Now I don't follow Primera Division de Mexico as much as I should. I have spent one full season covering Major League Soccer and the Los Angeles Galaxy's successful Supporters' Shield campaign that I haven't had to time to keep tab on the action south of the border.
There is one club, however, that catches my attention in this football-crazy country. That club is Club Tijuana de Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente. By the way, that's pronounced Show-low-squint-lees. It's a name for a Mexican Hairless Dog, the type of hound whose face graces their logo.
Call them Club Tijuana. Call them Los Xolos. But whatever you do, call them 2010 Apertura champions in the Liga de Ascenso, the Promotion League, the second division of soccer in Mexico.
“We’re getting there,” Xolos Vice President Gog Murguia said in an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune. “It’s taken a while, but little by little we’re getting there. Every year it gets a little clearer and less of a long shot.”
There have been three times in which Tijuana came close to promotion to the Primera Division. The most recent came in the 2009 Clausura, in which Merida pipped Los Xolos after a scoreless draw at the Estadio Caliente, CLub Tijuana's home pitch.
However, Club Tijuana—managed by Joaquin del Olmo—picked itself up and transformed itself into a side that focuses on defense and textbook ball control.
While Los Xolos have only managed 19 goals in 17 regular season contests, they lost just once, a 1-0 defeat to Indios de Ciudad Juárez. Since that defeat, they have not been scored upon.
Tijuana finished the regular season portion of the Apertura with an 11-5-1 record (38 points) and earned a free pass to the semifinals, where the seventh-seeded Albinegros de Orizaba came calling.
After a scoreless first and second leg, Tijuana advanced to the Final by way of their higher finish in the regular season table. They would take on the Red Sharks of Veracruz, who also benefited from a higher seed after finishing their semifinal with Irapuato with a 3-3 draw.
In the first leg, held at Estadio Luis de la Fuente, Tijuana pulled away to a 2-0 win off of goals by Mauro Gerk in the 35th minute of play and Javier Gandolfi in the 38th minute.
That set the stage for the second leg, held at the 33,340-seat Estadio Caliente, which was erected on the grounds of the old Agua Caliente Racetrack in 2007.
Raul Enriquez scored the only goal in the second leg for Los Xolos, in the 55th minute, to give Club Tijuana a 1-0 victory and a 3-0 shutout on aggregate.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Tijuana are champions!" the announcer at the Caliente proclaimed in Spanish to the collective roar of the red and black masses, who sang, “Ole, ole, ole…Xo-los, Xo-los.”
The Apertura victory marks the first-ever championship for a club based out of a border city that has suffered the unavoidable collective black eye of drug warfare, poverty and desparation among those who want to make the cross.
Joe Corona is a starting midfielder who is a local product and played for the San Diego State Aztecs before taking his skills to the Xolos.
“It’s something really big,” Corona said as the players lifted the trophy on high. “They’ve been waiting for this for a long time. It brings such happiness. You could feel how much the people wanted to win.”
“This is why futbol is so important in Mexico, because it unites people for a common cause,” said Murguia, an alum of San Diego Cathedral Catholic High School. “The people in this city, they don’t have anything that belongs to them. Winning this is definitely much more important than we know.
“I don’t think I have the words to describe what it means.”
Still, the job is not exactly done.
In order for Tijuana to be guaranteed promotion, they must reprise their historic run in the 2011 Clausura. If they are unable to do so, they must play a promotional play-off against the eventual Clausura winner.
That's not to say the club is preparing for the imminent move up.
Already plans are underway for the construction of a new video scoreboard to replace the manual board at the north end of the stadium. A second deck of seats is expected to be constructed, as well as four levels of luxury box suites. And an underground locker room in the mold of Calle Victoria—that is, the Home Depot Center in Carson, California—is in the works.
The revenues that would come from clubs like Chivas de Guadelajara, Club America, Cruz Azul, Pumas UNAM and others are untold, especially with the possibility of these blockbuster matches a half-hour drive from San Diego and a two-hour drive and change from Los Angeles.
Jorge Alberto Hank, owner of Club Tijuana, understands the implications very well.
“People have to come here first,” Hank said. “But once they come, they realize what we have here.”
And what Tijuana has is a talented football club that is one step closer to the Primera Division de Mexico.
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