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Direct from Tijuana

Club Tijuana Takes on the Champions of the World

Jon Arnold witnessed Club Tijuana's 1-0 victory over Corinthians in the Copa Libertadores. He found a city in love with its team and on the brink of an important transformation.
BY Jon Arnold Posted
March 07, 2013
1:59 PM
TIJUANA, Mexico—This city is an unlikely one to play host to the champions of the world.

It’s not that Tijuana isn’t known on the international stage; it’s that its reputation is more raunchy than respectable. But a beloved young soccer team is changing that perception, assisting the transition from tourist haven to a city with its own local culture.

The Xolos' meteoric rise to a Mexican championship last season brought world champion Corinthians, a squad that had its own improbable run to win the Club World Cup in December, to the border. Tijuana is the northernmost possible destination in Copa Libertadores, the South American version of the Champions League that also invites three Mexican teams annually.

The venue, Estadio Caliente, in the middle of a revamp that matches the city's, but right now it boasts only the most basic of facilities. The surface makes Veterans Stadium look like the Emirates. Still, with improvements around the stadium coming quickly and the club usually selling out its matches, there’s no doubt that this is by design. The home players know exactly what kind of strange bounces to expect on the turf while the Brazilians struggled to cope.

In fact, the least surprising thing about Corinthians visit to Baja California is that it ended with a 1-0 loss for the Brazilian club Wednesday. That’s the way things have gone for Xolos since the club’s inception just six years ago.

In its typical style Tijuana didn’t stand down at all against tall opposition, with captain Javier Gandolfi setting a physical tone early that his club matched throughout the night. Tijuana was characteristically quick on the counter attack and found passing lanes open for a through ball on multiple occasions. The goal would come from a set piece that looked as though the offside flag could’ve been raised initially. The goalkeeper fumbled the ball near his goal line and Gandolfi knocked it in. While the Brazilians showed some of their noted ball skills and had several opportunities, Tijuana was able to spring an offside trap or rely on goalkeeper Cirilo Saucedo for a save. Despite the confidence demonstrated on the pitch, there were moments when some players paused to take in the fact that they were about to beat a team with the title of best club in the world.

“Of course. We knew who we were playing,” midfielder Joe Corona said after the match. “We were very excited for this game. Not a lot of players have the opportunity to play a team like this, and we were just convinced that we could win here at home. I’m glad we got those three points.”

The team did miss the width Edgar Castillo provides at left back. The American was absent after sustaining facial fractures in the team’s most recent Liga MX match. While there was sometimes a gap on the left side where Castillo pushes up on the left wing, Joshua Ábrego filled in admirably and didn’t lack chemistry with the back line.

“Edgar, he’s a great player,” Corona said. “He does a lot for this team. He supports a lot. But I think Joshua did a great job tonight.”

Greg Garza made his own return from injury Wednesday. Playing in his first match since getting hurt in the Liga MX playoffs in December, Garza came on late to lock down the left side as Xolos killed off the match late, withstanding several opportunities in the last 10 minutes.

This victory puts Tijuana in an even more improbable situation. After taking all nine points from three Copa Libertadores matches, including a road win against Colombian giants Millonarios, the Xolos are all but through to the next round of the tournament. Still, the players aren't resting. There's too much work to do.

“The team has been doing great. We’ve been solid at the back," Corona said. "I think when we’ve had our chances we’ve finished well. We haven’t advanced to the next round, and we’ve got to keep working.”

Jon Arnold (@ArnoldcommaJon) is a writer based in Arizona and is ASN's CONCACAF correspondent.

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