Los Angeles Soccer: Israel Castro
Mexico's Primera Division kicks off the first of its twin 2011-12 seasons Friday night, and fans in this region have a new dog to cheer for. Literally.
The Xoloitzcuintles of Club Tijuana, who take their name and mascot from semi-mythical Aztec hounds that, more or less, have descended into Mexican short-hairs, bring the best league south of the border right to the border -- and soon, perhaps, into San Diego.
The Xolos were the best team in the second-tier Liga de Ascenso last season and won promotion to the Primera in May, and Mexico's third-largest city isn't the only winner. The opportunity for soccer fans in Southern California to see the region's best league -- and storied clubs such as America, Guadalajara and reigning champion Pumas UNAM, in real competition -- is unprecedented, although tickets will be scarce.
Tijuana's Apertura opener Saturday night against Morelia, another club with a large So Cal following, is sold out. There are plans, not the least formalized, to bring games against Guadalajara and America -- the two biggest clubs in Mexico -- to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, but that appears at least a year off, provided the Xolos survive their first year in the Primera. We've seen so many times the promoted club relegated after just one Apertura/Clausura cycle, including Necaxa last season.
There are several Southern Californians in the league, too, including Los Alamitos' Jonathan Bornstein (the former Chivas USA captain) at UANL Tigres, L.A.-born Herculez Gomez (the former Galaxy star) at Estudiantes Tecos, Orange's Michael Orozco Fiscal at San Luis, Calexico's Isaac Acuņa at America and rising Tijuana winger Joe Corona, from National City.
A newcomer to the league is fading U.S. national-teamer DaMarcus Beasley, at Puebla.
The big change this year: No divisions. The two-season approach, with the fall Apertura and spring Clausura, remain, but now a single table will be used, with the top eight teams advancing to the postseason.
As always, every game, every team, will be televised in the L.A. area by Univision (KMEX/Channel 34), TeleFutura (KFTR/Channel 46), Telemundo (KVEA/Channel 52), Azteca America (KAZA/Channel 54), Galavision and, not quite as often, on ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes. Select Liga de Ascenso games, usually involving Veracruz, also will be aired.
Here's a quick look at the Primera Division as the Apertura kicks off:
- 7 BETS TO WIN THE APERTURA
It has not been easy. The Los Angeles-born, Las Vegas-raised forward, who emerged as team MVP when the Galaxy won the 2005 MLS Cup title, has struggled to make an impact off Pachuca's bench after scoring 10 goals, most of them as a substitute, in last year's Clausura, or spring, tournament.
Gomez, whose exploits at Puebla led to a roster spot for the U.S. at last year's World Cup, scored just once during the fall Apertura and had been held without a goal this Clausura as the Tuzos slumped near the bottom of the standings. Until last weekend.
The 29-year-old forward came off the bench, naturally, to score twice and set up a third goal as Pachuca (4-5-4) routed last-place Jaguares, 3-0, to vault from 16th to 12th overall and within three points of the playoff zone.
Gomez came on in the 63rd minute for Edgar Benitez, gave Pachuca a 70th-minute lead on a near-post header, then struck a sensational free kick for a 2-0 advantage in the 78th. A minute later, he assisted Franco Arizala.
“Thanks for never loosing [sic] faith,” Gomez tweeted after the game. “I know this is just the beginning for us. Feels great to score but it feels even better to win at home.”
This does seem familiar. Pachuca, which has won five Primera Division titles since 1999 and last year claimed its third CONCACAF Champions League titles in four years and fourth since 2002, won its final three regular-season games to get into the Apertura playoffs, exiting after holding to-be-champion Monterrey to two draws.
The schedule is pliable. The Tuzos, still last in Group 2, have a real test Wednesday night at Group 1 leader UANL Tigres, but their final three foes (Atlas, Gallos Blancos and Necaxa) are minnows in unremarkable form.
A FEW ANSWERS: Gomez celebrated his big day by holding a Q&A with fans on his Facebook page. A few highlights:
Q: Do you have a pregame pump-up song?
A: Journey, “Don't Stop Believin'.”
Q: Which comes first, the U.S. national team or your club team?
A: My club pays me, but my country made me.