Even before the first whistle sounded in Toluca, Tijuana had been unceremoniously ousted from the playoffs. The club that had won back-to-back Superliders was eliminated when Cruz Azul beat Veracruz, making it mathematically impossible to eke into the Liguilla. In honesty, the offseason couldn’t come fast enough for Xolos. There’s more than enough work to be done on an organizational level, from top to bottom.
The obvious starting place might be to hire a permanent manager to lead the club, however before even doing that they should look to define what the club’s philosophy is going forward.
Xolos have historically been fluid in their personnel, with players coming and going after relatively short stints. Even Joe Corona, who was with the club back in the Primera División A days at the start of the decade and has spent more time in a Xolos uniform than anyone else, was loaned out for 2015 and 2016 season. Other players that are now seen as being central to the club’s identity haven’t been here all that long, and Tijuana’s identity seems in part to be seen as a stopping point in a player’s career rather than a destination.
Tom Marshall, who covers Liga MX for ESPN FC, noted as much when I asked him about Xolos woes. “It seems like the problem with Club Tijuana stems from more medium term cyclical issues than an underwhelming Apertura” he said. “The club has built two very good teams since it was promoted. The first won the 2012 Apertura and then made an impact in the 2013 Copa Libertadores, but was gradually dismantled after manager Antonio Mohamed left.”
“Fast-forward to 2016-17,” Marshall continued “and Club Tijuana had once again put together a squad capable of two regular season first place finishes under Miguel Herrera. The base was there for sustained push at the title in coming seasons, but Herrera parted ways to rejoin America and there was upheaval in the squad.“
Ameila Lopez, who covers Mexicans Abroad and Liga MX for FutMexNation points to this as well “For Xolos, it’s just been the lack of stability. Everything was changing. Herrera left. So did a couple of players. Coudet tried to do what he could, but the results just weren’t there. They finished in 11th, practically needing a miracle to secure a spot in the playoffs. Things just didn’t mesh. But they’re still recovering from all the changes. Next season hopefully they find their rhythm.”
The fluidity has its drawbacks, as losing players who were in the top three in Liga MX scoring in back-to-back torneos (Dayro Moreno and Avilés Hurtado) is no easy thing to overcome. Whether it’s happened by design or by accident, it could be time for Tijuana to start looking to lay the foundation for a system and identity rather than see players continually come and go.
This was also echoed by Jason Marquitz, who covers Liga MX for the Mexican Soccer Show. “The disappointing season with Xolos should have been an expected one. Tijuana arguably sold its two best players this summer, Avilés Hurtado and Guido Rodríguez, brought in a collection of new players and began a new coaching tenure with Eduardo Coudet.” Marshall added “Getting rid of arguably the Liga MX’s best player in 2017, Avilés Hurtado, was always going to cause harm and while Xolos have invested heavily in replacing him, it’ll take time.”
This squad’s personnel issues were largely problematic. Cesar Hernandez, who covers Xolos for Soccer Nation and ESPN FC, said “What stands out the most to me is problems with team chemistry, especially in the attack. New management and a revamped roster from the summer meant that it was going to take some time for the squad to start clicking. Coudet tinkered with different formations and didn’t find a win until he tried a 5-3-2 during Week 5.”
The issue of chemistry was also pointed out to me by Francisco Velasco, who covers Xolos for East Village Times and The Xolos Podcast. “The biggest problem for Club Tijuana in the Apertura 2017 was chemistry and the manager finding the right mix of players and the formation that would work best for the team. You can’t realistically expect a rebuilding process with a new manager and new players to work perfectly in the first season in any sport but in soccer, especially the Liga MX instant success is necessary.”
Nate Abaurrea, a Liga MX play-by-play commentator, said “Xolos lacked an identity this season. The multi-layered debacle that was the coming and going of Chacho Coudet was very much emblematic of the Apertura as a whole. Everything feels like it's up in the air going into this winter break. Coudet's overhauled squad was supposed to be a big, strong, tough, and infinitely tattooed ensemble of Liguilla worthy talent.”
“Instead” Abaurrea said, “the hard man act was quickly found out to be a bluff, and the border dogs were unable to revert back to the high quality, aesthetically pleasing football that they routinely played under Miguel Herrera in the last campaign. For almost the entire season, before and after Coudet's resignation, there was this discombobulated dance happening on the pitch for Club Tijuana, constantly flipping between trying to ‘out tough’ and ‘out play’ the opposition. The best tactical and philosophical approaches never seemed easy to put a finger on, for anybody. There were some brilliant moments. Damián Musto’s bicycle kick against Pachuca certainly comes to mind. There were also too many ugly moments to mention. Their ultimate finish in the table was as fitting and deserved as that of any side in Liga MX. Pure mediocrity.”
