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Postcard from Mexico: Tijuana want to be SoCal's team

Postcard: Tijuana

Photo Credit: 
MexSport

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Club Tijuana have a message for MLS fans in Southern California: You're living in Xolos country.

Just six months into their first foray in Mexico’s top flight, Tijuana are making an ambitious push to deepen their roots just across the busiest border crossing in the world – and the club isn’t just after the fans in SoCal, it’s after young American talent, too.

“The idea is to grow,” Club Tijuana sporting director Ignacio Palou told MLSsoccer.com by phone on Thursday. “We have a long-term plan to cover all of Southern California. I have asked the directors of the youth system and the talent scouts to turn our eyes in that direction.”

Palou estimates that of the 150 youngsters currently in the Tijuana youth academy, some 10 percent were born in the United States, mostly in San Diego and other places near the border.

The immediately obvious attraction of Club Tijuana to Mexican-American talent to the north is proximity. But the fact that dual nationals can play in Mexico with a Mexican passport – and therefore not take up one of the five foreign spots allowed in Primera División squads – is also key.

Then, according to Palou, there is the perception that players raised in the US often have different mentalities than their Mexican counterparts.

“We’ve realized that the kids [from the US] have certain values and good foundations, like Joe,” he said, referring to Joe Benny Corona, a San Diego native, Tijuana first-teamer and recent US Under-23 call-up.

Corona dropped out of San Diego State University, and a potential place in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft, to head south and join Tijuana’s youth program.

The 21-year-old has ample experience in the soccer scene on both sides of the border and agrees with Palou about the potential to recruit players from SoCal.

“There’s a lot of talent,” Corona recently told MLSsoccer.com. “Most of the teams now are made up of Latinos; in Southern California, [they’re] the majority.”

Corona accepted a call-up to Mexico’s U-22s back in September and then joined the United States U-23s last month at a training camp in Germany, as both federations – and that of El Salvador, where his mother is from – kept a keen eye on his rapid rise in Mexico’s top division.

Though the idea of young Americans joining Tijuana’s ranks and eventually suiting up for El Tri is no doubt a worrying one for USMNT fans, Palou is quick to add that those choices are ultimately up to the player.

“If they have the possibility of playing for two national teams, that’s great,” said Palou. “The player will obviously decide. At the end of the day, like Herculez [Gomez], [José Francisco] Torres and Edgar Castillo, who has just joined us, if they have that opportunity, we can’t deny them.”

But it’s not just the recruiting possibilities that have relegation-threatened Tijuana peering across the border. The club has a deal with a travel company that offers special charter buses and travel packages that include hotels stays, operating from Los Angeles and San Diego, and has a growing and “captive” fan base in Southern California, according to Palou.

Tijuana are on a virtual island on Mexico’s sporting landscape in that their nearest Primera División rivals, Santos Laguna, are a 20-hour drive away. Their nearest “local” competition, in fact, is probably two hours up the highway in Los Angeles’ two MLS teams. That brings tons of fans across the border to see the Xoloitzcuintles play league foes, Palou says – perhaps 10 percent of the attendance, he estimates.

One such fan is San Diego resident Jonny Rico, who has witnessed the rise in popularity of the Xolos firsthand as a season-ticket holder since the team was in the second division.

“In my rec league, there are now about three different teams using Tijuana jerseys,” Rico told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “I even know a couple of people who gave up [other Mexican] teams to be full on Xolos.”

Rico adds that he would go to every game if an MLS franchise came to San Diego. But for now, and assuming they can stave off relegation, the Xolos seem to be onto a real winner.

Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America. He can be reached via tom.marshall.mex@gmail.com.