TIJUANA – Two years ago, Club Tijuana played in the Mexican second division. On Wednesday, it defeated the reigning world champion.
This was no fluke either. Xolos have been shattering glass ceilings as a hobby for a while now. A few years ago, post-match press conferences at Estadio Caliente took place in a haphazard tent over a bunch of folding chairs. The press box was a roped-off slab of cement. Members of the organization would tell anyone who would listen that the club was going places. Not even the biggest boasts included it happening so quickly.
Promoted to what is now called Liga MX in 2011, Tijuana decided to skip the whole awkward teen stage and go straight to heavyweight contender. Three months ago, it won its first domestic title.
But it appears conquering Mexico isn't enough for the plucky club, nicknamed after a local breed of hairless dog (the stadium PA plays clips of snarling barks during matches). Since November, it has built a brand new press box and added box seats. Growth continues.
Xolos have won three out of three games in the Copa Libertadores, the best club competition in South America, including an impressive road victory over Millonarios (Colombia) and a 4-0 trouncing of San Jose (Bolivia).
But the most fearsome team in the group arrived this week in the form of the Club World Cup champion. Corinthians has largely kept the same squad that defeated Chelsea in December. Except, of course, adding former AC Milan and Brazil national team forward Alexandre Pato.
"We knew who we were playing," U.S. national team attacker Joe Corona said. "Not a lot of players have an opportunity to play a team like this. We were just convinced that we could win here."
That's the problem: Club Tijuana simply refuses to acknowledge when history, rosters and finances indicate it should lose.
Take Corona for example. Someone with his last name has no business starting as the playmaker for a team sponsored by Tecate. He never really caught on in the U.S. system, so he tried out just over the border. After playing with Tijuana in the second division, he has worked his way onto the U.S. national team radar. Corona doesn't even rank the match against Corinthians as the biggest of his career.
"It's one of the biggest games," Corona said. "Honestly, it wasn't easy at all."
All games in Estadio Caliente are tough. For the opposition at least. Once visiting teams started complaining about what is possibly the worst turf in North America, Xolos hierarchy vowed to keep it. (The team practices on a nearby grass field for away matches.) Corinthians isn't the first team to look awkward trying to corral the ball on that green slate of rubber.
Antonio 'El Turco' Mohamed's disciplined squad waits for errors then flashes out on lightning counters through its two most talented players – Fidel Martinez and Duvier Riascos – deployed wide in a 4-3-3. Riascos, in particular, provided Tijuana's most dangerous chances against Corinthians. The beefy 26-year-old Colombian played in an abysmal Chinese league back when Tijuana earned promotion. He'll be in Europe by this summer.
Mohamed collects these outcasts and forges them into a squad capable of matching the very best in the world. Just how far can he take the team?
"We [aren't] in the next round, so we've got to keep working," Corona said.
Knick-knack paddywhack, give the dog a bone. These Xolos won't ever be satisfied.
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