Tijuana Xolos open season with new players, new English-language TV deal

Tijuana's Omar Mendoza (left) maneuvers for control of the ball against Toluca's Luis Quinones during Tijuana s 4-1 loss in the Liga MX semis last spring.
(Jorge Núñez / EFE)

Liga MX, Mexico’s top professional soccer league, is like a sand dune, seemingly looking the same but in actuality shifting in the wind. It is a league defined by constant change.

The Tijuana Xolos are not immune from the soccer world’s forces of nature, significantly shuffling the roster just months after an inspired run to the Liga MX semifinals. Five starters from the last game at Toluca are gone, plus two others who got minutes in the Clausura playoffs.

English translation: You’ll need a program when they host Chivas of Guadalajara on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Estadio Caliente.

In their place are a collection of Mexican and South American players that include Erick “Cubo” Torres, a 25-year-old forward who scored 36 goals in 93 games in Major League Soccer, 12 coming in one scintillating 17-game stretch at the start of the 2017 season. He’ll replace powerful Argentina striker Gustavo Bou.

Torres came from Mexico City club Pumas, as did Luis Fuentes, a replacement for departed left back Damian Perez. Argentine defensive midfielder Damian Musto is out; Uruguayan Diego Rodriguez is in. Paraguayan central defender Pablo Aguilar is out; Argentina’s Julian Velasquez, most recently with Cruz Azul, is in.

There’s also a new, NFL-style artificial turf for them to play on.

The most transformational change, however, might be off it.

In the stadium, and in your living room.

Estadio Caliente has been technologically upgraded by Cisco Systems and Mexico Internet Exchange with 430 WiFi access points, miles of fiber optic cables and a dedicated control room to monitor bandwidth efficiency. There are 300 LED televisions at concession stands and elsewhere. And across from the banks of restaurants and luxury suites, construction continues on more suites, a terrace and eventually a massive 164- by 78-foot video board (or a 2,179-inch diagonal screen).

The screen in your living room is considerably smaller, but now you’ll be able to watch the Xolos with English-language commentary.

It was possible to hear Xolos telecasts in English last season, in a sort of reverse osmosis method by using your TV’s SAP (Second Audio Program) button originally designed to provide Spanish dialogue on English-language shows. It was more of a quiet experiment than a full-fledged campaign to go bilingual.

But it is now, with a unique multiyear broadcast contract with Fox Sports on both sides of the border.

All Xolos home games will be shown live nationally on Fox Sports 1 or Fox Sports 2, beginning Saturday against Chivas on FS1. They’ll also be in Spanish in the United States on Fox Sports Deportes, and in Mexico on Fox Sports Latin America.

And, they’ll be shown locally in San Diego on Fox Sports San Diego. Two games will be shown on delay due to conflicts with Padres baseball, and one will be on Fox Sports West instead of FSSD, but all of them will be streamed on the Fox Sports Go app as well. The same is true for home games of Liga MX’s Monterrey club.

“We’ve been trying to grow the brand in the United States, from San Diego and expanding north and east,” said Roberto Cornejo, the club’s deputy general manager who is a Francis Parker High alum and oversees its U.S. operations. “With our TV deal was expiring with TV Azteca, we had opportunities with Fox Sports and another competitor in the United States. We felt the offer from Fox Sports was the better one for what we want to do.

“We think it makes a big difference for fans to watch in their language of preference.”

Regional Fox Sports affiliates also can air Xolos games. Fox Sports Arizona has announced that it will, showing the Xolos on tape delay when there are conflicts with baseball’s Arizona Diamondbacks. The same will apply in the rest of Southern California on Fox Sports Prime Ticket or Fox Sports West.

FSSD also has been regularly airing a one-hour “Xolos: Tijuana’s team” documentary written and directed by Saint Augustine High alum Chris Cashman.

With the exception of a Sept. 29 game at Monterrey (which will also air on Fox Sports), all of Tijuana’s road games will be televised in the States on Spanish-language Univision and its affiliates, which is good news unless you have Dish Network or Sling TV. Amid a dispute over carriage fees, Dish and Sling dropped Univision channels when their contract expired at the end of June.

English-language TV commentary is one way of realizing the club’s bi-national vision. Another: Moving most home games to Saturday and Sunday nights from Fridays, when both sides of the border are knotted in rush-hour traffic. It was hard enough coming from San Diego; it was essentially impossible from Orange County and Los Angeles.

Now fans can leisurely cross the border, spend the afternoon shopping, get an early dinner, gamble at the Caliente casino adjacent to the stadium, even stay the night.

The change to weekends is already reaping benefits. Cornejo said season tickets for the Apertura season are “99 percent sold out.”

The final piece, then, is delivering on the field, something the Xolos did early and late during Diego Cocca’s rookie season as coach. They cooled after a hot start, then rallied to make the playoffs and upset third-seeded Monterrey in the quarterfinals before succumbing to Toluca in the semis.

Cocca built a pragmatic team based on defense — allowing a league-low 12 goals in 17 regular-season games — and the offseason acquisitions seem to continue that philosophy. The big question becomes whether Torres can transfer his MLS success to Liga MX and fill the void left by Bou, who had 10 goals in 33 appearances with Tijuana. Torres did not score in limited duty with Pumas last season after returning to Liga MX from MLS, where he scored 14 times in 2017 alone.

The changes, at their root, are about image and ownership. This is clearly now Cocca’s team, with his players, with his imprint on the roster. And this, the club hopes with its unprecedented TV deal, is no longer just Tijuana’s team, increasingly belonging to both sides of an international border.

“We’ve been working at this for a long time, trying to grow our brand north of the border, and getting the games on in English is a big part of that,” Cornejo said. “It’s big for us.”


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1:55 p.m.: This article was updated with additional information about Fox Sports San Diego’s plans.