Los Angeles Soccer: Javier Gandolfi
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Fans of the Mexican Primera Division have always been in fairly decent shape around these parts. We get every single game on television, which ought to sate the throngs of Chivas, America, Pumas, Morelia, Santos and Cruz Azul fans roaming in and around L.A.
Want to see a genuine top-tier Mexican game in person? You were out of luck without a flight or long, long, long drive south, at least until this past summer, when Club Tijuana made its Primera Division debut.
The Xoloitzcuintles (a Mexican hairless dog), owned by Baja political/business maestro Jorge Hank's family, have in five years evolved from the ruins of so many failed lower-division Tijuana clubs into a cause célèbre in Mexico's third-largest city, a point of civic pride and a conduit that connects this metropolis of 1.5 million with the rest of its country -- and increasingly with legions of soccer fans north of the border.
Tijuana followed last December's triumph in the second-tier Liga de Ascenso's Apertura (or autumn) championship with a run to the Clausura (spring) final. After losing in that series to Irapuato, the Xolos won another, triumphing in the playoff between the two champs to grab one of the 18 slots in the top division -- the premier league, no question, in CONCACAF.
Already, they've welcomed Guadalajara, Morelia, Pachuca and Tigres to Estadio Caliente. The Clausura kicks off Jan. 6, and Monterrey and Santos visit next month, Cruz Azul in February, and America in March.
They take them on with a fine side led by Brazilian-born midfielder Leandro Augusto, former Mexican national-teamer Fernando Arce, Argentine captain Javier Gandolfi, and Colombian forwards Dayro Moreno and Duvier Riascos. Three Americans, all with Mexican ancestry, also are in the first team: San Diego's Joe Corona and newcomers Edgar Benitez, from New Mexico, and Texan Greg Garza.
The primary goal is survival. One team is relegated to the Liga de Ascenso at the end of each Clausura, and it's all based on points per games over three years (six Apertura and Clausura campaigns). Tijuana went 3-5-9 and finished 15th in its first Primera League season, a roller-coaster affair in which it needed seven home games to win in front of its frenzied fans but went unbeaten in the final eight games after Antonio Mohamed's midseason appointment as head coach.
Only three teams lost fewer games -- first-place Guadalajara, regular-season runner-up Cruz Azul, and third-place UANL Tigres, who went on to win the championship -- but only last-place Atlas won less, and the Xolos sit 16th on the “percentage” table, tied with Atlas and just a fraction ahead of Estudiantes Tecos. They need to stockpile points to remain in the top tier.
That's essential. The club has big plans. It has been slowly expanding and upgrading Estadio Caliente, which is adjacent to Hank's massive Caliente casino in Tijuana, with plans to boost capacity from about 20,000 -- with every seat typically filled -- to at least 33,000.
The club is building an academy program, and it is extending its reach beyond Baja, beyond San Diego and into Orange County and Los Angeles. The Xolos are looking to compete with the Galaxy and Chivas USA for the best talent in the region -- and for fans. The push could immeasurably alter the soccer landscape around here.
The Xolos, fighting for a berth in the Primera Division, took Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Co. through 90 scoreless minutes Wednesday night, giving them the upper hand when the Liga de Ascenso's promotion final wraps up Saturday afternoon at Estadio Caliente in Tijuana.
Goalkeeper Leonin Pineda was masterful almost to the end, and Javier Gandolfi marshaled a superb defensive effort for the Xolos, who were forced into the promotion series after losing to Irapuato in last week's two-legged spring Clausura final. La Trinca, or the Strawberry Lashers, captured the title with a 1-0 home victory.
Tijuana captured the fall Apertura championship and would have automatically won promotion to the top league, to join the likes of Guadalajara, America, Cruz Azul and Monterrey, had it pipped Irapuato for the Clausura crown. A victory at home Saturday will send them up.
An acrobatic own goal by Duilio Davino has put Monterrey in a hole midway through its Mexican Primera Division championship home-and-home with Santos Laguna.
Davino, who was part of Mexico's 1998 World Cup team, lunged at Jose Maria Cardenas' cross in the 86th minute Thursday night, knocking the ball off the right post and into his net, giving Santos a 3-2 triumph in an absorbing first leg in the Apertura final.
Second-seeded Monterrey, which will be home for Sunday's title-decider, twice rallied from deficits and appeared in solid shape heading into the final five minutes of a 2-2 draw in Torreon. Davino's miscue -- designed to keep Cardenas' cross from reaching Christian Benitez -- means the Rayados must win by a goal to force overtime or two goals to claim a second successive Apertura crown.
Ivan Estrada was pivotal for third-seeded Santos, providing a 23rd-minute lead, then crossing for a Carlos Darwin Quintero header to put the Guerreros ahead, 2-1, just before halftime. Quintero has scored in each of the past three games.
Chilean World Cup standout Humberto Suazo's 13th goal of the campaign, from Aldo de Nigris' touch, pulled Monterrey even in the 38th minute, and Neri Cardozo made it 2-2 in the 55th after de Nigris stripped a defender just outside Santos' box.
TIJUANA ON THE VERGE: Mauro Gerk and Javier Gandolfi scored goals three minutes apart, and Club Tijuana is 90 minutes from the Liga de Ascenso's Apertura title following a 2-0 win at Veracruz.