Los Angeles Soccer: Mexican Primera Division
CARSON -- Santos Laguna fêtes its championship Sunday evening at Home Depot Center against Mexico's other reigning titlist, but it's just one in a series of friendlies meant to prepare the clubs for the kickoff to the Primera Division season later this month, nothing more.
It's more meaningful for Herculez Gomez, the L.A.-born, Las Vegas-bred former Galaxy striker who has reinvented himself, to great effect, since heading south of the border 2 1/2 years ago.
Gomez is coming off a sensational stretch since joining Santos last winter: He scored 10 goals in all, helping the Torreon-based club to its fourth Mexican league championship and into the title game in the CONCACAF Champions League, and won a return to the U.S. national team.
Now, after starting in the Americans' first two 2014 World Cup qualifiers -- and scoring a goal in the 3-1 victory over Antigua & Barbuda -- he's preparing for another title run with the Guerreros with a little homecoming.
“It's awesome, right? Who woulda thunk?” he said on the eve of the game against Leon, which is returning to the Primera Division after a 10-year absence following its triumph in the second-tier Liga de Ascenso. “It's a little bit different coming back as a champ, especially what I've been through this last three years. ... All of a sudden a national team player and you're coming back as a champion with one of the more popular clubs in Mexico, and now these people kind of see you as their own, you know? Like a Chicago kind of kid done good.
“It definitely feels good, definitely puts a little pep in your step.”
Gomez is well-regarded in these parts. He made his breakthrough with the Galaxy in 2005, scoring 18 first-team goals in all competitions and winning the club's MVP honor as it won the MLS Cup/U.S. Open Cup double. He was pushed out to the wing after heading to Colorado and Kansas City, a move that thwarted his development, and found his game again only after moving to Mexico to join Puebla for the 2010 Clausura.
A battle of Mexican champions is slated for Home Depot Center next month.
Santos Laguna, which last month won the Primera Division's Clausura title, will face Leon, which won the Liga de Ascenso's promotion final, in a friendly July 8 in Carson.
The game is being staged by the L.A. Blues, and tickets go on sale Thursday at 714-738-8011.
Santos was the first No. 1 seed to win a Mexican Primera Division title, beating Monterrey, 3-2, on aggregate to claim the season's second-half championship. The Guerreros, from Torreon, had fallen in three of the previous four Primera finals and lost to Monterrey in the CONCACAF Champions League title series in April.
Leon captured the Clausura title in the second-tier Liga de Ascenso, then beat Apertura winner Correcaminos to win promotion to the Primera Division. The Esmeraldas have since signed Mexican national-team veteran Jonny Magallon.
Santos features U.S. national-teamer Herculez Gomez, who was born in Los Angeles and first emerged as a striker with the Galaxy.
Peralta scored a superb goal in the 70th minute to give the Guerreros, seeking to become the first No. 1 seed in five years to win Mexico's most prestigious soccer competition, an advantage that will serve them well in Sunday's second leg of the Clausura (or second-half) championship.
Monterrey rallied for a 1-1 draw in stoppage, with Humberto Suazo winning and then converting a penalty kick, but the result is a plus for Santos, which is seeking its first title since the 2008 Clausura and fourth in history.
Santos, which lost to Monterrey in last month's CONCACAF Champions League final, went ahead when Peralta, who scored twice in the final 10 minutes to lift the Guerreros past UANL Tigres in the semifinals, took a long ball over the top about 30 yards from the Rayados' goal, opened space with a simple touch, and lofted the ball over goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco.
Suazo was fouled by Felipe Baloy in the Santos box in the first minute of stoppage. His penalty kick, in the fourth minute, beat goalkeeper Oswaldo Sanchez to the left post.
Santos Laguna needed a late miracle to reach the Mexican Primera Division's title series. Monterrey required only a little home cooking.
They'll face off this week in the home-and-home Clausura final, the first time the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds have reached the championship matches since 2000.
Top-seeded Santos got two late goals from Oribe Peralta to overcome UANL Tigres, winner of the fall Apertura title. Sunday's 2-2 draw in Torreon left aggregate at 3-3, and the Guerreros advanced with the better regular-season's finish.
