TIJUANA -- Ronaldinho wore sneakers on the Estadio Caliente turf. But it was Club Tijuana that slipped up, coughing up two late goals to draw 2-2 in the Copa Libertadores quarterfinal first leg.
The Xolos hadn't conceded at home in the Copa Lib until the second half against Atletico Mineiro. By that point, the Mexican side was two goals ahead with ruthlessly quick wingers Duvier Riascos and Fidel Martinez supplying the home goals.
"Tijuana attacked with velocity and took away the ball," Mineiro coach Alexi 'Cuca' Stival said. "We expected them to play that way."
His side also expected the turf to play a role. The Brazilians practiced on the rubber mulch Wednesday ahead of the match but, like nearly every side that visits Tijuana, struggled to come to grips with it.
"This is a kind of field we are not used to. It's very different," said former Arsenal player Gilberto Silva, who at 36 has seen his fair share of fields. "No matter the kind of boots you wear you are not prepared for this kind of pitch. We did our best and it could be worse, because they know how to play on this kind of field. They know how the ball bounces on this kind of field and where it's going to be after."
The turf is unnatural, like the sensation of petting a xolo, the local hairless dog the team is named after. Gilberto Silva, now a central defender, slipped in his own box to cough up the ball for Riascos to open the scoring. Tijuana piled on the pressure in the first half.
Ronaldinho, who has 97 caps for Brazil, took an innovative approach to the hurdle that threatened to trip up his team: he wore bright orange sneakers.
"He played with tennis shoes not cleats," Cuca confirmed.
Eventually the Brazilian team, which Xolos goalkeeper Cirilo Saucedo called the favorite to win the Copa Libertadores, found its footing.
When Diego Tardelli pulled one back at the hour mark, Silva told his teammates that could prove the key goal in the tie since Galo hasn't lost at home "for a quite long time." The last time opposition won in Belo Horizonte was Aug. 28, 2011.
Then, in stoppage time, substitute Luan scored and the braying Tijuana crowd went silent.
"We eventually got used to the field in the second half and got the goal we needed to tie," Cuca said.
Club Tijuana struggled for answers after the match. Founded in 2007, the Xolos have no right being the reigning Liga MX champions, let alone dominating the tournament favorite in the Copa Libertadores quarterfinal. But still, the manner of the conceded goals, due to mental errors, clearly irked the squad.
"We were not precise," coach Antonio Mohamed said.
"The second half got a little complicated there," Joe Corona said.
"We had a little lack of care at the end that cost us the win," Fidel Martinez said.
Gilberto Silva noted that Mineiro will likely shuffle the squad for a league game Sunday, with the Copa Libertadores "for sure" the team's primary objective.
Club Tijuana now must fly 6,000 miles, some 15 hours, to play Galo where they haven't lost in nearly two years. The Xolos' golden rise may have peaked, at least for the season.
Then again, the Xolos thrive at overcoming obstacles that should topple a club so young.
"If they want to write us off, go for it," Saucedo said. "This team has managed to deal with that, and there are still 90 minutes left."
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