It was all about a sense of true grit inside Estadio Caliente on Wednesday night, with some distinctly local flavor sprinkled into the mix.
The Xolos of Club Tijuana sent the Aguilas of Club America crashing out of the Copa MX with a 1-0 victory in a tight, tense, and extremely physical round of 16 affair in front of a capacity crowd of 27,333.
Chula Vista native and Xolos fan favorite Paul Arriola scored the game’s only goal in the 29th minute, a clean finish in a 1 v. 1 situation against America goalkeeper Augustin Marchesin. After narrowly beating the America offside trap with a checked and well curled run, Arriola got on the end of a delicately weighted through ball from Tijuana midfielder Guido Rodriguez. Two soft touches with his right boot put Arriola on his left foot, cutting in from his right-sided position with just the keeper to beat. The 22 year-old United States international made no mistake, calmly slotting it past Marchesin and into the back of the net for his third goal in all competitions in 2017.
“I got to play as an outside forward for much of the game tonight,” Arriola said in his chat with SoccerNation post-match. “We were playing in a 4-3-3 throughout the first half, so I got to be up top in that set-up. It feels natural to play there. I felt real comfortable, and it felt great to get the goal. But after that, I had to do a little dirty work as we switched back to a backline of five to hold the lead. The most important thing is that we got the win.”
Arriola thrived in his first half position, contributing to the Xolos’ effort with his trademark high-energy style and pinpoint crossing ability. He also made an impact defensively in the second half, something Manager Miguel Herrera has been anxious to see.
Arriola has not started a Liga MX match since Tijuana’s wild 3-3 draw with Pumas on February 19th, a game that saw Xolos blow a 3-0 lead in the second half, Arriola not having one of his finer days as an outside-back in Herrera’s 5-3-2 system. But after an incredibly well rounded, Man of the Match performance in a Copa MX knockout match against a marquee (albeit struggling mightily at the moment) opponent in Las Aguilas, Herrera may be forced to reconsider Arriola’s role for Xolos upcoming league contests with Queretaro and Santos Laguna.
Arriola’s fellow San Diego County native and United States international Joe Corona played the full ninety minutes for Tijuana, having a strong game to the right of Rodriguez in Herrera’s midfield set up. USMNT defender Michael Orozco also played the full match, helping to shut down an America attack that at times looked capable but could never get past first gear.
Corona spoke post-match of the cohesion found between the three players.
“It’s always fun to play beside Michael and Paul,” Corona said to SoccerNation. “We know eachother so well. And tonight we all got to play on that right wing. I think we did a great job. I’m happy for Paul to get that goal, and most of all I’m excited that we got this win.”
The win was by no means a given for Tijuana, with Arriola’s goal standing as the game’s only tally as America pressed for an equalizer. But the result also never looked to be in any serious doubt, the determined and task oriented midfield duo of Rodriguez and Corona bossing the center of the park and slowing the pace of the game by controlling possession. Rodriguez and Corona were both vital in preventing any real sense of fluidity from developing in the America attack.
Xolos goalkeeper Manuel Lajud made a couple of decent saves on the night, but the best chance of the game for the visitors fell to vice-captain Pablo Aguilar in the 74th minute, the Paraguayan unchallenged on a set-piece service at the near post. Aguilar could not angle the ball toward goal, instead hammering his headed attempt straight forward, a couple of yards wide of the adjacent post.
America tempers boiled over in the 79th minute, Javier Guemez being sent off with a straight red card for an inexcusable challenge from behind on Rodriguez. Despite his own futile protests, Guemez made his way rather quickly to the tunnel, his teammates ushering him part of the way as the jeers rained down from the crowd in Tijuana. It did not seem as if there was much sympathy for Guemez, even in the America camp.
Xolos held on for the one goal win, and will host the Monarcas of Morelia in the Copa MX quarterfinals next Tuesday night at Estadio Caliente. The game is sandwiched between two Liga MX affairs, away to Queretaro this Saturday, and home to Santos Laguna on March 17th. Then comes an intriguing international break, with the hexagonal round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying resuming on March 24th.
Arriola, Corona, and Orozco are all in the running for spots on Bruce Arena’s U.S. roster for crucial qualifiers at home to Honduras in San Jose on the 24th and away to Panama on March 28th in Panama City. The U.S. currently sit in last place of the six team, final round group after losing their opening two matches, automatic World Cup qualification coming only to the top three teams.
Arriola was candid when asked about potentially making his return to the national team fold, having scored in both of his previous appearances in 2016. The focus clearly lies south of the border for all three U.S. internationals, at least at this particular juncture.
“We obviously know that the qualifiers are coming up, but there’s honestly not much time to think about it,” Arriola said. “We’ve got games here in Mexico almost every other day for the next week or so. League games and cup games. That’s all we can think about right now.”
Now with just the league on the docket, America and under fire manager Ricardo La Volpe look to rebound at home to Necaxa on Saturday at Estadio Azteca. Las Aguilas currently sit in 13th place in the 18 team league table, but are just a point back of the eighth and the final playoff spot with eight regular season matches to go. America are incredibly only six points back of first place Chivas, parity taking control of Liga MX in this Clausura campaign.
Xolos will now balance aspirations in two separate competitions. Miguel Herrera will need strong performances from more than just his top handful of players. There will be some tired legs come next Friday night against Santos, but there’s no reason why this upcoming three match blitz for Xolos couldn’t see them grab six valuable points in the league and a spot in the Copa MX semifinals.