[AMERICANS ABROAD] Tijuana completed one of the great stories in the history of Mexican soccer when it won the Torneo Apertura in Mexico's Liga MX on Sunday,
and Americans Edgar Castillo, Joe Corona and Greg Garza played major roles. In
only their fifth year of existence and second year in the elite of Mexican soccer, the Xolos earned a 2-0 victory at Toluca to win the two-game final series, 4-1, on aggregate. Their title, a symbol
of the rebirth of Tijuana itself, was greeted with celebrations on both sides of the border.
Tijuana was hit hard by the drug war between the Sinaloa Cartel and Tijuana Cartel, and tourism, the city's lifeblood, dried up. But in the last year, the violence has started the subside and new restaurants and bars are opening. Isolated from the rest of Mexico in Baja California, Tijuana has close ties to San Diego. Many TJ residents cross the border to work or go to school in San Diego.
Born to a Mexican father and Salvadoran mother in Los Angeles, Corona was raised in Tijuana and San Diego, where played high school soccer. He attended San Diego State before joining the Xolos' youth program but still commutes from San Diego to Tijuana for work.
The Xoloitzcuintles (named for a breed of hairless dog of Aztec heritage) attract thousands of fans from San Diego County who travel to TJ on game day, many of them armed with Xolopasses, season tickets.
The Tijuana stadium, aptly named Estadio Caliente, was built in 2007 by owner Jorge Hank Rhon and seats 21,000. In part because of the field's artificial surface, the Xolos are practically unbeatable at home.
While the Tijuana first team is dominated by foreigners -- it helps that the Americans Castillo, Corona and Garza qualify as Mexicans -- it has launched an academy program targeting players on both sides of the border.
Former U.S. U-17 Alejandro Guido, another Tijuana resident who went to school and played soccer in San Diego, made his pro debut in the Copa MX. Another American teenager, Stevie Rodriguez, suited up for Tijuana in the cup competition.
Tijuana's big break came in 2011 -- only its third season -- when it won the Liga de Ascenso to earn promotion. Corona was a part of that team and went on to be named the top rookie in Mexico in fall 2011.
The Xolos contended for first place for most of the fall 2012 campaign but finished second to Toluca in the final standings. The Liga MX is one of the few major leagues in the world that holds full-blown playoffs -- eight of the 18 teams qualify.
Tijuana carried a 2-1 lead into the second leg of the final, and its organized defense never looked seriously threaten in La Bombonera, the Red Devils' dreaded home field where the altitude makes it difficult for visiting teams.
The Xolos added to their series lead in the 70th minute when Mexican Richard Ruiz sneaked and scored after Paraguayan Fernando Arce's free kick hit the post.
A minute later, Castillo started a break with a long ball to Ecuadoran Fidel Martinez, who fed Colombian Duvier Riascos for the second goal.
Castillo won his first Mexican title with Santos in 2008 but never settled in at Club America after moving to Mexico City in 2009. He was loaned out to four clubs before finding a home at Tijuana in the spring.
Garza, who grew up in Texas and bounced around clubs in Brazil and Portugal before landing in Tijuana, did not play in the final but scored the winning goal in the first leg of the quarterfinals at Concacaf champion Monterrey.
The Xolo gringos join a rare group of Americans who have won Mexican league titles.
Dominic Kinnear -- yes, that Dominic Kinnear -- won the Mexican title with Necaxa in 1995. Jose Torres played on Pachuca when it won the Clausura 2007 title. And last spring Herculez Gomez lifted the Clausura 2012 trophy with Santos.