A prodigal, a native and a demon have Tijuana top in Liga MX

After four weeks of Liga MX play, there’s a new sheriff in town, leading the pack. No, it’s not one of the teams from the capital. It’s not last season’s runner up, Tigres, or their cross-town rival Monterrey. It sure as hell isn’t Chivas.

Instead it’s Club Tijuana, your friendly neighborhood border team, shocking all of Mexico. It’s particularly surprising considering Tijuana lost two of its most important players, forward Darío Benedetto and midfielder Cristian Pellerano, to reigning champion América, before the tournament. Xolos looked to be embracing their role as a mid-tier club, selling a few players each window, maybe bringing in a few guys from South America and calling up a few of its system players to fill the gaps. It seemed the club’s fate would have it hovering somewhere in the middle of the table, fighting for a playoff spot.

Xolos lived up to expectations in the first week — out on the road, where they’ve historically been a horror show, and dropped a 2-1 result at relegation-candidate Puebla. But back home in Estadio Caliente, they turned a few heads with a 1-0 win against América, getting one over on Benedetto and Pellerano, who hardly contributed.

Next up was a 2-1 victory at Tigres, one of the league’s toughest places to play. Tijuana had beat both the reigning champion and runner up in consecutive weeks, then went on to host Monarcas. The visitors may have scored two, but the result never looked in doubt, with Tijuana notching a 4-2 win.

South American signing Gabriel Hauche is putting his stamp on the league, Dayro Moreno is scoring with abandon and is tied for the early league lead in goals, and Javier Güemez, who came up with Tijuana partner club Dorados de Sinaloa in his hometown of Cuilacán, looks to be a future El Tri star.

The chemistry of that trio of players, along with their fit in manager Daniel Guzmán’s system is the fundamental reason Tijuana tops the league. Not only that, this team could have staying power.

At age 28, Hauche is making his first foray out of Argentina, save for 10 minutes on the field at Serie A side Chievo. Guzmán used the preseason to transition the squat attacker, who barely stands 5’6″, away from his role at second striker and toward a more wide position.

Known as El Demonio, Hauche torments defenses down the left, regularly cutting inside to have a shot from the top of the box or play a cross to Moreno. If his two-goal showing against Monarcas is any indication, Hauche is adding scoring to his list of duties in addition to simply setting up Moreno, a lanky, headband-wearing forward on a hot streak.

Many a foreign player has come into Liga MX to collect their paycheck but declined to do anything to justify it – that’s more or less what Moreno did the first time around with Xolos, in the 2011 Apertura, before going on loan to home club Once Caldas, then on to Junior and Millonarios.

The prodigal son returned in the summer, and now Moreno seems willing to do nearly anything to help the team win. That was on show in the thrashing of Monarcas when, just before the break, a Tijuana midfielder’s pass bounced off the referee and fell favorably for the visitors, allowing them to break quickly. But Moreno was there running step for step with the attacker, eventually catching him and making the final tackle on a lung-busting play from a forward that many players wouldn’t ever have attempted, much less with the whistle imminent.

It’s goals, though, that are his strength. Moreno uses his lanky frame to bring down long balls well and has started scoring from angles he simply wasn’t finding before. He’s scored a goal in each of his last five league matches – equaling his total from the dozen games he played with Tijuana in 2011.

Part of the South Americans’ success has been their chemistry with Güemez. A local journalist’s comparison to similarly umlauted Lothar Matthäus seems trite before watching him play. Obviously the 23-year-old won’t reach Matthäus’ level, but he is an excellent stopper, getting back when Guzmán’s aggressive defenders lose possession. Yet he maintains the ability to push forward and thread a perfect pass, just like the one he sent to Hauche for the fourth goal against Monarcas.

Hearing these three players are the linchpins to Tijuana’s success be a surprise to those who know the club loves to scout the best talent in Southern California. U.S. international Greg Garza is the regular starter at left back, and Joe Corona’s recent return from injury should result in minutes for the Xolos lifer. Paul Arriola and Alejandro Guido are looking to break into the first team, but like the vast majority of the wealth of American talent at the club factor more into Xolos’ long-term strategy rather than this Clausura.

In the short-term, though, there’s no reason the club shouldn’t be dreaming of a postseason, or even a second title. Yet fate could always intervene. If one of the emerging star trio goes down, it could derail the campaign. Losing a defender would also be a real problem, with Copa MX matches showing Xolos’ attacking ranks are well-stocked but things are thin at the back.

There’s also the matter of playing on the road. The victory at Tigres was an encouraging sign; however, since the team’s title run in the 2012 Clausura it has won four of 36 matches on the road, and two of those were the first two away matches after winning the crown. If Xolos are going to cement themselves as part of the league’s elite, they’ll have to learn to win without the benefit of the synthetic turf and vibrant crowd at Estadio Caliente.

For now, Tijuana remain the underdog. But the Demon, Dayro and Javier look to be changing all that. With a little luck and more strong showings on the road, Xolos could match their magic cup run from 2012. Then the only dog around will be the one donning the mascot costume.

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