Monterrey, seeking its third Mexican title in seven seasons, beat visiting America, 2-0, Saturday on goals by Jose Maria Basanta and Aldo de Nigris. The first leg, Wednesday at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, was scoreless.
The title series is a rematch of last month's CONCACAF Champions League final, which Monterrey captured on 3-2 aggregate for its second straight confederation title.
Santos is making its fourth appearance in a final in five seasons but is seeking its first title since the 2008 Clausura, eight campaigns ago. Monterrey beat Santos in the 2010 Apertura final.
Peralta's goals answered two in the first half by Hector Mancilla for Tigres, which was looking to set up a first title-series showdown with Clasio Regiomontano archrival Monterrey.
The No. 1 seed in Mexico's Primera Division playoffs had failed to advance from the quarterfinals in 13 of 20 postseasons, seven of nine and the last four in a row. Santos Laguna failed to follow form.
The Torreon-based Guerreros advanced to the semifinals Sunday, finishing off a 6-4 aggregate victory over Jaguares de Chiapas, and No. 2 Monterrey and No. 3 America joined them.
The only upset: UANL Tigres toppling fourth-seeded Morelia in the other opening series. And calling it an upset is gross exaggeration. Tigres, the No. 5 seed, won the Apertura title last fall and was in the top three most of the current Clausura season.
Santos will meet Tigres and Monterrey takes on America in two-leg series that begin Tuesday and Wednesday and conclude next weekend.
Club Tijuana came into the Mexican Primera Division's spring championship aiming for survival. They claimed more than that Sunday, nailing down their first postseason berth in the country's top league.
The Xolos, who would have qualified had Pachuca or Jaguares failed to win their games Saturday, needed at least a draw Sunday afternoon against visiting Pumas UNAM -- and pulled out a 1-1 tie, going ahead on Duvier Riascos' goal 12 minutes into the second half and holding on after Javier Cortes equalized in the 89th minute.
Tijuana (7-3-7) finished seventh among 18 clubs and will face second-seeded Monterrey (9-3-5) in the quarterfinals, opening at home Wednesday and playing away Saturday.
Tijuana was promoted from the second-tier Liga de Ascenso last year and finished 15th in the fall Apertura. One team is relegated every year, and the Xoloitzcuintles were at the bottom of the “percentages table” -- points per game over three years -- heading into the Clausura. They lost just once in their first 10 games to reach safe ground, and finished 3-1-2 to snare their berth.
Santos Laguna (11-3-3), runner-up to UANL Tigres in the Apertura and three times in the last four championships, is the top seed and will open against Jaguares de Chiapas. No. 1 isn't the most advantageous position: Regular-season champions have lost in their playoff openers the last four seasons, in seven of the last nine championships and 13 of the last 20.
The best bets, if history holds: Monterrey (second seeds have won six of the past 20 titles) or No. 3 America (third seeds have won eight times).
A quick rundown of the Clausura campaign:
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Santos closed with seven wins in its last eight games to hold off Monterrey (9-3-5), America (9-3-5), fourth-seeded Morelia (9-4-4) and fifth-seeded Tigres (9-4-4) for the top spot, clinching as Oribe Peralta scored his eighth and ninth goals in a 3-1 victory at Atlas. L.A.-born former Galaxy star Herculez Gomez netted five goals in just 417 minutes, plus another six to send the Torreon-based club to the CONCACAF Champions League final, which was won by Monterrey.
Mexico's Clausura, the second-half championship, kicks off in the Primera Division on Friday night, with Club Tijuana visiting Morelia.
The Xolos went unbeaten in their last eight games in the fall Clausura and hope that prods them up the table in the spring tournament -- they're looking to survive, since one club will be relegated to the second-tier Liga de Ascenso come May.
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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 club from suburban Monterrey is back atop the Apertura after crushing previous leader Pumas UNAM on the weekend, scoring four first-half goals en route to a 4-1 decision.
Tigres (5-1-6) is even on points with Cruz Azul (6-3-3), which was denied two should-be penalty kicks before Javier Orozco netted two second-half goals in a 2-0 win over Puebla.
