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León vs. Tijuana: The birth of Liga MX’s next great rivalry

Part one in a comprehensive look at the past, present, and future of the rivalry between Club León and Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles.

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Estadio Caliente

Every rivalry has an origin, a point where both sides can look back and point to as the reason why they absolutely can not stand the other team. Sometimes it boils down to geography. Other times, this can revolve around a few moments in time that change the trajectory of the teams involved.

May 7, 2011

León had once been the kings of Mexican soccer, winning four titles from 1947 to 1956 and grabbing one more in 1991-92. But times were hard at the turn of the century, and by the time May 4th, 2011 rolled around León had been toiling in the Liga de Ascenso (since re-branded as Ascenso MX) for almost a decade to get back to the big show. They had placed first in the 2011 Clausura and went into the playoffs as the top seed. Since Veracruz was ineligible to play, they had a bye week to rest up their players.

Francisco Velasco co-hosts The Xolos Podcast and covers Tijuana sports for the East Village Times. He’s followed Xolos since their inception in 2007, and when I asked about the rivalry he said, “Despite it’s history, León is a team that struggled heavily for many years. But both teams found success right around the same time in the Ascenso, which sparked the rivalry that transcended into the Liga MX.”

On May 4th León faced off against Club Tijuana, an upstart club in just their fourth season of existence. Tijuana had won the 2010 Apertura and Liguilla and were trying to win the Clausura Liguilla to ensure promotion to Liga MX. But while León had rolled through the Apertura, Tijuana finished fourth in the Clausura and defeated Cruz Azul Hidalgo in the first round of the Liguilla.

In the 70th minute, Alejandro Molina would give Xolos the lead on a header from inside of the box. Xolos would win the first leg, but the teams were headed back to Estadio Nou Camp in Guanajuato for the return leg on May 7.

“Getting a victory at the Nou Camp wasn’t an easy feat back (then).” said Joz Villenueva of NacionEsmeralda.

With Joshua Ábrego’s goal in the 19th however, Tijuana never looked back. Luis Alberto Orozco would add an insurance goal in the 66th and León’s hopes of going back to the Primera División were dashed. Things at the stadium got ugly as fans began to riot, first by throwing bottles onto the field and then by breaking down a chain-link fence separating the fans from the pitch as fights broke out.

Police were able to restore order after several arrests were made, but the damage had been done both to property and to the psyche of León fans. Xolos would go on to get promoted in 2011, defeating Irapuato 2-1 in a thrilling match at the Estadio Caliente to cement their place in the Primera División. León would slog on in the Liga de Ascenso into 2012.

“That was our year,” said Villenueva “and Xolos took away promotion from us. It hurt even more because Xolos was a recently established team back then, while we had been trying desperately to get back to Liga MX season after season since the year 2002.”

Kari Torres of FutMexNation agrees. “All the teams that León faces are rivals, but Tijuana is the type of rival that León has been hurt by,” she said via email. “Since the Ascenso when everything was at stake... León tasted defeat being so close to returning to first division. It is when (the rivalry) became personal.”

Marty Albert (perhaps better known as “Gringo Xolo”), said this about the genesis of the rivalry. “My first match against León at Estadio Caliente in 2011 I was informed that León was a rival. I asked why and was told about the battles in the second division that had been going on for a few years because these two teams kept meeting up in big, meaningful matches. In 2011, the Xolos beat León in the semifinals to play in the finals that lifted the Xolos to the big leagues, and that was the first spark. Of course León has been around for a long time, but spending ten years in the second division and watching a brand new team from the farthest corner of Mexico get out before you can and did create animosity.”

Part one in a five part series.

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five