Baja futbol fans enjoyed a historic couple of hours Saturday night at Estadio Caliente: The debut of top-flight soccer in Mexico's forgotten metropolis.
Tijuana, the country's third-largest city (with 1.65 million residents, in the 2010 census), has resided outside Mexico's sporting consciousness, all because it has lacked a Primera Division soccer team -- or the deep pockets willing to spend what's necessary to play with the big boys.
Enter Jorge Hank, the controversial former Tijuana mayor and self-proclaimed billionaire, who in 2007 formed Club Tijuana, which became more than successor to a lengthy line of lower-division failures. The goal, professed from the start, was to play in the top league, and it happened Saturday night, when the newly promotos Xoloitzcuintles debuted in an Apertura opener against Morelia, the runner-up in last spring's Clausura tournament.
A full, festive crowd at Caliente, a short drive south of the border, watched their heroes go down, 2-1, on a late, questionable penalty kick.
San Diego's Joe Corona scored the Xolos' goal with a rebound, and good thing. Of three attackers near the ricocheting ball, Corona was the only one clearly onside.
Joao Rojas drew the penalty kick in the 81st minute, clipped from behind by Tijuana backline leader Javier Gandolfi -- or so it looked. Replays indicated Gandolfi expertly twisted around Rojas and poked the ball away before there was contact.
Miguel Sabah was precise from the spot, and the Monarcas spoiled the party, but the Xolos' supporters saw something they hadn't in more than a year: a home defeat.
THE TOP 3
Pachuca is the popular pick to zoom back into the title-game picture and steal the prize, product of nice makeover that has Tuzos fans thinking about an 11th major trophy (a sixth league title, to go with five CONCACAF Champions League and a Copa Sudamericana triumph) since 1999.
Oribe Peralta had other ideas. Stepping in for departed Christian Benitez, he scored a hat trick as visiting Santos Laguna netted the first four in a 4-1 romp.
2. NO CRUZING
Cruz Azul might have the best talent in the Primera Division, but only when it's on the field. That ugly brawl after last spring's semifinal loss to Morelia has cost the Cementeros their goalkeeper, would-be Mexican national teamer Jose de Jesus Corona, and their leader, Argentine forward Christian Gimenez, for the first six Apertura games.
Gimenez's absence was obvious in a dismal 1-1 draw at UANL Tigres. Manager Enrique Meza's tactics, with a midfielder sitting atop five backliners, suggest he's ready to sit back and look to counter for wins until his big guys are back, at least against the good sides.
3. YANKS IN THE XI
There were a half-dozen Americans in Primera Division starting lineups, a healthy number. Too bad it didn't include local favorite Jonathan Bornstein (Los Alamitos HS/UCLA), the former Chivas USA captain, who has struggled to crack a very talented UANL Tigres lineup.
Puebla fielded newcomer DaMarcus Beasley, looking to reignite his U.S. national team career, winger, in a win at Atlas, and Orange's Michael Orozco Fiscal (Magnolia HS) featured in his return to San Luis following his abrupt departure last winter from the Philadelphia Independence.
Herculez Gomez went the full 90 in his debut for Estudiantes Tecos, and Guadalajara left back Miguel Angel Ponce and Pachuca midfielder Jose Francisco Torres were in their customary spots. Edgar Benitez came off the bench in the second half for America.
Top performer was Corona, whose goal at the end of the first half pulled Tijuana even with Morelia in a 2-1 loss.
Clausura champs Pumas UNAM, expected to falter after dismantling its roster, beat a decent San Luis side, 2-0, but Juan Carlos Cacho -- hurt last season after a great start -- went down after scoring the first. ... Guadalajara and America were impressive in their openers. Benitez began his tenure with the Aguilas with a goal. ... Three first-half penalty kicks in Monterrey's 4-1 win over Jaguares, which wasn't settled until Nestor Cardozo scored a sweet goal in the 90th minute and set up Sergio Perez in stoppage. ... Santos Laguna and Morelia are in CONCACAF Champions League preliminary-round action this week. ... The second-tier Liga de Ascenso kicks off this weekend.
Last week's results (home teams listed first)
Estudiantes Tecos 1 (Lillingston 65), Toluca 2 (Alonso 6, Calderon 10)
Pachuca 1 (Lopez 80), Santos Laguna 4 (Peralta 11, 37, 72, Estrada 44)
Club Tijuana 1 (Corona 44), Morelia 2 (Sandoval 13, Sabah pen. 84)
UANL Tigres 1 (Mancilla 38), Cruz Azul 1 (Aquino 19)
Atlas 0, Puebla 1 (Garcia pen. 54)
Atlante 0, Guadalajara 2 (Arellano 55, Sanchez 94+)
Pumas UNAM 2 (Cacho 9, Bravo 36), San Luis 0
America 2 (og Cortes 28, Benitez 43), Gallos Blancos de Queretaro 1 (Niell 93+)
Jaguares de Chiapas 1 (Rey pen. 25), Monterrey 4 (L. Perez pen. 15, pen. 45, Cardozo 90, S. Perez 92+)
Standings: 1. Monterrey and Santos Laguna 4 points; 3. Guadalajara and Pumas UNAM 3; 5. America, Morelia and Toluca 3; 8. Puebla 3; 9. Cruz Azul and UANL Tigres 1; 11. Estudiantes Tecos, Gallos Blancos and Tijuana 0; 14. Atlas 0; 15. Atlante and San Luis 0; 17. Jaguares and Pachuca 0.
This week's games (all times Pacific)
Pumas UNAM at Morelia, 6:10 p.m.
Club Tijuana at Monterrey, 3 p.m.
Atlas at Cruz Azul, 3 p.m.
UANL Tigres at Gallos Blancos, 3 p.m.
Jaguares at Guadalajara, 5 p.m.
Atlante at Santos Laguna, 5 p.m.
Estudiantes Tecos at San Luis, 7 p.m.
Pachuca at Puebla, 10 a.m.
America at Toluca, 10 a.m.
LIGA DE ASCENSO
This week's games (all times Pacific)
Merida at Necaxa, 6 p.m.
Leon at Correcaminos, 6:30 p.m.
Celaya at Leones Negros, 6:45 p.m.
Cruz Azul Hidalgo at Lobos BUAP, 10 a.m.
Veracruz at Pumas Morelos, 2 p.m.
La Piedad at Irapuato, 5 p.m.
Dorados de Sinaloa at Indios de Ciudad Juarez, 5 p.m.
Altamira at Toros Neza, 10 a.m.