CARSON, Calif. – The burgeoning rivalry between the LA Galaxy and Club Tijuana might be more about cultural talk than anything else at this point, but it's still a special matchup for three of the Xoloitzcuintles' American contingent.
Herculez Gomez (above) made his breakthrough with the Galaxy nine years ago, Paul Arriola nearly signed with LA last year and Joe Corona grew up a Galaxy fan. Now they're looking to take down the club in Wednesday's first leg of the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals at StubHub Center (10 pm ET, Fox Soccer Plus).
“The Galaxy is near and dear to my heart, because they opened the doors to me in my professional career and they gave me a chance when I wanted to continue or when I wanted to start this career of mine,” said Gomez, the team MVP when LA won the 2005 MLS Cup title.
“I was there for, wow, 2002 all the way to 2006, and I spent quite a bit of time either on the bench or the playing field and getting familiar with the locker rooms, got to experience finals and championships. ... I have so many great memories.”
The Los Angeles-born, Las Vegas-raised Gomez (right), who has made seven starts and featured in all 10 Xolos games this year without a goal, was with the Galaxy when they moved into what was then called The Home Depot Center in 2003, and he calls the venue “a special stadium.”
“I was fortunate enough to score a lot of goals in that stadium, and I have a lot of great memories in that stadium, and one of the best years of my life was spent in that stadium,” he said. “It's going to be special, it's gonna be fun, but even more [it's about] where I am today, and that plays a huge role.”
Corona, like Gomez part of the US national team player pool, was born in Los Angeles, raised south of San Diego, and joined Tijuana following his junior season at San Diego State.
“It's going to be very exciting for me having my family and a lot of people [I know] watch me play against the team that I followed growing up,” Corona said. “And now I have teammates from the national team that play there, so it's going to be fun in a lot of ways.”
The 19-year-old Arriola (right, while playing for the Galaxy Academy) considers the Galaxy-Tijuana rivalry “a big deal,” even if this is the first competitive meeting between clubs about 125 miles apart.
“I think this is something that is just the beginning of a derby that will go on for a while between LA and Tijuana,” he said. “I'm looking forward to playing against the people that I used to practice with, that I used to train with, that I'm very familiar with.”
He also thinks the timing of the match, with the Xolos two months into their season and the Galaxy just four days beyond their opener, gives Tijuana a massive advantage.
“I know from last year when I was with LA in preseason, as soon as the season was about to start, everyone was kind of rushing in,” Arriola said. “The preseason was kind of rushed because they knew they had to play Monterrey [in the semifinals after toppling Costa Rica's Herediano in the quarterfinals] in the first couple of weeks, so they have to find the rhythm as soon as possible.”
Gomez, who has nine career CCL goals for Santos Laguna and Tijuana, isn't so sure about that.
“The Galaxy are no stranger to this competition,” said the veteran forward, who has suggested Tijuana – without stars the likes of Robbie Keane or Landon Donovan – come into the series as underdogs. “It is an advantage maybe that they're going for their fourth tournament in a row and this our first in Champions League. Or that we're pretty tired from a hectic schedule and they're going to be fresh.
“I've been around this tournament more than once, and I’ve seen 3-0 leads on the road slip away very easily due to away goals, so I understand that everything else – all these rules. all these ideas of advantages, who has the edge and whatnot – go out the window once the game is being played.”