Joe Corona is no stranger to loan moves. He endured a frustrating stint at Liga MX side Veracruz in 2015, then helped resurrect his career with a title-winning season with Mexican second-division club Dorados. The longtime Club Tijuana midfielder's next loan is different, though, both in terms of size and opportunity.
Corona has joined Mexican powerhouse Club America on a one-year loan, in a move that few could have envisioned a year ago, when the U.S. international was plying his trade in the second division, uncertain of what the future might hold.
Corona has reunited with Miguel Herrera, who managed him at Tijuana in the first half of 2017. Corona thrived in a starting central midfield role under Herrera, impressing him enough to make the former Mexico national team coach close a draft-day deal to bring Corona to Mexico City.
"It's always a challenge with a new club, especially at a big club like America, but knowing Miguel and what he wants will help me," Corona told Goal. "I still have to perform, though. At a club like this, just winning games isn't enough. We have to win titles so I know I'm going to need to be at my best just to get on the field, and hopefully stay there."
Herrera wasn't always a fan of Corona.
Sources tell Goal that Herrera actually picked Corona out as a player he didn't want around when he took over at Tijuana in 2015. Their story goes back to a confrontation when Corona was with Xolos and Herrera was in an earlier stint at America: Tijuana upset Las Aguilas, and apparently Herrera didn't take too kindly to Corona's postgame celebrations. He remembered this years later when he was hired by Tijuana, telling Xolos officials that one player he would not be keeping around was Corona.
Corona wound up heading to Dorados for a year, where he made the most of his Tijuana banishment, helping lead the Sinaloa club to a Liga Ascenso title and showing Herrera enough to make him reconsider his position. Even then, it took another twist of fate to keep Corona on the path that would eventually lead him to Club America.
Corona was all set to join the LA Galaxy in a transfer orchestrated by then-coach Bruce Arena in the fall of 2016. Tijuana was ready to part ways with him, and Arena saw Corona as a key piece to a rebuilding job the Galaxy desperately needed. That was before the U.S. national team lost a pair of World Cup qualifiers, leading to the firing of coach Jurgen Klinsmann and the appointment of Arena as the U.S. boss.
"I was pretty close to signing with the Galaxy, and was pretty excited for that," Corona said. "Things happen for a reason. I don't really think about what would have happened if I had gone there — I'm pretty happy with how things have gone for me, and excited about this move to America."
The Galaxy never did follow through on the deal Arena orchestrated, leaving Corona to return to Xolos, where he would have to win over Herrera. The coach not only welcomed Corona back to Estadio Caliente, he wound up making him a regular starter in a Tijuana side that finished in first place in the 2017 Clausura regular season.
That success helped Herrera earn a return to Club America, and it was enough to convince Herrera to pick up Corona in the recent Liga MX draft, swooping in to land the 27-year-old from Xolos, where Corona was coming off a disappointing Apertura campaign.
"I'm just happy Miguel had the confidence in me to bring me here, and I'm excited for the opportunity," Corona said. "I felt really comfortable playing in the middle for him at Xolos. He's always asking for the best from his players, always pushing them, and I think that's what kept me playing well for him."
The America move came together quickly, as Herrera's squad found itself scrambling for midfield depth at the draft. Interestingly enough, Corona might not have been available if MLS teams had shown more interest in him in recent months. After successful MLS moves by former Xolos teammates Greg Garza and Paul Arriola in 2017, Corona was ready to follow them across the border — with his contract set to expire in the summer of 2018 — but a lack of strong interest from MLS teams kept him at Tijuana, paving the way for a loan to America after signing a new deal with Xolos.
"I've always been open to playing in MLS," Corona said. "I would love to play there some time in my career. I don't know if right now is the best timing, but the door is always open."
Corona is overjoyed with how things wound up playing out. He has joined one of Mexico's biggest teams as it looks for its first league title since the 2014 Apertura, and is hoping to add to the Liga MX crown he won with Tijuana in 2012.
Though technically on loan for the calendar year, Corona knows full well this move to America could mark the end of his time at Tijuana. America has a purchase option tied to the loan, so if Corona winds up thriving with his new team, an extended stay could very well be in the cards.
There is also a good chance Corona will line up against Xolos for the first time in his pro career when the teams face off at the Estadio Azteca in February, and he knows that will be an experience like he has never gone through before.
"I'm sure I'll have some mixed emotions when I play against Tijuana," Corona said. "It will be a special moment. I've played for them for so long, and it's a club I'll always have in my heart, but my job now is with Club America so I have to give them my all and prove to them that I can play at a high level and help them win titles."