Gringo Report: First Mexico, now the world for Tijuana trio

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Club Tijuana's rags-to-riches tale, from essentially an expansion club in the third division to top-flight champions in just five years, is rare as they come. Even more rare when three Americans are along for the ride.

On Sunday night in Toluca, Edgar Castillo, Joe Corona and Greg Garza all picked up Liga MX winners medals after Club Tijuana defeated Toluca 2-0 (4-1 on aggregate) in the Estadio Nemesio Diez.

The celebrations were wild in the border city, as was Monday morning’s parade through the Tijuana streets, which had become noticeably quieter over the past few year's as Mexico's drug war raged on.

The success of the Xoloitzcuintles (Xolos for short) is made all the more impressive by the team’s ability to deal with long trips and high altitude in their away games. And if you speak to the American trio, what resonates most is the ingrained desire at the club that the success should not be a one-off.

“This is just the beginning of the history,” 22-year-old Corona told MLSsoccer.com by phone from San Diego. “I think the club has a good infrastructure and is very organized.”

The club’s organizational capacities will certainly be tested in 2013, with Xolos qualifying for both the Copa Libertadores and CONCACAF Champions League, in addition to their Liga MX obligations.

“We all have same mentality,” explained 25-year-old Castillo. “We think we can win the league again and do well in the Copa Libertadores.”

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All three of Tijuana’s Americans had good seasons and contributed to the title win.

Corona and Castillo started both legs of the final and played a part in almost every game they were available for under coach Antonio Mohamed.

“It was pretty emotional when I knew I was going to start the final,” said Corona. “I knew people were watching and that it was huge for Tijuana and huge personally.”

While Garza missed out on the second leg of the final due to an ankle injury, he stamped his name on Liga MX with two crucial goals against Monterrey and Santos Laguna.

Before joining Tijuana last November, Garza (right) admits that doubts had entered his head that a career in soccer was going to work out after trials in Norway and Sweden followed his stint with Portuguese second-flight side Estoril.

“I had a dry spell,” said Garza from his native Dallas. “I was thinking, ‘Maybe I have to follow different directions.’ Then the opportunity came up to go to Mexico and it went from darkness to shining stars.”

Though the plights of Castillo and Corona weren’t as grave, both have been vindicated by their decisions to join Tijuana at times when their careers seemed uncertain.

Corona’s steep rise from San Diego State to Liga MX champion and the US national team looks plain sailing on paper, but he says there were times when he got downhearted, especially when he was playing down in Mexico’s third division with Tijuana’s farm team.

“I knew I had to be patient and knew it was a process, but sometimes I would get desperate,” explained Corona in his usual calm tone. “I think it’s normal for every soccer player.“

Castillo wasn’t promised a starting place when he signed for Xolos last winter and had bounced around Puebla, Tigres, América and San Luis after bursting onto the Mexican soccer scene with Santos Laguna in 2007.

He has admitted that the move to Tijuana was probably his last shot at making it in Mexico’s first division and puts his return to form down to simply feeling some love from the club and getting consistent minutes.

“It counts a lot how much playing time you get and if you get along with the coach and the players and if they treat you well,” said Castillo. “ Here in Tijuana, everybody has treated me well.”

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It’s no surprise that Castillo finds this title more gratifying than his first with Santos Laguna in the Clausura 2008, considering his resurrection as one of the best left backs in the Liga MX.

And if the perception lingers in the US that Castillo is weak at basic defending, Tijuana’s stout defensive record – 21 clean sheets in 50 league games under Mohamed – is ample evidence to suggest Liga MX teams have not been able to expose him with regularity.

Moving forward, there could be more than three Americans at Tijuana covering themselves in glory south of the border, if Xolos can achieve their goals for next season.

Alejandro Guido and Stevie Rodriguez train every day with the first team and, with so many games in 2013 for the club, will be hoping to make next year their breakthrough year.

“I think that if they have patience, they can become very good players,” said Corona. “I’m always trying to help them out with what I’ve learned. I’m not saying I’m like an experienced player, but I am closer to their age.”

The Xolos bandwagon, with its Americans very much onboard, looks set to roll on into 2013, and beyond.

Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America. E-mail him at tom.marshall.mex@gmail.com.