GUADALAJARA, Mexico – A year ago, Club Tijuana's boasts about becoming Southern California's team and becoming a major force in Mexican soccer seemed almost foolish. Los Xoloitzcuintles were flirting with disaster in a dismal first season in the top flight and it almost seemed like their Primera División adventure would come to a swift end.
Fast-forward 12 months and the fog has lifted. And Tijuana's trio of Americans has been instrumental in a first-place start and a deep run in the Copa MX. Edgar Castillo (above, right), Joe Corona (above, left) and Greg Garza see a bright future for the club – perhaps even a shot at qualifying for the Copa Libertadores.
It's a perfect parallel for the Three Amigos, whose own careers were stalled out just 12 months ago.
Corona was struggling to cement his place at Tijuana, Castillo was having a hard time finding his feet within the monster that is Club América and Garza was out of contract after unsuccessful trials with teams in Sweden and Norway.
Since then, San Diego native Corona has become a key ingredient in the Tijuana first 11, starting seven of the team's eight league games so far. He's almost become the Xolos’ poster boy, having grown up on both sides of the border and enjoyed a meteoric rise from San Diego State, to the Liga MX, to regular call-ups for the US national team – all within three years.
“Since the team moved up into the first division, the president expressed to us a lot that they didn't just aim to stay in the first division, but wanted to be one of those big teams," Corona explained to MLSsoccer.com, "and I think we all bought into that."
The 22-year-old (at right) has more than played his part and is possibly in the form of his life right now. His intelligent movement, touch, technique and impeccable temperament should all mean that this is only the start of a long and successful career.
“I'm pretty happy with my level of soccer right now and I have a lot of confidence,” added Corona, who is also itching for minutes with the USMNT.
Corona and Castillo have become good friends since the latter joined the club last winter, but it is easy to forget that Castillo had been written off by many both sides of the border before he joined Tijuana.
“I'm living the same story as at Santos [Laguna],” Castillo, who burst onto the Liga MX scene in 2007 with the Guerreros, stressed to MLSsoccer.com. “Tijuana is not a very big club like América, but we are a good club. I'm more relaxed on that side.”
The 25-year-old Castillo has also become a vital part of Tijuana coach Antonio Mohamed's plans. “El Turco” has a reputation for being somewhat of a tinkerer, alternating between four and five at the back and one or two strikers. But Castillo has been a constant and provides a key outlet on the left flank regardless of formation, which allows for fast, precise counters – a feature of Tijuana's play.
“Mohamed knows I'm an outlet for speed and to take guys one-on-one,” the New Mexico native said. “He's a very good coach and he knows how to change his team around, but I'm always there, and I thank God for that.”
Castillo's success on the left has made it more difficult for left back Garza to get playing time in the league, but the 21-year-old Dallas-area native has kept the pressure on by impressing as a regular in the domestic cup competition and has deputized well when Castillo has been absent.
“With the chances I've been given this year, I've really shown myself to the club and the coaches,” Garza (at right), who is hoping to stay at the club for the foreseeable future, told MLSsoccer.com.
The success of the Copa MX side has also proved vital in maintaining competition amongst the players, with the depth the club has at left back with Castillo and Garza being replicated in many areas of the field.
There also seems to be a bit of a bubble, us-against-the-world mentality surrounding Club Tijuana that has helped them.
Tijuana is so geographically distant from the rest of the Liga MX that a bus trip to the club's nearest rival, Torreón-based Santos Laguna, takes about the same amount of time as it would to get from Tijuana to Seattle. That creates a sense that Club Tijuana are very much on the outside of Mexican fútbol, looking in.
The team travels to away games two days before the fixture to make sure the players are slightly more adapted to the altitude and climate of some of the different venues in Mexico. The extended time away from home has obviously brought the team closer, but Garza highlights the need for him and his teammates to be ultra-fit considering they live at sea level and have to travel to the altitude of places like Toluca (8,200 feet) and the sweltering humidity of Cancún.
It was with that in mind, the team opted not to go and play friendlies in the United States during the international break, like certain other Mexican first-division teams, but instead endured a mini-preseason of endurance work at the beach.
Mohamed's hard-work message has filtered down to his players.
“Everybody runs, everybody sacrifices themselves for the other players and that’s very important for the team,” said Corona. “It's one of the most important reasons why we are top of the league right now.”
It's a tough ask for Tijuana to go on to become champions, with the leading group of Santos Laguna, Monterrey, América and Tigres seemingly starting to wake up after slow starts. Castillo has been there and done it, though. He won the 2008 Clausura tournament with Santos Laguna and believes the Tijuana team has the necessary ingredients to push for the Apertura 2012 title.
“I think we can do it,” he said. “If we keep playing the same way and our team stays together. I have respect and love for Tijuana. I dream about becoming champions here with Tijuana. That'd be the sickest thing.”
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.