One of the best things about being a Liga MX fan is the unpredictability. Anything can - and often does - happen. It’s a double-edged sword though. Just when you think things are set up for success, they can fail spectacularly just as quickly.
Tijuana looked set for success going in to the 2017 Apertura. While they had lost key players such as Guido Rodríguez and Avilés Hurtado, one of the best youth prospects in Carlos Vargas, and inimitable manager Miguel Herrera, new manager Eduardo Coudet was one of the sport’s up and coming managerial prospects. Coudet spent big and brought in the big guns: Gustavo Bou from Argentina’s Racing Club. Juan Iturbe from AS Roma in Italy. Damián Musto from Flamengo in Brazil. Anything was possible.
Then anything happened. The team went winless in their first four matches. Players got into fights with one another on the pitch. Coudet quit amid allegations that some players hadn’t been paid their salaries. Xolos high hopes had come crashing down to earth.
The offseason that followed has been an interesting one for sure. Joe Corona, who is perhaps Xolos’ most recognizable player, was sent on loan to re-join Miguel Herrera at Club América. Henry Martín and Emanuel Aguilera were sent permanently with Corona to Las Águilas. Coming the other way from América was center back Pablo Aguilar. Joining from Cruz Azul is right back Omar Mendoza, and from Toluca comes Mateus Gonçalves, who can play striker and left wing.
Putting all of this together is 45 year old manager Diego Cocca. Cocca is coming off of a fourth place finish in the Argentine Primera División with Racing Club (where Eduardo Coudet landed). It’s assumed that Cocca will look to change the 5-3-2 that his predecessors utilized to more of a 4-4-2. This should benefit a Xolos defense that often looked lost even with five in the back.
Goalkeeper Gibran Lajud looks to be putting it all together. He’s always had the physical tools, yet he’s always seemed good for one gaffe per game. He’s made strides to remedy that, and if he should continue on that trajectory he could be one of the better goalkeepers in Liga MX. Backing him up is 38 year old Luis Michel. Michel should serve as a good mentor to Lajud as he continues to learn and grow into his role.
Right back Matías Aguirregaray will be under the microscope, as the Uruguayan’s swashbuckling runs forward often times left the defense exposed on the counterattack. If he can’t control his instinct to run forward (as well as his fiery temper), Omar Mendoza could be thrust into the spotlight.
Center back is a deep position for Xolos, with Aguilar strengthening a unit that includes Alejandro Donatti, Juan Carlos Valenzuela, Michael Orozco, and 22 year old Hiram Muñoz. They’ll need all of these players to remain sharp with Xolos playing in the CONCACAF Champions League in addition to the Liga MX schedule. Damián Pérez will look to log a ton of minutes at left back, with Topo Valenzuela or Michael Orozco possibly filling in if necessary.
Pérez will look to continue his partnership with Víctor Malcorra on the left side, with Gonçalves most likely serving as a back up. The central midfield pairing will be the most interesting to watch. Central defensive midfielder Damián Musto’s star has been falling ever since he arrived to take over for the departed Guido Rodríguez. Norteamericano Alejandro Guido saw his playing time increase during the 2017 Apertura, but couldn’t quite make the job his own. Enzo Kalinski, who came with Coudet, remains a mystery since he only played 143 minutes in the Apertura.
Miller Bolaños had a solid first season with Tijuana, and his three goals in nine games should all but cement his place in Xolos regular starting XI.
On the right wing is the mercurial Iturbe, who still seems to be a square peg in a round hole. He looked uncomfortable when asked to push out wide to create, and unfortunately he was ineffectual cutting in toward the center. In his 502 minutes, he failed to register a goal or an assist. Like Aguirregaray and Musto, Iturbe may be on a short, short leash. Behind him on Coudet’s depth chart was Luis Mendoza. Quick used his moniker-generating speed to create space and menace defenses from the right side of the pitch, generating two goals and three assists in his 594 minutes. Matías Pisano is also currently an option on the right, however in a phone interview with San Diego Red, Pisano indicated he was not in Xolos’ plans and could be on his way out of town.
Up top will be a partnership between Gustavo Bou and a couple of different options. Gonçalves is one option, as is Juan Lucero. Lucero has been in Tijuana for a year now, but hasn’t seemed to fit in on the pitch. He had just one goal in 300 minutes in the past season, and really hasn’t ever shown he can perform at the level needed even when playing off of a goalscorer like Pantera Bou.
Xolos could look to bring in another left back and left wing to serve as cover for Pérez and Nacho Malcorra for CONCACAF Champions League play. They could also look to bring in another striker if Lucero and Gonçalves don’t perform.
There will be no easy games this time around for Xolos. Their home games are against some of the league’s best, as they host Necaxa, Puebla, Querétaro, Pumas, Lobos BUAP, Morelia, Atlas, Chivas, and Toluca. On the road, it’s much worse. They’ll start the season against Cruz Azul and play at Monterrey, Santos Laguna, Pachuca, Club América, Tigres, Veracruz, and León. Cocca’s men will have to come out swinging and be opportunistic, getting any and all points they can.
If Cocca falters, it will be interesting to see if Xolos stick by him or look to bring in yet another manager to try and right the ship. While it seems like most of the tools are there for Tijuana to regain a spot in the Liguilla, there’s the one immutable truth they’ll have to contend with - anything can happen in Liga MX.