Xolos were desperate for a miracle last Saturday.
With a 3-0 loss to Leon in the first leg of the quarterfinals, Tijuana was already nearly out of the playoffs before the start of the second leg. Xolos needed a 3-0 win of their own, and if Leon scored in the Estadio Caliente, the home side would then have to win by five or more goals.
With little chance to sneak into the next round, it came as no surprise when there was a subdued mood beforehand.
Xolos supporters, who usually fill the Tijuana stronghold in every match, were slow to arrive for the weekend’s final leg of the quarterfinals. Other than La Masakr3, Xolos’ die-hard fan group, it was difficult to spot very many local aficionados who were visibly animated or excited for the game.
However, that lack of zeal and passion quickly vanished after kick-off.
In an atypical 5-2-3 formation, Tijuana startled Leon with heavy pressure during the early stages of the match. Damian Perez and Juan Carlos Nuñez, who were playing as wing-backs, provided plenty of attacking movement and support for options like Aviles Hurtado and Dayro Moreno.
Xolos were relentless with their pressure, and even after Miguel “Piojo” Herrera and a coaching assistant were unexpectedly sent off in the eighth minute, Tijuana continued to push forward. In fact, after another red was shown to Juninho in the 16th minute, the squad was suddenly filled with more motivation to take risks and advance up the field.
Without Herrera, a coaching assistant, and Juninho, Xolos somehow found themselves with a 3-0 lead by halftime. Goals from Moreno, Yasser Corona and Guido Rodriguez were piled in against a Leon side that couldn’t do much to halt Tijuana’s eager attack.
The stadium, which was understandably quiet before the goals, responded with each chance that found the back of the net. Although the Estadio Caliente was just short of a sell-out, the fans had never been louder after Xolos scored the third goal in the 43rd minute.
Following a well-placed shot from Rodriguez that gave Tijuana the 3-0 lead, the crowd erupted into a frenzy. Thousands of beer-filled cups were thrown into the air by the supporters who had never anticipated the historic comeback that Xolos were chasing.
With the three goals needed to find a spot in the next round, the stadium began to buzz with enthusiasm from fans who were witnessing one of the most incredible performances from Tijuana’s squad.
Unfortunately, after 36 minutes of defensive futbol from Xolos in the 2nd half, Mauro Boselli scored Leon’s first goal of the game in the 81st minute. Almost immediately afterwards, Luis Montes then added in the second in the 84th minute.
Tijuana was stunned.
After the second goal from Leon, it was clear that the match was over. Despite the heroics from Xolos in the first 80 minutes, the two late opportunities from Los Panzas Verdes meant that Tijuana would need to score three times in just five minutes. Thousands of fans, who were justifiably more worried about the traffic than the chances of an unlikely comeback, quickly piled out of the stadium during the last handful of minutes.
Without an 11th player and a manager, Xolos eventually went on to beat Leon 3-2 at home, but it wasn’t enough to compensate for the previous three goals allowed in the first leg. Through an aggregate loss of 5-3, Los Panzas Verdes knocked out the roster that had finished at the top of the league table.
Although the omission from the semifinals is tough for many local fans to digest, they should still be proud of the team that was able to exceed expectations through a spot at first place in the regular season. If the organization is able to hold onto many key players, and Herrera, there is no reason why Tijuana shouldn’t be a strong candidate for next year’s Clausura title.
A few worrisome spots in defense will need to be assessed, but as is, Xolos would still be one of the more exciting clubs in Mexico without any changes. Until then, the roster will need to regroup and rest before the start of next tournament.
In just a matter of weeks, this entire thrilling process will restart, and Tijuana will have another opportunity to fight for a title when the 2017 Clausura kicks off in January.