CARSON, Calif. – Joe Corona realized Club Tijuana's reach across the border soon after he joined the Xoloitzcuintles nearly a decade ago, after starring at San Diego State.
The Xolos were Mexico's northernmost city's first big soccer club, after a series of minor-league outfits, and their Masacre supporters' group drew as strongly north of the border as in Baja California.
“Playing in Tijuana, you would expect to only be recognized down in Tijuana,” Corona, who moved from the Liga MX club to the LA Galaxy in March, told MLSsoccer.com after LA's 3-1 triumph in Friday night's El Trafico showdown with LAFC. “But sometimes I was with my family in San Diego having some dinner, and a lot of people would come up to you and be Xolos fans. It was nice.”
Club Tijuana “are San Diego's team,” he said. “We know they have a huge fan base in San Diego, they're definitely a team that has grown, their fan base [comes from] the whole region, not just in Mexico, but in the US. And of course, they are also fighting for those fans in Southern California.”
That might seem to raise the stakes a bit, maybe for supremacy in the region, when the Xolos visit the Galaxy on Tuesday, the opening night of the new eight-team Leagues Cup tournament that's pitting Major League Soccer sides against Liga MX clubs.
There's a history between the clubs. Tijuana prevailed on aggregate after each won home legs in a Concacaf Champions League quarterfinal five years ago, and they've faced off three times during MLS's preseason, the first time in 2011 and most recently in 2016.
Are these clubs actual rivals?
“I don't know if it's a rivalry,” said defender Daniel Steres, who was playing at San Diego State when the Xolos were promoted to Mexico's top division in 2011. “I think there's going to be a lot of people from Southern California, whether they're from San Diego or Orange County, that are maybe a little bit split on this game [and] who they're rooting for. We'll see. We'll see what this game brings, what the crowd's like.”
How each team approaches the match – and the perception of that among the fans – could determine how vibrant a crowd shows up at Dignity Health Sports Park. Both are coming off big wins Friday, Tijuana’s in their Apertura opener at Puebla, and have league games again Saturday.
“We are going to play in four days [at Portland], so maybe we have to give some minutes to players [that are] looking for the opportunity to play, but it's not easy,” Galaxy head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “We've got a lot of injuries.
Full Leagues Cup
“But we need to try to put on the field the beast team we can and try to beat Tijuana. ... The more important thing we need to get now is [qualifying for MLS's] playoffs. But we are the Galaxy, we have games for a new tournament, and you need to go to the field and try to win.”
Whether it's a rivalry game is open for discussion.
“I don't think it's gotten to that point, to be honest,” Corona said. “We are two teams that are very close together, but I think there's got to be a little more. Maybe of of these competitions can make it a big rivalry.”