most supported teams. In 2008, they were the third most-popular squad, claiming 14% of the league's fans. They've since dropped to fourth, behind Pumas, with just 8.8% of the vote. Perhaps even more troubling is that they might soon drop to fifth, behind Tigres, who registered 8.3% in the 2018 poll.

With arguments for Cruz Azul's spot on Mexican soccer's zenith waning, their performance this season is attempting to turn the narrative on its head. Their Copa MX semfinal win over Leon earlier this week means they'll have a chance at silverware, facing off against Monterrey in the tournament final on Halloween night.

The squad is rife with talent, anchored by veteran goalkeeper Jose de Jesus Corona. Young Mexican talent has rejuvenated the squad, with midfielder Roberto Alvarado leading the charge. Foreign signings, once a clear weakness for the team, have lit up the league. Spain's Edgar Mendez, Chile's Igor Lichnovsky and Argentina's Milton Caraglio have been instrumental. Off the pitch, manager Pedro Caixinha is a proven winner -- and so is the team's president, Ricardo Pelaez.

In the league, they roll into the weekend in second place, having ceded the top spot in Liga MX for the first time since the opening matchday. On Saturday, at the Estadio Azteca, they will face their top rival, Club America, in the latest edition of the Clasico Joven. The short span of time between both of the matches means Cruz Azul could make a crucial statement against those who do not believe they are capable of success -- or reinforce the narrative.

"Whatever happens, we can't lose against America," said Flores. "We've won the Copa before, we've won the CONCACAF Champions League. We almost won [Copa] Libertadores. But it's the league and it's the rivalry that has to come first."

The white whale for Cruz Azul is indeed personified in the Liga MX trophy. Footage of a bloodied Carlos Hermosillo scoring a penalty against Angel Comizzo to take the Invierno 1997 title looks beyond dated, to the point that Hermosillo wouldn't be able to take the kick nowadays with a stained jersey and blood running down his cheek. The only active player remaining from the championship is the eternal Oscar Perez.

Thus, it behooves Caixinha and his squad to win now and at least muddle the arguments against the team's status within Mexico. If not, cruzazulear will live on, and the team's fans will have a harder time making their point.