Klein: Galaxy-Xolos clash is 'referendum'

[CCL PREVIEW: LA Galaxy-Tijuana] This quarterfinal of the Concacaf Champions League will look and feel like something much bigger.

As lord and master of the Southern California soccer market, the Galaxy puts its reputation and that of MLS on the line against Club Tijuana, which in the past seven years has earned promotion to Liga MX, won league titles in the first and second divisions, and reeled off an impressive run in the 2013 Copa Libertadores.

The cross-border rivals, separated by just 135 miles yet worlds apart by just about every other metric, meet in the first leg of their quarterfinal series Wednesday at StubHub Center (10 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Plus, Galavision). The second leg is next Tuesday in Estadio Caliente.

In its MLS season opener Saturday, the Galaxy lost to Real Salt Lake, 1-0, on a Joao Plata goal that stood up when RSL goalie Nick Rimando deflected a Robbie Keane penalty kick in stoppage time. By contrast, Club Tijuana has played 10 games of its 17-match 2014 Clausura regular season.

“It’s a good game for us to bounce back,” said Keane after the RSL game. “I’m sure fitness wise and after playing [Saturday], it will do the team a world of good on Wednesday. I think you’ll see us a lot faster and sharper because the more games you play the more match fitness you get.”

Only when it plays StubHub tenant Chivas USA does the Galaxy face a first-division rival closer than Tijuana, which on its roster includes a fleet of Americans: former Galaxy youth academy player Paul Arriola, defender Greg Garza, and U.S. internationals Joe Corona, Herculez Gomez and Edgar Castillo.

True to his brash reputation, Gomez couldn’t resist taking a shot at the team and the league that used to employ him.

“Look if we’re being honest, their salary cap, I don’t even call it a salary cap,” Gomez told LA Galaxy Insider.

He was traded by the Galaxy in 2007 to Colorado, which passed him on to Kansas City. He chose to leave MLS rather than sign the new contract offered him by the then-Wizards following the 2009 season.

“Their player personnel on paper probably outspend ours,” Gomez added. “We know that it’s going to be a test, but we’re excited. We don’t have that huge marquee international player coming in. But we’ve got guys who have worked and stuck to their guns, and made a career out of what they do. In a brief time, they’ve done a lot.”

Gomez rang up four goals and Arriola scored one in Xolos’ final group game, a 6-0 thrashing of Honduran club Victoria Oct. 24 that pushed  Tijuana atop Group 7 with a record of three wins and one tie. In Clausura play, he’s appeared in all 10 games but has yet to score.

Xolos has dipped a bit since winning titles in 2010 and 2012 and last spring reaching the quarterfinals of the Copa Libertadores. It lost on away goals, 2-1, after a failed penalty kick by Duvier Riascos left it tied with Brazilian club Atletico Mineiro on aggregate, 3-3. Atletico went on to win the title.

Xolos’ success triggered the departure of several key players, and owner Jorge Hank Rohn refused to re-sign Argentine head coach Antonio Mohammed (now at Club America) to a richer contract. 
Former Venezuela coach  Cesar Farias, a native of that country, took over in December for Sergio Almiron, who lost the job after Xolos finished 10th in the 2013 Apertura and missed the playoffs.

Club Tijuana hasn’t traveled well during the 2014 Clausura. In five road matches, it has garnered only two ties while scoring four goals and conceding nine. Overall Xolos is right at .500 in eighth place (of 18 teams) with a record of four wins, two ties and four losses. 

Argentine forward Dario Benedetto is a real handful for defenders -- strong and quick and fond of slashing runs that propel him into good shooting positions -- but he’s not been a regular in the lineup and has scored just two goals in league play. Midfielder Cristian Pellerano leads the team in goals with five and the same number of cautions. In league play, Xolos players have been carded 28 times, including two reds. An intense encounter is assured.

Most midweek games at StubHub Center are limited to a small crowd size, but for this game the Galaxy was able to negotiate with officials of adjoining Cal State Dominguez Hills an increased capacity of 17,500. Though it is not the defending league champion, the Galaxy qualified for this tournament by winning the second of back-to-back MLS titles in 2012 and regards itself as the flagship franchise of MLS.

“Right or wrong, it is a referendum," said team president Chris Klein in an exclusive interview. “We feel our structured our preseason to give us the best possible chance to compete against Tijuana. It has to be a goal of our league to win this tournament and to win it consistently. We have to prove that our teams can beat, on a consistent basis, professional teams from Mexico. For us, a big part of that starts with the quarterfinals against Tijuana.”
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