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What Tijuana know about Xolos? The ultimate guide

Greg Garza is one of seven Americans playing for Tijuana.
Greg Garza is one of seven Americans playing for Tijuana.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The next time the Seattle Sounders take the field it will be in a friendly against the Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente on Tuesday. We know this will be a bit weird for a lot of you, not only because you probably have no idea how to pronounce their name, but the game is so early in the season and they aren't quite as well known as a lot of the teams the Sounders have played in friendlies.

But don't worry, we're going to fix that right now:

How do you even pronounce their name?

Rather than try to explain it, I simply asked Jessica Mendoza for some help. She's a Seattle-area native, first generation Mexican-American, a Sounders season-ticket holder since 2012 and Xolos is one of her favorite Liga MX squads, who happens to also be a native Spanish speaker:

And why do they have a chihuahua on their crest?

Actually they don't. That's a xoloitzcuintle, which is right there in the team's name, dummy. While it does look similar to the chihuahua, the xolo is 3,000-year-old breed of Mexican hairless dog that was considered sacred by the Aztecs. It's now considered the national dog of Mexico and held in quite high regard.

"Mexico.Xoloitzcuintle.01". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

OK, what about mascot? The one that dresses up.

You're talking about Xolo Mayor. Yeah, he's a dude dressed like a xolo, but with huge muscles and often seen dancing with the club's cheerleaders. It can be a bit weird at times, but he's apparently pretty popular. He even has a Twitter account dedicated to him. But he didn't travel to Real Salt Lake for last year's friendly and it's unclear if he'll be visiting CenturyLink Field.

Here's how the Internet's resident mascot expert Maxi Rodriguez (@futbolIntellect) described him: "The mascot world's Gattuso, prone to red cards and sleeping with the spouses of coaches."

I never really associated Tijuana with high-level soccer. When did they even get a team?

It's true, Xolos are one of Mexico's youngest teams. Although it should be said they are just the latest of a long line of teams that tried to make it, Xolos were founded in 2007 and earned promotion to the Mexican top flight in 2011. Ever since then they've been one of the best teams in all of CONCACAF. They won the Liguilla title -- Mexico's equivalent to MLS Cup -- in 2012, advanced to the Copa Libertadores quarterfinals in 2013 and went to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals in 2014. They are currently sitting atop the Liga MX Clausura standings, four points clear of second-place Veracruz.

There must be some interesting stories as to how they achieved such a rapid rise.

Yeah, their owner is a, shall we say, colorful character. Jorge Hank Rhon is a former politician, who also happens to own Mexico's largest sports betting company, Grupo Caliente. Xolos' stadium is actually built on the grounds of an old horse-racing track and a dog-racing track is nearby. As you might imagine, he's also been surrounded by a good deal of controversy. He's been linked to organized crime, was accused of having a role in the 1988 murder of an investigative journalist and once had his home illegally raided by Mexican troops who claimed to have found a virtual armory of weapons, two of which were linked to homicides. But he claims most of this is the product of false accusations by political rivals and it's worth noting that no charges have ever stuck.

Is he still running the team?

No, the club president is his son Jorge Alberto Hank, who doesn't even have a Wikipedia page, so he's apparently done a pretty good job of flying under the radar.

They seem to have a lot of American players. What's the story there?

The current roster has seven players who are listed as Americans and a few more who would probably be eligible if they wanted to be. U.S. national teamers Greg Garza and Joe Corona are the most notable among the current American players, but USMNT regulars like Herculez Gomez and Edgar Castillo have also recently played for Xolos.

Is that by design?

Yeah, it kinda is. Tijuana is geographically pretty isolated from the rest of Liga MX. Santos Laguna is their "closest" rival and they are 951 miles away by plane and 1,174 miles if you are insane enough to try to drive. Although Tijuana is a reasonably large city (1.3 million people), Baja California is not one of the more soccer-rich regions of Mexico. To help combat that disadvantage, Xolos have made it a point to reach across the border, heavily scouting Southern California and even establishing an academy in San Diego.

Is that why San Diego still doesn't have a MLS team?

Well, let's ask Alicia Rodriguez, the managing editor The Goat Parade and a San Diegan:

Xolos certainly have a presence in Southern California. The club has estimated that more than a quarter of their fans at the Estadio Caliente cross the border to attend games. Within the 15 or so miles just north of the border in San Diego, you'll find many Xolos stickers on cars, and jerseys and T-shirts of the club around town. Among Mexicans and Mexican Americans in San Diego, as well as those not of Mexican heritage who are into Mexican soccer, there's certainly a vibrant fanbase.

At the same time, however, I do think the attention given Tijuana's success in Southern California in the soccer media has been somewhat exaggerated. I have lived all over San Diego since the team emerged in the second division, and I think folks think San Diego has Xolos fever. That's not really the case. There are tons of soccer fans in the area, but the interests are diverse, as much towards Europe as looking south to Mexico (as well as MLS). I'm of the opinion that San Diego isn't a great sports town, as people just have a lot to do here. Overall, the Xolos phenomenon has not surprisingly taken root deepest among those of Mexican heritage, but outside of that group and those who follow Mexican soccer in general, Club Tijuana is still working to break through.

What kind of soccer do they play?

Again, I'm going to defer to someone that is a bit more educated on these issues. Eugene Rupinski may not sound like someone you'd expect to be a Mexican soccer expert. But even though he's the managing editor of Brotherly Game, he's also an avid follower of Liga MX. Here's how he described Xolos:

Tijuana's style of play is free-flowing, attack oriented fútbol played at a dizzying speed. Look for midfielders Juan Arango and Javier Güemez to run the attack, getting the ball either out to wingers Gabriel Hauche and Richard Ruiz or up to forwards Alfredo Moreno or Dayro Moreno. The offense is absolutely on fire right now, with Dayro Moreno, Hauche, and Arango each having five goals in 10 games. Their defense is solid as well, with recent El Tri call up Cirilo Saucedo in goal and USMNT call up Greg Garza at left back only allowing 11 goals thus far in the Clausura. Tijuana isn't afraid to take chances offensively, with the full backs being given free reign to overlap and jump into the attack.

What kind of roster should we expect to see on Tuesday?

That's tough to say. Tijuana play Cruz Azul at 4pm on Saturday and will surely be using their first-team players in that game. That means veterans like Juan Arango and Alfredo Moreno may not be available and even younger players like Joe Corona and Dayro Moreno may not get extended time.

Are they going to play a bunch of scrubs then?

That seems unlikely. Not only is their U18 team playing against the Sounders U18 right before this match -- meaning it's not just going to be a bunch of academy kids -- but Tijuana is pretty deep with talented players. Garza came off the bench in their last game and U.S. youth internationals Paul Arriola and Fernando Arce struggle to even get into the first team. There will be no shortage of talent wearing the black and red.

What else do I need to know?

If you're really interested in reading up on Xolos, I recommend this excellent long-form article. It's from 2013, but it does a great job of putting Xolos' rise into context.

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