Even today with a club of almost all new faces under the leadership of Eduardo Coudet, Miguel Herrera is - for better or worse - the measuring stick which Coudet will be judged. Herrera’s shadow looms large in Tijuana on a club that he saved and that saved him.
July 28, 2015 was not Miguel Herrera’s finest hour. That had come two days before as Herrera and the Mexican National Team had thoroughly thrashed an upstart Jamaica side to win the Gold Cup, reclaiming the title from the United States - their third in four cycles. Having barely lost to the Netherlands in the 2014 World Cup (no era penal), the future was bright for Miguel Herrera.
Standing in the TSA line in Philadelphia though is enough to push anyone over the edge. I’ve stood in that line enough times to know. It wears you down. When trying to leave the airport, Herrera and TV Azteca’s Christian Martinoli got into some sort of an altercation.
The video shows no punches being thrown, although a woman believed to be Herrera’s daughter slaps Martinoli in the face. Martinoli claimed the elder Herrera hit him, which was good enough for the FMF, who fired Herrera on the 28th of July.
Herrera was out of soccer. Club América - the club he’d been immortalized at to those outside the sphere of Mexican soccer in this .gif - had already moved on, first with (ironically enough) Antonio Mohamed who had lead Tijuana to their only Liga MX title in 2012, then Gustavo Matosas, and then finally finding stability with Ignacio Ambríz and then Ricardo La Volpe.
Six clubs would fire their managers after that time. Pedro Caixinha was out at Santos. Chepo de la Torre was out in Guadalajara. Carlos Bustos of Sinaloa and Sergio Bueno of Cruz Azul were fired within a day of one another. The aforementioned Matosas left Atlas. Any of these clubs could have come knocking for Herrera. Who knows if they did and he spurned them, or if his phone never rang.
It wasn’t until Rubén Omar Romano was sacked in Tijuana that Herrera would get his chance. While not immediately in danger of being relegated, Tijuana needed someone to come in and provide direction to a club that had been floundering.
Tijuana needed Miguel Herrera. Miguel Herrera in turn needed Tijuana.
Xolos would finish the 2015 Apertura with a record of 5W 1D 11L, but signs were there that the club was salvageable. Colombian striker Dayro Moreno was third in the league with 12 goals, with Henry Martín providing 5 assists. Xolos’ weakness was their defense, and that winter Herrera went about strengthening the back while cutting out some of the deadwood.
Herrera had Mexican-American Greg Garza return from his loan stint at Atlas and picked up Juan Carlos “Topo” Valenzuela on loan from Los Zorros and jettisoning 12 players to various clubs on loan or for good. Along with Michael Orozco, Federico Vilar, and a young Gibran Lajud (who had been picked up during the previous transfer window), Garza and Topo along with holdovers like Juan Núñez and Dayro Moreno on offense began to implement Herrera’s 5-3-2 that had worked so well with El Tri.
It worked just as well with Xolos, cutting four goals off of the amount they conceded in the 2015 Apertura and finishing with a 3W 9D 5L record that saw them in playoff position through the twelfth week of the 2016 Clausura before finishing twelfth overall. The 2016 summer saw a master class in player acquisition by Herrera, picking up Yasser Corona, Guido Rodríguez, Milton Caraglio, Ignacio Malcorra, Damián Pérez, Emanuel Aguilera, and Avilés Hurtado. These players, along with the aforementioned holdovers from the previous season formed the nucleus of the club that would see Xolos win the first of two consecutive Superliders. Dayro Moreno won the 2016 Apertura scoring title. Avilés Hurtado tied for second in the 2017 Clausura scoring title. A team once left for dead had been reborn thanks to the brash Herrera.
Herrera was also no longer a pariah at this point, and as Ricardo La Volpe floundered with Club América the speculation mounted whether or not Herrera would jump ship to take his old job back. A war of words erupted with Tuca Ferretti ahead of the Xolos - Tigres series where the wily Brazilian called out Herrera on having one eye on his job with Xolos and the other on his next job with América. Tuca’s mind games got the better of Piojo, and Tijuana’s run ended. To no one’s surprise, Herrera left for Mexico City, taking a few players with him on his way out the door.
Chaco Coudet had done well in his native Argentina before coming to Tijuana, however Liga MX wasn’t the Argentine Primera División. Coudet was quick to remake the team into his own image, using a slightly modified version of Herrera’s 5-3-2. Twenty-two players were sent on loan, sold, or cut - including some of the biggest names on the club. Guido Rodríguez and promising defender Carlos Vargas followed Herrera to América. Milton Caraglio and Juan Carlos Medina went to Atlas. Paul Arriola was sold to D.C. United in Major League Soccer. Avilés Hurtado now wears the blue and white of Monterrey. Coudet made many - myself included - unsure of exactly what in the hell was happening in Tijuana.
But then the signings started coming in. Alejandro Donatti and Matías Aguirregaray came in at center back and right back, respectively. Damián Musto and Enzo Kalinski were brought in to fill the void left by Guido Rodríguez at central defensive midfielder. Mauricio Cuero, Luis “Quick” Mendoza, and finally Juan Iturbe were brought in on the right wing, with Gustavo Bou being the club’s main offensive option. On paper, the team looked fantastic.
On the field though, the club struggled early on. The players didn’t play as a unit and poor discipline fed into one another as the club failed to score in its first 327 minutes of Liga MX play. Herrera was enjoying success at Club América, winning three of his first four Liga MX matches. It was hard not to compare the two clubs and wonder whether or not Herrera had taken Tijuana’s ability to win with him.
Since then, Coudet’s Xolos have clicked. Gustavo Bou has scored in five straight matches, with Xolos winning their last four (and drawing the first against Puebla). The team has gelled quickly, with Aguirregaray and Mendoza (and lately Iturbe) marauding down the right side of the pitch just as Arriola and Hurtado had done six months prior. Herrera’s Aguilas meanwhile have gone 5W 1D 2L this season and sit three points ahead of Tijuana on the table. Both of these teams were always on a collision course, with the weight of Xolos’ recent history with Herrera adding to the velocity which these two clubs find themselves hurtling toward one another.
I am not sure how Herrera will be greeted upon his return to Tijuana. I asked twitter, and as of this writing, more than half said that he’d be greeted with boos. I don’t begrudge anyone for booing Piojo, especially after just leaving at the first opportunity to return to América. A handful said they thought he’d receive cheers from the crowd, and I get that as much as I get booing him. After all, he saved the club from relegation and built it into a club worth paying attention to. He brought in the pieces that are still here today as well as pieces that have been flipped to bring in other players. He made watching Xolos fun again and left it in a position for a guy like Coudet to come in and succeed.
Almost a third said they’d be indifferent, which for me is impossible. Like all good sports figures, I don’t believe Piojo lends himself well to indifference. You love him or you hate him, but you definitely can’t not care about him - especially if you’re a Xolos fan. Like some weird zodiac, El Piojo and El Perro will forever be linked.