TIJUANA, Mexico – Belief is a mighty thing, and Joe Corona says that's all Club Tijuana required to overcome León in the Liga MX semifinals on Sunday. And the Xoloitzcuintles needed a good dose of it, too, after three coulda-woulda-shoulda opportunities went for naught in the first half-hour or so.
It led to a goal just before halftime, another midway through the second half and a third in the 90th minute, and once the Xolos survived a tense five minutes of stoppage time, they were right where they believed they could be, even if nobody else thought it was possible.
The thrilling 3-0 triumph over León erased a two-goal deficit from Thursday's first leg and sent Tijuana, in just their third half-season campaign since reaching Mexico's top league for the first time, to the Liga MX championship against Toluca.
“Nobody in Mexico believed that we were going to be in the final, in the championship game,” said Corona, the Los Angeles-born, San Diego-bred midfielder who was stationed behind the top three for the first hour. “It's due to everybody's dream. [All of us were] dreaming since preseason, and I think this is something we always kept in our minds. It's important to want things.”
Tijuana, who have lost just twice (both to León) in 21 games during the Apertura, were on the front foot all night, pinning the Esmeraldas in their end virtually the entire game.
Corona nearly provided a third-minute lead, but Pablo César Aguilar's header across the goalmouth was just off-target, and referee Marco Antonio Rodríguez ignored a clear hand ball in the box by León center back Juan González in the 25th minute. Then Fernando Arce beat three defenders in the box before goalkeeper Christian Martínez's superb save denied him in the 31st.
“I thought Pablo was going to hit it toward the goal, but when he centered it, it was a little behind,” said Corona, one of two US national-teamers – along with left back Edgar Castillo – in the Tijuana lineup. “We knew we had to keep going. We were putting them under pressure and we never gave up, and that was something very important.”
Fidel Martínez finished a tremendous sequence in the 43rd minute, and Duvier Riascos netted the all-important second goal – a 2-2 aggregate tie would send Tijuana through as the higher seed – in the 68th minute. Richard Ruiz added a breakaway strike in the 90th, and goalkeeper Cirilo Saucedo tipped away a Luis Delgado header in stoppage time to preserve the advantage.
“We came out with a lot of intensity,” Corona said. “We knew we had to score two goals; good thing that first goal came in the first half. We knew we had time to score the second goal, and we had three.”
The Xolos, whose rabid crowd includes a healthy number of fans from north of the border, will be at home for Thursday's first leg in the final, with the second leg next Sunday, Dec. 2, at Toluca. What do they need to do to claim the trophy?
“Take care of business first game here,” Corona said. “I think we can come out like we did today, or even better, and try to get an advantage for it won't be as hard [at Toluca].”