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León vs. Tijuana: Exorcising demons

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

Tijuana’s Avilés Hurtado and León’s Efraín Velarde battle for the ball.
Tijuana’s Avilés Hurtado and León’s Efraín Velarde battle for the ball during the 2016 Apertura Liguilla.
Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente press release

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.

November 26, 2016

After León’s bicampeonato they would hit the skids. Manager Gustavo Matosas resigned in 2014 days after the loss to Tijuana, and was replaced by Juan Antonio Pizzi. Pizzi would eventually steer La Fiera to a Liguilla appearance in the 2015 Apertura before heading off to manage Chile, presiding over the 7-0 thrashing of Mexico in the Copa América Centenario.

Pizzi was replaced by Luis Tena, who took the club to the 2016 Apertura Liguilla semifinals but was sacked in the middle of the 2016 Clausura after the club managed only 4 of 21 possible points. Tena was replaced by Javier Torrente. Torrente would turn the club around, gaining 22 points out of 27 and getting León into the final spot in the Liguilla.

While León struggled to make the Liguilla consistently, Tijuana struggled to avoid relegation. After a few different managers, they settled on ex-Mexico manager Miguel “El Piojo” Herrera on November 21, 2015. Thanks to winning the title and some Liguilla appearances thereafter they were largely safe from the drop, but by the start of the 2016 Apertura they’d sunk to 13th.

Piojo had however re-invented Xolos, bringing in players like Juan Carlos “Topo” Valenzuela, Guido Rodríguez, Ignacio Malcorra, and Avilés Hurtado. Xolos were fun again, and by the end of the 2016 Apertura they were superlider and would face León in the Liguilla.

On November 23, 2016 the teams met at Nou Camp in León. From the start, the hosts dominated the match. Goals from Mauro Boselli, Fernando Navarro, and Germán Cano put León that much closer to getting one back against their old nemesis. Things looked bleak for Tijuana.

On November 26, 2016 the teams played the return let at the Estadio Caliente. Nate Abaurrea, who currently does English-language broadcasts of Xolos games on 98.9 FM in the San Diego/Tijuana area and online, was on the call on local television for that game. He recounted the events of that evening to me this way:

“It was one of those nights where you felt something strange brewing, an almost eerie feeling. It was a cold, rainy night in Tijuana, with Xolos trailing 3-0 after getting absolutely waxed the Wednesday prior at the Nou Camp. I was blessed to be on the local television call of that second leg, what was without a doubt the most enthralling commentary experience I’ve ever had. I can still see every last detail of that Baja California evening, and how it all tied back to the famous Xolos comeback in 2012, torturous deja vu for fans of La Fiera. Miguel Herrera being ejected in the opening minutes and proceeding to walk through the stands to get to the luxury boxes remains a favorite memory of the night. Then the Juninho red card. Xolos hopeless, down a man and down 3-0. Then Dayro’s penalty after a bizarre sequence of events. Then Yasser Corona at the back post for 2-0. You started thinking, just maybe, that history was due to repeat. Then just moments after Yasser’s goal, Guido Rodríguez, a gritty young midfielder who hardly ever scored, sent the ground into sheer bedlam with a low strike, on a slide, through traffic and past William Yarbrough, as La Masakr3 looked like they were in flight. I screamed into my microphone, “CAN YOU FEEL ESTADIO CALIENTE!?” I can still feel the place shaking, as beer mixed with rain drops to create a storm like no other.

León pressed the entire second half, now needing a goal to advance, as Xolos were due to go through on the higher seed tiebreaker after their first place Apertura finish. A 39 year old Federico Vilar made save after save, often aided by extremely fortunate bounces, and it looked like the curse of Tijuana had struck the Green Bellied Beast yet again, León unable to get that one solitary goal against an extremely tired team playing with 10 men.

Then came the magic of Mauro. I look at that headed goal from Mauro Boselli in the 81st minute of that game as one of the most important moments of the rivalry. It felt like an exorcism. Demons departing bodies on a stormy night on the Frontera. The stadium fell almost silent. No boos. No anger. Just shock. León had finally broken Xolo hearts, after so many instances of the exact opposite happening. And the opposite was so very close to happening yet again. Just think if Xolos would’ve held on to the end, how painful that would’ve been for the fans back in Guanajuato. But Boselli, and a lovely second goal a few minutes later from Luis Montes (who was massively important on the left wing that night as both teams fought tooth and nail) saw León through to the semi-finals. La Fiera lost that semi-final to eventual champion Tigres, but that quarterfinal second leg with Xolos still stands as one of the most enthralling matches in recent Liga MX history, and surely the wildest of all the rivalry affairs between the two clubs.”

Xolos fan Jose Aguilar says “The pivotal moment in the rivalry (for me) although we lost, is the 3-2 at Estadio Caliente (3-5) agrégate in 2016 I believe.”

His reasoning behind it is that “There are three main matches: The violent clash in the Ascenso started the rivalry, the 3-2(aggregate) in the semis that Xolos came back was peak for us.

But that match where we tied the tie in the first half and with a man less and ultimately lost it later on but that match for me brought the best from both sides, and that’s when the León fans finally acknowledged that Tijuana is one of the most important rivals.”

Kari Torres of FutMexNation agrees, saying “I define it as an important victory for León because it occurred in a decisive state, quarterfinals and versus Xolos, a mixture of pressure for León, something they have been used to.“

Liga MX is known for wild matches, but León finally getting one back against Tijuana in the 2016 Liguilla is among the most dramatic in recent memory, helping to transform these two teams from common foes into rivals.

Part four in a five part series.

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