Jaguares (5-3-4), which was ahead two weeks ago, fell from second to sixth with a 1-0 loss at Pachuca (6-4-2), which climbed to fourth, just one point off the lead, after its third win (with a tie) in four games since the 5-0 disaster Sept. 10 at Tigres.
Santos (6-3-2), still with a game in hand over everybody except Morelia, and Pumas (6-4-2) also are two points back.
The biggest surge forward this week was made by Monterrey (5-5-2), which won in league for the first time since August -- early goals from Neri Cardozo and Dario Carreño starting the Rayados toward a 3-2 victory at Estudiantes Tecos -- to jump from 13th to eighth, into the playoff zone.
- THE TOP 3
Local hero Jonathan Bornstein's time in his mother's native land isn't going as planned. He's an afterthought at Tigres -- and given the club's success, who can say Ferretti is wrong -- with not one minute of league time since the Apertura began in July.
Bornstein (Los Alamitos/Los Alamitos HS and UCLA), the former Chivas USA captain, has made Tigres' 18-player game roster just once, at the end of August, and has seen action only in three games with the club's under-20 side.
“It's definitely frustrating,” he told Major League Soccer's website. “I keep plugging away in training and doing the work, and, hopefully, when the times comes, I'll get the opportunity.”
Luis Fuentes' goal 10 minutes into the second half of Saturday's Clasico Capitalino stood up for a 1-0 triumph at Estadio Olimpico Universitario and boosted the Cats (6-3-2) from fifth in the standings, past Jaguares, Cruz Azul, Guadalajara and UANL Tigres.
Pumas is 5-0-1 the past three weeks, all competitions, after failing to win in its previous seven matches.
A rich race for the regular-season title and eight playoff berths looks set with six games to go. Pumas' lead on Jaguares is just a point, Tigres, Cruz Azul and Guadalajara are just another point back, and three more teams are another point behind. Another five clubs are two or three points out of the top eight.
Not in that group of contenders is America, which hasn't won since Aug. 21 and sits 16th in the standings with a 2-5-4 record.
- THE TOP 3
The September skid that knocked Guadalajara from the top of the Apertura standings down to fifth has cost technical director Jose Luis Real his job.
Chivas on Monday canned Real and replaced him with former Mexican national-teamer Fernando Quirarte, a center back who played 11 seasons for the club in the 1970s and '80s and has coached at Santos Laguna, Atlas and Jaguares.
The Goats have won just once in six games since late August, and Saturday's loss to Gallos Blancos was their second in a row at home and extended their winless streak to four games. They were 5-0-1 after beating Monterrey on Aug. 20 and have fallen behind Pumas, Jaguares, Tigres and Cruz Azul, but just two points off the lead.
Four of nine games in the 10th “jornada” in the fall Apertura finished at 1-1, including meetings between first-place Jaguares and fourth-place UANL Tigres and between Cruz Azul and Guadalajara, who sit in second and third.
Surprising Jaguares (5-2-3) rallied after conceding a late goal to Lucas Lobos, pulling even with Tigres (4-1-5) on Jorge Rodriguez's 89th-minute strike. Omar Arellano tallied in the first half for Guadalajara (5-2-3) and Edixon Perea in the second for Cruz Azul (5-2-3).
Fifth-place Pumas UNAM (5-3-2), the spring Clausura winner, won at Estudiantes Tecos to pull more or less even with the teams above it. The top three have 18 points, Tigres and Pumas 17, and Atlante sits just two points further behind after its fourth successive one-goal victory.
Another four teams have 14, and three more have 13. Sixteen of 18 clubs are firmly in the battle for eight playoff berths.
It's the makings for an incendiary finish.
- THE TOP 3
Monterrey has won the last two Apertura titles and last spring captured its first CONCACAF Champions League crown. The Rayados aren't playing like champions now.
They're 1-4-1 in league play since early August, and a 2-1 loss Saturday to Gallos Blancos in Queretaro dropped them from sixth to 11th in the table. The Champions League campaign also has been a trudge, with shutout losses at home against the Seattle Sounders and at Comunicaciones in Guatemala threatening to keep them from next year's quarterfinals and beyond.
That's not a misprint atop Mexico's Primera Division standings. Unfancied Jaguares, the Chiapas club that dropped 12 of 17 games and finished last during the spring Clausura, is, indeed, No. 1.
