The steep, steep rise of Tijuana's local club continues upward, with the Xolos - who feature three Americans - playing in the Mexican playoffs for the first time in history
"To think, a year ago this was only a dream."
These are the departing words from my cab driver as I arrive to the Estadio Caliente on Monday, to catch the tail end of the madness surrounding the Xoloitzcuintles' ticket sale session for their first ever playoff game in Mexican Primera División history. My cabbie sums up the thoughts of more than 2 million Tijuanenses, some who still pinch themselves at the thought of having teams like Chivas, América, Cruz Azul and Pumas visit Latin America's northern-most city, and others who acted like they belonged since day one.
The fever has caught on to the American side of the border, too. San Diego's South County is literally plastered with the team's logo, a Xoloitzcuintle, or Mexican Hairless Dog for those of us who have trouble pronouncing words in the Aztec language known as Nahuatl (nah-goo-ah-tul). Cars, homes and shop windows proudly display the colors of the region's first team to compete at the highest level since the NASL's Sockers, based in San Diego but who banked on Hispanic attention by signing Hugo Sánchez, the legendary striker of Real Madrid fame who is still regarded as the best Mexican player of all time.
This Wednesday, several thousand were gripped with the fever of what is the city's first liguilla. Xolos have a daunting task ahead of them, facing none other than the back-to-back CONCACAF champion Rayados de Monterrey, still fresh off its title continental title run and gearing up for domestic glory. Its playoff hopes, albeit not dashed, took a serious hit with a 2-1 home loss. It now needs a two-goal win by any score to make the semifinals.
Sure, fans - including my cabbie - will remind you that Tijuana beat Monterrey already, way back in the second week of the season, but they'll casually forget that the Rayados were without star strikers Humberto Suazo and Aldo de Nigris for that game, which only ended in a Xolos win thanks to a 93rd minute header by captain Javier Gandolfi. Even after that solid point is made, their hope isn't dampened in the least bit. Welcome to Tijuana, where hope springs eternal.
"The press have already eliminated us," says Xolos manager Antonio Mohamed. The husky Argentine points to several of us holding audio recorders in his face. "Three months ago, they had relegated us to the second division," he says with a smile. He pauses as his smile grows wider. "So they must be right now, too."
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It is also the first playoff run for Americans Joe Corona and Greg Garza, who have recently partnered up along with a third American, Edgar Castillo, on a strong left side that has been statistically responsible for most of the Tijuana team's attacks.
"I'm not nervous," says Garza, the 20-year-old former Sporting Lisbon prospect. "But this is huge for the city, no doubt."
Corona is equally motivated.
“Our players are peaking and it’s an important time," he said. "It’s something that motivates all of us.”
It would seem that Xolos have been playing by their own rules since achieving promotion in Tijuana barely a year ago, in front a packed Estadio Caliente that saw Corona score the opening goal and set up the second and definitive strike. From avoiding relegation to making the playoffs in only their second season and even managing to field a team with nine foreign-born players when the allotted limit is five (Garza, Corona, Castillo as well as midfielder Leandro Augusto and striker Mauro Gerk hold twin passports), Xolos play on their own terms.
But is it enough to beat Monterrey and make a run at the championship? At this point, it seems . . . "Impossible?" interrupts my cab driver a few blocks before we arrive at our destination.
"Yeah, it's impossible. This city is good at making the impossible possible."