In the midst of a celebratory night at Estadio Caliente, there was a unmistakable bond on display between two neighboring cities.
Those cities are Tijuana and San Diego. In between them lies the Mexican-American border. On the southern side exists Club Tijuana, commonly known as the Xolos, a Liga MX soccer team that has given something immensely special to the people of Tijuana while also garnering thousands of fans on the northern side. Their club motto of “El Equipo Sin Fronteras” (the team without borders) has become an even more important and powerful message in the face of our current cultural climate.
On Friday, Xolos played their 200th match at their home ground. It was the home opener of the Clausura season and the match came just days after the club celebrated their 10 year anniversary, being founded in 2007 as a second division club before being promoted in 2011 and shocking the masses by winning their first top flight championship the very next year. After a wild season in the Apertura of 2016 that saw Xolos finish the regular season in first place, only to be knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by Leon, fans from both sides of the border were beyond anxious to get back to the ground they love so much and start anew.
Banners reading “10 anos de lealtad” (10 years of loyalty) lined the walls of the stadium. “La Masacre”, the club’s fervent supporters section positioned behind the south goal, waved red, black, and white checkered flags and dawned a large tifo commemorating the tenth anniversary. There was ample pride on display, a showing of gratitude for the first decade of Club Tijuana. Then came the opening whistle, and an unadulterated desire to trounce the opposition. Xolos did just that.
After a lackluster performance in the season opener, a 2-0 loss on the road in Michaocan to the Monarcas of Morelia, Xolos absolutely walloped Puebla on Friday to the tune of 6-2.
As if the jubilant vibes of the victory and anniversary party weren’t enough, there was some beautiful symbolism from between the lines of the Puebla pummeling that applied perfectly to the club’s “sin fronteras” mentality.
Two of the goalscorers on the night for Xolos were Paul Arriola and Joe Corona. Both men are natives of San Diego County. Both men have represented the United States National Team.
Arriola was born and raised in Chula Vista and attended Mater Dei Catholic High School. After a promising spell in the youth ranks of the Los Angeles Galaxy, Arriola chose to sign professionally with Xolos in 2013. He calls Club Tijuana his “hometown team”, and routinely cites the ability to live at home in Chula Vista as one of the main factors in his decision to stick with the club. Despite not starting a single game last season, Arriola has shown an unbridled determination in a Tijuana kit, all while scoring goals and gaining recognition with the U.S. National Team.
Tijuana Manager Miguel Herrera has rewarded the 21 year old speedster with back to back starts to open the 2017 Clausura. Arriola and just about all of his teammates were singing off key in the opening loss to Morelia. The side’s performance changed drastically when Xolos returned home, Arriola serving as a prime example.
The pacey youngster had a roller coaster of a game, giving away a penalty in the 41st minute that led to a Puebla equalizer before sending Aviles Hurtado through on goal moments later with an audacious long ball, Hurtado’s delightful chip giving Xolos a 2-1 lead and helping to drastically change Herrera’s half-time team talk.
Shortly into the second half, moments after Puebla had tied the score at two, Arriola found himself in a rather uncommon position. As a cross from the left attacking wing was headed out, Arriola was creeping in from his customary, chalk-lined home on the right flank. The defensive header looped toward him, Arriola taking one controlling touch just off the top right corner of the eighteen yard box. With his momentum carrying into his next touch, the ever energetic Arriola swung through on a half volley and unleashed a blistering drive to the upper-left corner of the goal that gave Puebla keeper Cristian Campestrini no chance to touch.
On an evening filled with brilliant finishing, Arriola’s goal (which gave Xolos a lead they would not relinquish) surely took the cake as the play of the night.
It was just Arriola’s third league goal in a Xolos uniform. Known primarily for his speed and crossing ability, it seemed a fitting night for Arriola to find his shooting boots.
After the match, I asked Arriola if he’d ever struck a ball that cleanly before.
“Honestly,” he said with a bright smile, “I don’t think so.”
As for the other local lad…
Joe Corona was born in Los Angeles before moving to Tijuana as a young child, spending ample time on soccer fields on both sides of the border. He always considered himself a San Diegan, and after moving back across the frontera, Corona was a star at Sweetwater High School in National City and subsequently played a season on scholarship for the Aztecs of San Diego State University.
Corona signed with Xolos as a youth player in 2009, making his senior debut in 2010. He became the first Xolos youth product to score for the senior team when Xolos were still in the second divison, and Corona will forever be known as the man who scored the first top flight goal in Club Tijuana history against Morelia in 2011.
As his international career progressed, Corona became a stalwart in the Xolos squad. He helped Xolos win a championship in 2012, and was always beloved by the local supporters who saw him as truly one of their own.