A 5-3 triumph Saturday over visiting America, with Edgar Andrade scoring two goals and setting up another, vaulted Jaguares (5-2-2) to the top spot, ahead of giants Cruz Azul and Guadalajara on goal difference, following a third successive victory.
Since dropping its first two Apertura matches, to Monterrey and Guadalajara, Jaguares has been Mexico's finest club, going 5-0-2 to climb from 18th -- last -- to 16th to 12th to sixth to fourth to first.
Previous leader Guadalajara (5-2-2) did its part, losing to Puebla, and No. 2 Tigres (4-1-4) suffered its first loss, a 1-0 decision at Atlante.
Jaguares also leapt past Cruz Azul (5-2-2), which toppled Monterrey, 2-1, in the week's featured match.
- THE TOP 3
1. ANOTHER CHANGE AT AMERICA
America's disastrous campaign finally hit bottom -- or close enough.
The Aguilas' loss at Jaguares cost technical director Carlos Reinoso his job, no surprise, and club legend Alfredo Tena has been brought in and asked to make things right.
There's plenty wrong at the Mexico City giant, which has won just one of its last eight league games -- and that over last-place Atlas -- and sits 16th of 18 clubs with the worst defensive record in the Apertura.
Reinoso, who took over for Manuel Lapuente last January after America opened last spring's Clausura with a 0-2-1 mark, was facing the ax when he submitted his resignation following the defeat in Tuxtla Gutierrez.
Jurgen Klinsmann's radar for Latino talent is sharper than his predecessors', as America's Edgar Castillo, San Luis' Michael Orozco Fiscal and Pachuca's Jose Francisco Torres can attest.
The best of the Americans in Mexico -- not counting Tigres' Moises Orozco, not yet a first-teamer -- might be Club Tijuana's flank attacker Joe Corona, and he, like so much of the U.S.'s top Latin talent, has a choice to make.
Corona is eligible to play for the U.S., Mexico or El Salvador, and he has options, so it seems, with all three. He's in camp with the Mexicans' under-22 team -- the foundation of the Federacion's Olympic aspirations -- after an invitation to join the U.S. national team was scuttled by Klinsmann's hiring.
That's what Corona told his hometown newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune: He was invited by Bob Bradley into the U.S. camp for the Aug. 10 U.S.-Mexico game in Philadelphia, and when Bradley was canned and Klinsmann hired, the invitation was rescinded.
Mexico followed with the U-22 invite, and Corona -- born in L.A., formative years in Tijuana, in National City since he was 10 -- has always figured first come, first served.
He's already turned down El Salvador, his mother's homeland, but says playing for El Tri is “my dream.”
“We moved to Mexico right after I was born, and that’s where soccer was introduced to me,” Corona told the Union-Tribune. “In the South Bay [area of San Diego], it’s a Mexican culture, too. I was always in that environment. All my friends, when we would watch the U.S.-Mexico games, we were hardcore fans of Mexico.
“It’s not like I’m saying no to the U.S. But playing in an Olympics for Mexico, that would be an incredible experience.”
Club Tijuana deserved more than it got from its opening-game loss to Morelia, and the Xolos gave mighty Monterrey a scare in week two, opening a two-goal lead and holding onto a tie until two quick, late goals knocked them down.
Couldn't hope for much more at Santos Laguna, the best team to start the Mexican Primera Division season, after routs of Pachuca and Atlante, right? Hardly. Tijuana's first top-tier triumph was one to remember.
San Diego's Joe Corona, looking more and more like someone who should be in Philadelphia this week, played linkman as the Xoloitzcuintles (1-2-0) overcame a first-half deficit for a 3-1 victory. Jose Sand scored the 54th-minute winner and set up two more: Fernando Arce's fine equalizer just before halftime and Dayro Moreno's finale in the 64th.
The Dogs will be back home Sunday, taking on Puebla at Estadio Caliente.
- THE TOP 3
1. FIRST WINS: There were eight winless sides, out of 18, after the first two rounds of Primera play. All eight, Tijuana included, notched first victories during last week's “doble jornada,” so now there are 13 teams with one win. That's 13 teams with three or four points.
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 Acuña 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