GUADALAJARA, Mexico — The international crossing between Tijuana and San Ysidro, Calif., isn’t just the busiest border checkpoint in the world, where more than 50 million people per year pass through by autombile or on foot. It is a conduit for trade, ideas and culture between Mexico and the United States and vice versa.
Inevitably, that exchange between Southern California and Baja California also involves soccer players. Joe Benny Corona, the 21-year-old American-born winger, is currently riding the crest of a wave just across the border at Club Tijuana.
“I was born in Los Angeles, then moved to Tijuana where I went to elementary school and then when I was 10 or 11 moved to San Diego where I continued my education,” Corona explained to MLSsoccer.com by phone on Tuesday from Tijuana. “Then I came back to Tijuana.”
How glad Club Tijuana are that Corona ended up south side of the border playing for the recently promoted team. Corona grabbed the club’s first-ever goal as a Primera División team last month, then scored his second in the next game and was a starter last weekend when Tijuana came from behind to beat Santos Laguna 3-1.
It has been a great start to the season for Corona, enabling him to describe the decision to give up his scholarship at San Diego State University after his freshman year to join Club Tijuana as “probably the best in my life.”
However, it also sounds like it was one of the most difficult, and Corona wrestled with the pros and cons of which side of the border he should continue his fledgling career.
“I talked to my friends, my family,” explained Corona. “They thought I should stay in school and it was, [on paper], the best decision. Over here, I had to start from scratch but I thought, 'You know what, I’m going to go for it.'”
After debuting in the Liga de Ascenso in May 2010, Corona quickly established himself on Tijuana’s right wing, although his favorite position is playing as an attacking midfielder behind the strikers. Despite the influx of new signings in the offseason following Tijuana’s promotion, Corona has consolidated his place in the first team this season.
The impact he has made can be seen by looking at the Tijuana website. The homepage is currently an advertisement using a photo of Corona celebrating a goal. It invites Californians to come to the game against Puebla on Sunday. This comes after the club explicitly stated last week its desire to become a regional club and that the region extends into Southern California.
“Now that Tijuana is in the first division, it’s something very big,” said Corona. “San Diegans feel it is their team also. Every game, thousands come across the border to watch the Xolos.”
Although Tijuana’s Estadio Caliente is situated just 10 minutes from the international border, Corona, who grew up a Chivas fan like his father, believes there are marked playing styles each side of the border.
“There is a big difference [between soccer styles in the US and Mexico],” said Corona. “College soccer is a physical game. In Mexico, it is a little bit more technical. I think my soccer fits in better with the Mexican style.”
Excited by the growth in US soccer in recent years, Corona thinks the US soccer system could take a tip or two from the Mexican league where reserve teams, Under-20 and Under-17 squads often travel with the first team to play games against other clubs’ respective teams.
“I see that in college, they are very educated players, but they’re no soccer players, you get it?” said Corona. “I think colleges use a very different type of soccer than the pros.”
The thorny issue of national teams has raised its head for Corona recently thanks to his excellent form and news he put on ice attempts by the El Salvador federation to get him to play for its national side. Corona is in the fortunate but potentially explosive situation of having a Mexican father, a Salvadoran mother and being born in the United States, thus making him eligible for three national teams.
Strong rumors have reached him recently suggesting the US national team set-up has been peeping over into Tijuana to keep an eye on the young star.
“[The rumors about the US scouting me] are a motivation for me to keep working and someday have the three national teams fighting over me,” enthused Corona.
The 21-year-old admits that, right now, Mexico would be his preferred choice, followed by the United States and then El Salvador but, if all three come calling, an extremely difficult decision would present itself.
Explained Corona: “It’s going to be very similar to the decision I took when deciding on San Diego State or coming here to Tijuana. When the time comes, it will be a very difficult decision — but it’s something I really want to do, to play at international level and play on a national team. Hopefully I can be in that position where I have to decide.”
One positive for the US is that Corona is excited about the appointment of Jurgen Klinsmann as national team boss of the United States.
“He puts his idea on the table and I think he has a clear vision of what the national team can be and can really improve it,” said a talkative Corona. “He’s said he wants to help out the MLS system, too. I think he’s going to do a lot of good for the US national team.”
For Wednesday night’s friendly between the US and Mexico, Corona got together with his Tijuana teammates, who regularly tease him about his American background and often call him names.
“It’s in a friendly way, though!” he explained. “It’s funny, I just laugh.”
If he continues with his current form, it isn’t outrageous to suggest Corona could be involved in the next US-Mexico duel. The only question for the San Diegan-turned-Tijuanense is which team’s colors he’ll be wearing.
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter: @mexicoworldcup