Hernandez continued, saying “Gustavo Bou and ‘Quick’ Mendoza built an unexpected connection in the attack afterwards, which then helped carry Xolos to a short but successful run in August and early September.”
The new manager will need to take stock of the current roster and see who fits and who doesn’t, both from a tactical standpoint and from a locker room chemistry standpoint. Some players can chalk up their ineffectiveness due to joining the squad late and not having time to fully gel with their teammates. Juan Iturbe and Miller Bolaños are perfect examples, joining on August 21 and September 4 respectively. Some however have been with the club since the summer and longer, and management will need to determine whether or not they’re worth keeping around for the 2018 Clausura.
“In my opinion,” said Hernandez “I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that Tijuana started dropping points around the same time that Juan Iturbe and Miller Bolaños were given starting roles. I don’t blame Coudet for trying to find a place for them, but it halted the chemistry that was beginning to build between Mendoza and Bou.”
“Bou’s goalscoring dramatically dropped afterwards” he continued, “exposing the fact that the team was reliant on him in the frontline. Of Xolos’ 17 goals this season, the Argentine striker was involved in 10 of them.”
Jonny Rico Aviles, who covers Xolos for Prost Amerika said “(For me) the biggest disappointment was Argentine/Paraguayan international Juan Manuel Iturbe, who was brought in from Italian club AS Roma. Iturbe was never able to get a hold of a starting position and spent most of the time on the bench. When he was subbed in he did not produce the quality expected for a player of his caliber.”
“Also not living up to the big shoes they were there to fill” he continued, “was midfielder Damián Musto. Xolos has had a long history of signing star defensive midfielders like Egidio Arévalo Rios, Cristian Pellerano, Javier Güémez and Guido Rodríguez. Musto played well but did not seem to get along well with his new teammates. He was seen getting involved in an altercation with Matías Aguirregaray and Victor Malcorra at the end of matches.”
Issues with ownership and the rumors that players weren’t being paid loomed large too.
“Most worrying of all was Eduardo Coudet’s exit and reports of wages not being paid.” said Marshall. Aviles added “the biggest disappointment came from the Tijuana Xolos front office. Rumors circulated and later confirmed that Xolos directors fell behind on payments of player salaries. These financial issues ended up leaving a toll on a team’s morale and Xolos was not the exception. It is rumored that the departure of manager Eduardo Coudet was tied to salary problem. Whether true or not, one thing is for sure: Xolos players seemed very uninterested in the later part of the season putting in horrendous performances that led the Xolos to fall from the top places of the league table to bottom to mid table where they missed a playoff spot.”
Also worth looking at is Xolos’ mantra “club sin fronteras” - a club without borders. Historically that has meant the club was predominantly looking north for Mexican-Americans to develop, and in the 2017 Clausura Xolos had seven norteamericanos on the roster (Michael Orozco, Greg Garza, Joe Corona, Alejandro Guido, John Requejo, Amando Moreno, and Paul Arriola). At the club now are only three (Orozco, Corona, and Guido), with Garza, Requejo, Moreno, Carlos López, and Fernando Arce, Jr. out on loan.
It should not be reasoned that this departure is the sole cause of Xolos fall from dominance in Liga MX. Every team (besides Chivas, naturally) has non-Mexican players on the roster, and Xolos successes throughout the club’s history are largely thanks to the work put in by players recently like Avilés Hurtado (Colombia), Guido Rodríguez, and Ignacio Malcorra (Argentina) but going back to players like Egidio Arévalo Rios (Uruguay), Cristian Pellerano, Javier Gandolfi, Darío Benedetto, José Sand (Argentina), and Duvier Riascos (Colombia).
“In terms of moving forward,” Marshall said “Xolos need a coach who can bring the Argentine side of the squad together with the Mexican and Mexican-American half in the short term. Over the longer term, Tijuana needs to continue to reconstruct and then not dismantle when it has something good going on.” To be sure, future successes in Tijuana will almost certainly be in part to norteamericano, Mexican, and South American players.
But the club has an advantage thanks to its relative geographical isolation within Mexico and its proximity to one of the biggest soccer hotbeds in the United States. To completely ignore this would be to discount one of the things that makes Xolos unique.
Hernandez says “Looking forward, I think working on that team chemistry is key. In the attack, Bou is the clear starter and the new management either needs to find a way for Iturbe or Bolaños to build a strong connection with him, or they need to give Mendoza the starting role once again. In the defense and midfield, similar problems with team cohesion need to be refined before the new year.”
Abaurrea agreed. “With all this being said, the prospects of a Bou, Bolaños, Iturbe front line attack is still an exciting thing, and with the right managerial hire, Xolos could very well find an identity and morph into a serious force to be reckoned with in the 2018 Clausura. For a team looking to make a quick turnaround, you couldn't hand pick a better league in which to do it.”