Optimism has given way to mediocrity at Club Tijuana

Tijuana’s 1-0 win over on Friday over Club America was nice, but if you could bottle and re-sell euphoria, the Estadio Caliente from 2011 to 2012 would have been a much richer goldmine. Why? Because in the spring of 2011, Mexican team Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuentles de Caliente defeated Irapuato 2-1 in the second leg of the Liga de Acenso final. It advanced to the Primera División and, with coach Antonio “El Turco” Mohamed at the helm, won the Primera title a short time later. Xolos fever spread from Tijuana to South California and threatened to infect all of Baja California.

Then, suddenly, mysteriously, came not so much a fall as a decline leaving Xolos fans wondering whether their luck had run out. Has the magic worn off? Or, rather, is something else at play?

Anytime a team wins a single trophy, you can write it off as an accident of history. In the case of the Xolos’ 2012 title so soon after promotion, though, you can make a compelling case for a slice of luck and some prudent decisions. First off, Xolos focused on molding a strong and coherent defensive team to compete (survive) in the Primera. The club realized it didn’t have the cash to buy serious South American offensive talent. It also hired right man for the job: Antonio Mohamed, an Argentine coach who knows how to drill defense and man-marking into even the flightiest of midfielders.

On the other hand, even its promotion in 2011 came with a large slice of luck. In the two-legged final against Irapuato, Irapuato’s star player, Cuautehmoc Blanco, was out injured. In 2011 and 2012, Xolos had one of the league’s best defenses and thus could face any team with confidence in the playoffs, but these were also pretty lean years for the capital clubs. Club América, Cruz Azul, and Pumas basically took turns missing the playoffs (before Miguel Herrera turned the Aguilas around).

Thus, talent met opportunity. In a weaker league, Xolos (and subsequently, León) won promotion and snagged a title. However, since that trophy in 2012, Xolos have been stuck in mid-table mediocrity. They’ve fallen in love with 10th place – safe from the threat of relegation, but also just short of the thrills of the Liguilla. The stats show that its once impenetrable defense is now average, while its goalscoring has remained average (about 20 goals a season). Overall, this is not a team to get super excited about.

For such a young team, and one that has only ever had one family as owners, fans perhaps fret about a possible Indios de Juarez-style meltdown. In case you didn’t read Robert Andrew Powell’s excellent This Love is Not For Cowards, he chronicled the rise and fall of that border town’s local team. In 2005 a local, wealthy businessman bought and relocated Pachucas Juniors to Juárez. The club won promotion in 2008 but settled at the bottom of the table. It eventually lost sponsors, struggled to meet payroll, got relegated, and ceased to exist.

Herein lies the cautionary tale: the level of investment and commitment to win promotion is one thing, but to stay in the top flight and remain competitive is another. Unlike the Indios, though, the (Rhon) family behind Club Tijuana actually built a pretty nice stadium. Also, if Jorge Rhon saw the Xolos as a vanity project, the plaything of a millionaire, then his son Jorge Jr., the current president, sees the club as a viable business in and of itself. Does that mean sustainable spending on salaries and transfers, aka boredom? Yes. But for Xolos, surviving a decade in the top flight would be just as impressive as an established club nicking a title.

Thus, in the near future, expect more defense and mid-table finishes. The only stars that go to TJ are Europeans or Americans avoiding the long arm of the law, not soccer players. If you’re a U.S. fan, you may catch a TJ game to see how a national team prospect is doing, but there’s not much else to see. The pachanga has ground to a halt, and maybe that’s a good thing.