Mexican footbal club Tijuana’s meteoric rise transforms a city and region

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With Club Tijuana in the Liga Mx final against Tolcua, it marks another milestone of a club’s rapid ascendancy towards becoming one of the best teams in North America.

Club Tijuana, commonly referred to as Xolos, was founded in 2007 by Jorge Hank Rhon who is the former president of the municipality of Tijuana and is the owner of Caliente, Mexico’s largest sports betting company.

Hank, 56, has been a controversial figure in Mexico but his goal in the foundation of Club Tijuana was to build one of the biggest clubs not just in Mexico but in all of the Western Hemisphere. As things have gone, they are well on their way to achieving this lofty status.

The first step in their plan was the construction of Estadio Caliente in Tijuana less than a mile from the US border. Initially with a capacity of roughly 13,000, Estadio Caliente was expanded in 2008 to fit 33,333.

The club quickly earned promotion to the Mexican Primera in 2011 when they dramatically defeated Irapuato in the playoffs on a 2-1 aggregate score. Immediately the marketing campaign began to grow the fan base of Club Tijuana both in Mexico and in Southern California.

While professional soccer has struggled to take of in the past in the city of Tijuana, Hank believed that by tapping into both Mexican and American markets, he could succeed where others have failed.

So far the results have been remarkable as the club advanced to the playoffs in the 2012 Clausura and are in the Finals in the current Apertura season. Next year the club has already qualified to participate in the prestigious Copa Libertadores where they will face off against the best teams in South America.

To help capture the Mexican and Mexican-American fan base, he has signed several American players. Currently on the first team, US internationals Edgar Castillo and Joe Corona are regular starters while former US U-20 left back Gregory Garza is frequently on the bench. In the club’s U-20 team, Americans Alejandro Guido and Stevie Rodriguez are considered solid prospects.

Corona is a native of nearby San Diego where he was raised. He played NCAA soccer with San Diego State but left school early due to personal issues and decided to turn professional at an early age. Unable to attract interest from MLS clubs, Corona arranged a tryout with Tijuana where he signed and became both a regular and a fan favorite after scoring an important goal in their promotional playoff final against Irapuato.

Corona still lives in San Diego and commutes across the border every day to train and play. As a native of the area he notes that the culture of the club feels both American and Mexican. It is this unique blend that he believes gives them an advantage over other clubs.

“I feel that Tijuana is very Americanized since it’s so close to the border,” Corona explained. “They’re a very ambitious team. They want to be one of the best teams in Mexico – that’s for sure. I feel that they’ve been very well organized over a short time. It’s Americanized so it has a different way of thinking than other Mexican clubs. That’s one of the reasons why they’ve progressed so much in such a short period of time.”

Across the border in San Diego, he notes that the team has taken off. San Diego has never been the home of a MLS team but the sport is very popular in the city. To say that club Tijuana fills that void would be a massive understatement.

It is currently estimated that as many as 25 percent of the crowd at Tijuana games come from the United States and the border crossings are jammed before and after home games.

“You can ask everyone in San Diego; it feels like the local team,” Corona said of the presence in the United States. “You walk around San Diego and they’re people that recognize me and say hello. It feels good to be part of a team that is big both sides of the border.”

Tijuana has been a city that has struggled with violence over the past decade falling victim to drug cartels that wreak havoc upon many of the US-Mexico border cities.

US U-20 international Alejandro Gudio was born in the United States but raised in the city of Tijuana. As a kid, he would commute across the border every day to go to school. Now with Tijuana’s U-20 team, Guido lives in San Diego and travels to Mexico daily to train and play.

As someone very familiar with the area, he has noted that Tijuana has been a driving force for positive change in the city plagued by violence.  The city has become unified by Club Tijuana and the energy of the club is felt all across Southern California.

“The vibe is so different in the city now,” Guido explained. “It is incredible what this team has done for this city. It is growing tremendously. I’ve heard about people coming all the way from Los Angeles to watch the team. The team is creating so much energy way into the United States. They always knew the team had potential. When it did happen, the city responded.”

Unlike his American teammates at Club Tijuana, Gregory Garza prefers to live in the city of Tijuana which he has come to appreciate. A long time veteran of US youth national teams while he played in Portugal with clubs Sporting Lisbon and Estoril, Garza was apprehensive at first when he heard Tijuana were interested in signing him in December 2011.

At first he did not know what to expect but it did not take him long to realize that this club was special. It was not simply an ambitious club, but also a club that had the ability and strategic vision to meet their goals. On the field, Garza has done his part when he scored the dramatic winner in a crucial 1-0 away win over Monterrey in the first round of the playoffs.

“When I first heard Tijuana, I was a little bit worried,” Garza admitted. “But I actually just bought an apartment here. It’s wonderful. I see myself here for the next few years to try to build the club.”

“I think that the president has let us know that he created this club to make history,” he continued. “It wasn’t just to make a club that would be in the first division. I think that everyone is really on the same page. The players, the coaches, and the directors – the work that is put in by everyone allows that extra motivation to make a name for the club worldwide, not just in Mexico.”

So as club Tijuana prepare for the second leg of the Liga Mx final on Sunday, many neutral observers are surprised that a club founded just five years ago and promoted to the top league only 18 months ago could be where they are now.

The ones who are not surprised are those directly involved with the club who believe that this club will be around to stay. This optimism and confidence comes just from the financial investment from Jorge Hank Rhon and his family but also from the culture of winning that now permeates throughout the club.

“I’m not surprised we are where we are,” Corona concluded. “The team works very hard – every practice, every game. Hard work pays off.”


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2 Comments on "Mexican footbal club Tijuana’s meteoric rise transforms a city and region"

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  1. Hans Schmidt says:

    Amazing story Brian. Would love to learn more about the Tijuana project. Any idea about their ability to pay high wages compared to some of Mexico's bigger clubs like Chivas, Cruz Azul etc?

  2. skips says:

    How did you find a way to construct such a excellent crowd of commenters to your site?

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