The Tijuana Xolos played their last regular season game of the Liga MX Clausura 2017 this past Saturday, May 6, against Veracruz at the Estadio Caliente. Heading into it, the match was an important one for numerous reasons. Specifically, for the Xolos, the win in this encounter would secure a first-place finish and a boost of momentum heading into the playoffs.
Miguel Herrera presented a 4-4-2 formation and a similar lineup to what he had been using with the same key absences in the backline. Gibran Lajud started in between the sticks, while Hiram Munoz, Carlos Vargas, Juan Carlos Valenzuela, and Juan Carlos Nunez made up the back line. The two central midfielders were Joe Corona and Guido Rodriguez while Paul Arriola and Ignacio Malcorra played out wide. Finally, the attacking duo was made up of Aviles Hurtado and Milton Caraglio. The key players that were missing from the game were Emmanuel Aguilera, Michael Orozco, and Damian Perez, who were all out injured.
It was an ironically chilly night at the Estadio Caliente and a sold-out crowd was not expected. The big boxing match between Saul “El Canelo” Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. intersected with the game, and that was the top priority for a lot of sports fans. There were more people than anticipated as 20,133 people filled the stadium, which has a maximum capacity of 27,333. The border city fortress did not feel as vibrant as usual and the attendance was not the issue. Perhaps it was the inclement weather which made the atmosphere at the Estadio Caliente a bit stagnant and not as exciting as other matches. Even the midweek Copa MX matches earlier in the season had produced more of a presence at the stadium.
As the players were being announced, the former Xolos players, Egidio Arevalo Rios and Cristian Pellerano of Veracruz, received a nice ovation from the home crowd. The first whistle was finally blown at the Estadio Caliente and after the first 10 Minutes of the game, Veracruz was dominating it. The Aztec Canines had not shown much of anything offensively and needed to get something going. The game did have a momentum shift around the 15th minute and the Xolos started to look like a much more menacing side. In the 24th minute, a huge opportunity sprung for the home team as Veracruz’s Leobardo Lopez committed a foul that granted the Xolos a free kick. Ignacio Malcorra, the Xolos’ free kick specialist, stepped up to take the opportunity. The Argentine released a potent strike that was curling into the opposition’s net, but Veracruz goalkeeper, Pedro Gallese, incredibly kept it out with a magnificent leap.
Quickly after that scoring opportunity, the Prehistoric Dogs found another in the 28th minute. Milton Caraglio had the ball upfield going up against a Veracruz defender. Caraglio used his strength to shield the Veracruz player off the ball and made an incredible pass more upfield to Ignacio Malcorra. The Argentine ran towards the left side of Veracruz’s penalty area and made a shot that Pedro Gallese again managed to keep out. The game became stale and neither team was producing much to keep the dull crowd invested in the game. The weather was not helping either as for the people of Tijuana it must have felt like a cold, eerie night at Candlestick Park.
The final opportunity of the half fell to the visitors as Alejandro Acosta of Los Tiburones released a powerful shot that found the crossbar of Gibran Lajud’s net in the 38th minute. After that, nothing else occurred in the half and the score was level 0-0 going into half time. The Xolos led in possession and in shots after the first half, but did not look overly dominant against a Veracruz side that was staying in the game. Miguel Herrera opted for a change and brought off Paul Arriola and replaced him with Matias Pisano to start the second half.
The second half brought more of the same in the stands and on the field. The first key opportunity of the half fell to Veracruz as Adrian Luna smashed the sphere into the crossbar of the Xolos’ net. Once again, the Aztec Canines were saved by the crossbar and the score remained 0-0. There was not much happening on the field at all and the fans turned their attention to the Estadio Caliente’s “big screen” where the Alvarez vs Chavez Jr. boxing match was being shown. There was suddenly a spark in the crowd but it was not due to the soccer being played in front of them but to the fight going on in the distance. Xolos’ star, Aviles Hurtado, commented on the oddity of the boxing match playing on the scoreboard. Hurtado said, “It was really weird when I looked at the scoreboard the fight was on but I tried to concentrate more on the game and get a goal to secure first place”.
Miguel Herrera opted for a couple of more changes. In the 66th minute, Luis Chavez came on for Joe Corona and in the 75th minute, Juan Martin Lucero replaced Juan Carlos Nunez. These were offensive-minded changes and it was clear “El Piojo” was looking for the victory in this match. Finally, in the dying minutes of the match, the Xolos received a key opportunity to score. In the 86th minute of the encounter, the Xolos received a free kick just outside of Veracruz’s penalty area. While some fans were clearly more invested in watching Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. than Luis Chavez, who was about to take the free kick, there was a moment of magic at the border city fortress. The youngster, Chavez, curled in a beautiful free-kick that was finally able to beat Veracruz keeper, Pedro Gallese. With that goal, the Xolos won the game and Chavez was able to land the final blow, unlike Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., who lost the boxing match.
Luis Chavez commented on his heroic goal and said “I was very happy. It’s something I’ve always dreamed about. I was very happy to score.” The goal gave the Xolos their first-place finish for the second consecutive tournament in the Liga MX, making history. No other team has ever finished in first in consecutive tournaments since the short tournament format was established in the Liga MX in 1997. The Xolos will have a tough opponent going into the playoffs facing Monarcas Morelia in the first round. The players and organization seem to have the objective clear at the border city fortress and it should be an interesting postseason in Tijuana. Fuerza Tijuas!