Miguel “Piojo” Herrera set the bar quite high for himself when he was first introduced as Xolos manager in October 2015.
“We come here wanting to bring many titles to Tijuana,” said Herrera. “The commitment is to have a winning team, create wins, and of course, championships. We want to see our people celebrating titles.”
To be fair, it would have been surprising to see the energetic and enthusiastic coach not be hyperbolic. The 48-year-old is an embodiment of emotion and passion. If he were to say “I’ll hope to improve the struggling team,” that perhaps would have raised more eyebrows than stating that he will amass many titles.
It was an exciting statement from a manager who had already won a Liga MX championship with America in the 2013 Clausura and a Gold Cup title with Mexico in the 2015 Gold Cup. Herrera’s high hopes and larger-than-life persona appeared perfect for the Tijuana side that finished in second-to-last place during the previous season.
With Herrera in charge, Xolos suddenly appeared like a true threat in the Liga MX.
Last Friday was my eighth trip down to the Estadio Caliente.
The stadium is 20.8 miles away from my front door, but any San Diego resident would laugh at the idea of arriving in Tijuana in less than an hour on a Friday evening. I once left at 5:00 p.m. for a 7:30 p.m. kickoff and nearly missed the match I was supposed to cover.
After passing through the sluggish crawl of cars at the border, I make my way over to the stadium.
Hours before the game, music and barbecue smoke-filled the air in the Estadio Caliente parking lot. With a significant portion of supporters driving down from the U.S. every other week to catch the matches, there is always a beautiful interlacing of Mexican and American culture on display when fans tailgate before games. There’s beer, dozens of bandas, and of course, plenty of carne asada being grilled.
I’ll be honest for a second. Sometimes I hate myself when I’m waiting in traffic to cross the border. It’s normal to feel flustered while sitting in a long line of cars with thousands of other Americans making their way down south. Yet, without fail, on those couple of occasions that I seriously second-guessed my recent decision to cover Club Tijuana, it all immediately melted away when I arrived at the parking lot tailgate.
With the intoxicating festivity of food and music, it was also easy to forget that Xolos had yet to win a game at home in the Clausura.
Last week’s match against Puebla was the final opportunity for Herrera to gain a victory in the Estadio Caliente. After plenty of hype regarding the arrival of the former Mexican national team manager, Los Xolos collected a mere 16 points after 15 games and were slowly falling down the league table.
With a spot in the playoffs out of the question, Herrera and Tijuana only had a battle of dignity left to fight for. At the very least, the team owed one home win to the fans who constantly packed the stadium for every single match. If Xolos finished the game without a win, it would be the first time in the history of the club that the team finished the first-division season without a victory at the Estadio Caliente.
Minutes before kickoff, La Masakr3, Xolos’ supporters group, slowly made their way into their seats behind one of the goals. The group of at least 300 die-hard fans always make a big entrance before games with music, singing, and the occasional small firework. Last Friday, they seemed to be louder than ever.
With La Masakr3 in full force and both squads warmed up, the match was soon underway.
Here is where I wish I could have some sort of fairy-tale ending. A Xolos victory in the last home game of the tournament would have been perfect and a silver-lining in an underwhelming Clausura for Tijuana. Unfortunately, after 90 minutes of futbol, Xolos finished the match with a 0-0 draw against Puebla.
I do my best to be unbiased when it comes to Liga MX coverage, but I found myself hoping for each late Xolos attempt to go in. I felt pain after every miss and even felt a bit frustrated after the final whistle blew. I could only imagine what it was like to be a fan for the entire Clausura.
After the match, Herrera appeared to sympathize with the supporters as well.
“We are sad and embarrassed with them because, like I’ve always said, the fans come and do their part and we fail to do ours on the field,” said Herrera.
However, even with no wins at home and without a spot in the playoffs, the situation didn’t feel negative or dire in the Estadio Caliente. Yes, Xolos will likely take part in the relegation race next year, but many of the fans still appeared to be in full support of the struggling team. People still laughed and sang as they exited the stadium and there was a sense that they would continue to do so next season, no matter what the scoreline looked like.
During the 42nd minute, La Masakr3 revealed a tifo that was nearly 70 yards wide. On the banner was a message in Spanish that stated that La Masakr3 and the fans would be “always faithful.”
After the game had ended, members of the Xolos starting roster walked over to the section which held the banner and began to applaud.
One thing that has been overlooked is the fact that Herrera experimented with his starting XI last Friday. 22-year-old Gibran Lajud, 20-year-old American Amando Moreno, and 19-year-old American John Requejo were all surprise additions to the roster. It’s also key to note that the match also marked the Liga MX debut for the young Requejo. It might have been too little too late from Herrera, but it was a positive sign that the manager was willing to make drastic changes.
Herrera still has one more game to play before the end of his first tournament with Tijuana. Win or lose, the manager might feel bittersweet when he recognizes that Xolos currently have one more point gained than last season. One more point, or possibly four if he defeats Atlas on Saturday, is not the significant progress that Herrera promised, but it could be the first of many steps in the right direction that could lead to a title.
If the fans still have faith in Herrera and the team after all of these troubles, perhaps we should as well.