Then came the speed-bumps. A loss of form led to a difficult loan spell at Veracruz in 2015 followed by another loan out in 2016, this time to the second division with the Dorados of Sinaloa, where Corona rediscovered his form and helped the golden fish win the Liga Ascenso Apertura title.
Fans were ecstatic to hear that Corona was returning to Xolos for the 2017 Clausura, completing what many saw as an overdue homecoming. Miguel Herrera of course has little interest in the sentimental side of Corona’s return to Tijuana, and sees him as someone who could play a major role for his side this season.
With Xolos holding a 3-2 lead in the 63rd minute of the match against Puebla, Herrera used his first substitution to bring Corona into the game. It was a raucous atmosphere at Estadio Caliente, but even with Arriola’s golazo, Hurtado’s chip, Milton Caraglio’s bicycle kick that made the score 4-2, and all sorts of additional craziness, the announcement of Joe Corona’s name was met with one of the loudest cheers of the night.
Moments later, Corona found himself through on goal with just the keeper to beat, only to be taken down from behind just outside the penalty area by Puebla’s Robert Herrera. The last man challenge saw the Puebla defender receive a straight red, and from the ensuing free-kick, Tijuana’s Victor Malcorra put an exquisitely curled effort up and over the wall and into the back of the net to make the score 5-2.
No more than a minute after the sweet set-piece finish, Malcorra was clean through with a chance to net his brace. His shot was saved by Campestrini, the ensuing rebound bouncing off a Puebla defender and seemingly sitting on a silver platter at the top of the six. Streaking in with intent was Joe Corona. The hometown hero arrived and calmly slotted it home, making the score 6-2 and adding to the bedlam. There was a genuine, palpable happiness floating around the stadium as Corona received congratulatory hugs from his teammates.
(Here’s a look at the moment from inside the broadcast booth in Tijuana.)
— Nate Abaurrea (@NateAbaurrea) January 16, 2017
— Joe Corona (@JoeCorona15) January 16, 2017
It just felt right that Corona would get a goal, albeit a tap in, on this celebratory night for the club. It was just as satisfying on a personal level, Corona grabbing a goal in his fist game back in front of his adoring Tijuana fans.
After a wild night in the broadcast booth, I had conversations with Corona and Arriola after the match, focusing mostly on what their roles in the on-field success of Xolos mean to the culture of the club on both sides of the border.
“It feels nice,” said Arriola, “it feels really nice.”
“We are like homegrown kids, and when one of us scores a goal, people get that sense of pride. That’s the type of feeling I have for San Diego. I have so much pride in where I’m from, and I hope to continue to help connect all of San Diego with Tijuana through the Xolos.”
When talking to Corona, we touched on the fact that his goal against Puebla meant he was the man who scored the first top flight goal for Xolos, and the most recent one.
“I love it,” he said with a laugh. “Being a historic player for this club is great. Tonight, I’m just happy we won. That was the main objective. But to score in the game commemorating the tenth anniversary, that just makes everything even more special.”
Corona went on to discuss the bond between San Diego and Tijuana, and the desire from the public for top flight soccer.
“I think this club has done a very good job in getting both cities connected. I think players like me and Paul being from San Diego helps grow the fan base even more. There’s not a first division team in San Diego. There’s not a MLS team for them to support, and there’s a lot of soccer fans in San Diego that want to come and watch a first division game. There are big teams that play us here, prestigious teams in a top league. That’s big for the fans, for the people. I think you could definitely call Xolos a San Diego and TJ team.”
In regards to the thousands of young kids supporting Club Tijuana, both Arriola and Corona had some inspiring words.
“For local kids who aspire to play professional soccer,” said Arriola, “players like me and Joe being on this team can help show them and their families that it’s possible. That’s an awesome feeling.”
Corona echoed that sentiment, expanding on the fact that for the final fifteen minutes of the game, there were not only the two San Diegans, but three Southern Californians who are all U.S. Internationals on the pitch, the other being defender Michael Orozco.
“Xolos has always been a team that’s been identified as having a strong American presence. We’re so close to the border. It makes things interesting. I think it’s a way of inviting a lot of kids that live and play soccer on the other side of the border to come and play for Xolos. They know that it’s possible to find professional soccer here, and to be able to play in a first division team.”
“It also just feels great for me to be able to play with guys like Paul and Michael. Knowing that you have players from your national team together with you at your club, it’s really a special feeling.”
As the 2017 Clausura carries on, and Xolos commence with the next decade of their young existence, all fans in close proximity to Estadio Caliente can find pride and satisfaction in the exploits of Arriola and Corona. However, there is only one thing that will truly satisfy those players when it comes to their contributions to Los Xoloitzcuintles. That is bringing home another championship. For Tijuana. For San Diego. A championship without borders.