Spirits are high around Club Tijuana at the moment. The Xolos struggled through their first season in the Primera after winning promotion a year ago, but following a coaching change and some adjustments to the lineup, they bounced back in a big way in the 2012 Clausura. Tijuana ended last season in 7th place, earning their first ever trip to the liguilla, where they ultimately bowed out to eventual finalists Monterrey. Although fans and club probably would have liked a longer run in the postseason, it was a good accomplishment for a young club. But with the recent success comes elevated expectations, and Tijuana will now be looking to move up the table in the forthcoming Apertura campaign.
Perhaps the first piece of good news heading into the season is that the Xolos have found a measure of stability with coach Antonio Mohamed. Last season, Mohamed was able to get his team to play a balanced brand of football, something that was not very easy for his teams in the past. The club will also look to get consistent performances from their returning players, including goalkeeper Cirilo Saucedo, American duo Edgar Castillo and Joe Corona, both of whom are coming off breakout seasons for Tijuana, and polarizing striker Duvier Riascos.
There has been considerable turnover in the offseason for the Xolos, as there is at every Mexican club, but two departures stand out. Uruguayan defensive midfielder Egidio Arevalo Rios is on his way to Italy with Palermo. As a stocky midfield destroyer who was liable to score an audacious volley on occasion, Arevalo's departure could be massive. The other major loss is Jose "Pepe" Sand, who is returning to Argentina to play for Racing. Although Sand is 31 and may have peaked, his goals were key for Tijuana, especially in the 2012 Clausura, and there have to be questions about who will pick up the slack in scoring.
On the flip side, Xolos have brought in a variety of players, from strikers Alfredo Moreno and Raul Nava, who are basically on opposite ends of their careers, to Ecuadorean midfielder Fidel Martinez, who is being called the "Ecuadorean Neymar" no doubt because of his build and haircut. Argentine Cristian Pellerano was also just signed from Independiente to replace Arevalo.
In all, expectations are high that Tijuana can improve, but as we know in this league, stability is difficult to come by. If a team cannot get on the same page or if a single player's absence disrupts the set-up, it could all come crashing down like a house of cards. To their credit, the Xolos seem to have a supportive fanbase behind them, a promising core of players, and no weight of history to drag them down.
Fidel Martinez -- He played as a left-sided forward at the top of a 4-3-3 formation last week against the San Diego Flash in a friendly, and was very successful. He seems more inclined to set up teammates than take the shots himself, but Tijuana could use a player who is able to provide service to the big strikers, and also cut in and provide an attacking element from out wide. Against the Flash, Martinez drew a penalty, probably should have gotten the call on a second penalty, and set up a couple of the goals in a 6-1 romp. If Martinez can provide that spark in the league this season, he could be a star in the making.
Lingering Question Mark
Scoring -- With Sand's departure, the question turns to who will step up and contribute consistently. Riascos has a season at Tijuana under his belt, and while he shows flashes of brilliance at times, he is streaky and may not have what it takes to be a leading scorer for this team. Moreno will probably get the nod to start the season, but his age and prior record does not necessarily inspire the highest confidence. What is possible is that the team will need players from all over the field to chip in on the scoring load, with the forwards dividing up the goals with midfielders like Corona, Fernando Arce, and Leandro Augusto. If the team can continue their balanced approach and get goals from numerous players, then they should be in every game and will like their chances for making a return trip to the liguilla.
Mark Your Calendar
Week 5 vs. Tigres -- This home match will represent a good early season test for the Xolos against the 2011 Apertura champs. If they can start the season strong and turn in a good performance against the Monterrey side, it will bode well for Tijuana's development.
Lurking around the playoff zone -- It may take this team some time to gel as a unit, but if the new arrivals can soften the blow of the departures of Arevalo and Sand, there's no reason why they shouldn't be in the playoff hunt. Tijuana is still a player or two short of being one of the league's elite teams, but a top ten finish should be the minimum goal.
This is the eighth in our series of Liga MX team previews ahead of the Apertura 2012 season. See our earlier previews of San Luis, Club Atlas, Queretaro, Club Leon, Puebla, Atlante, and Jaguares Chiapas.