Brent Latham: Liga MX breathes fresh air in form of Tijuana - Leon semifinal

Featuring plenty of goals, tension and two newly-promoted teams, the Club Tijuana - Club Leon semifinal dominated headlines in Mexico this week.
It wasn’t the only semifinal in Mexican soccer last week, but judging from the level of attention on both sides of the border, you could be forgiven for thinking that the matchup between Club Tijuana and Club Leon was in reality the only show in town.

America may have as many fans as any Mexican club outside of Guadalajara, and Toluca as much tradition and nearly as many titles, but the series between Liga MX newcomers Tijuana and Leon seemed in many ways to blow that match out of the water in terms of both interest and quality futbol.

Not to discount what Toluca - or America for that matter - has done this season, but with 10 titles apiece, it’s understandable why the other fixture would have gotten a little more of the novelty related buzz. And it seemed to come as almost a foregone conclusion that America wouldn’t be able to get over the Toluca hurdle and back into a final just yet, especially after the 2-0 loss at home to kick off the semifinal round.

If that was the old guard’s turn, the Club Tijuana - Leon side of things represented instead a revolution of sorts in Mexican soccer. The jury is still out on whether that change is here to stay, but the upstart, recently ascended teams will at least represent Mexico in the Copa Libertadores, and Tijuana is through to the 2013-14 edition of the CONCACAF Champions League.

So whether or not the power shift is permanent, you’ll be seeing a lot more of these two teams in the coming months. And there are reasons for Liga MX, and fans of the Mexican game in general, to celebrate the seasons being provided by these clubs.

For one, though Mexican soccer has always been attack-oriented, this semifinal series stepped it up a notch.

While as attack-minded as any other club, Club Tijuana statistically wasn't one of the top scoring teams in the Mexican Apertura. Despite finishing in a dead heat with Toluca on top the table with 34 points from 17 matches, the Xolos were tied for fifth in scoring, with a rather pedestrian 23 goals through the regular season.

Club Leon, well, that’s a different story. The Esmeraldas under Gustavo Matosas fielded the highest octane offense Mexican soccer has seen in some time, scoring 34 goals for a blistering pace of two per match.

To put that feat in perspective, that total was six better than next-best Toluca and America, and Monarcas was the only other club to score more than 23 times. Club Leon’s attack was balanced and usually unstoppable - they weren’t shut out until the semifinal loss to Tijuana -- with five players, including the breakout player of the tournament, Carlos Pena, scoring four goals or more.

But enough about Club Leon, it’s Club Tijuana is in the final.

And rightfully so. The Xolos’ attack might not have been quite as prolific as Leon’s, but Club Tijuana scores with a pragmatism that has often made it look like the Xolos are toying with their opponents. Frustration in the away leg of the semifinal turned quickly to jubilation when Tijuana turned on the afterburners at home, scoring three times in the final hour of the home leg to take a 3-2 aggregate win.

The Xolos, though, never looked out of things, especially after taking down two-time defending CONCACAF champion Rayados, a club playing with much the same team that has brought so much silverware to Monterrey over the past few seasons.

But Club Tijuana is an interesting project for far more than those achievements on the field. A team without a true superstar, or much history, the Xolos are the definition of an underdog. Founded only in 2007, this sort of rapid success is unprecedented in a staunch Mexican league founded and sustained on tradition.

Then, of course, there’s the American link. The proximity to the United States and the club’s three Mexican-Americans have raised interest in Mexican soccer among the average fan north of the border to levels not seen since USA fans discovered that there was a place called Pachuca, and a guy named Jose Torres playing there.

It all adds up to opening new doors for a league that has always been extremely popular locally, but could do with generating a bigger fan base and more interest elsewhere. With a decent budget and growing interest, things will only get brighter for Club Tijuana, which sees itself as a cross-border representative of regional soccer.

As for Leon, the plans are to re-arm for the Copa Libertadores with some reinforcements, though a few key players - specifically Colombian Hernan Burbano - may be on the way out the door given the growing market for what Leon’s got in attack.

But luckily for Liga MX, which needed a breath of fresh air to go along with its rebranding prior to the season, the likes of Tijuana and Leon aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.