Soccer’s new big dogs run loose in the borderlands

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TOP DOGS – Named for an Aztec-bred dog attributed with special powers, Los Xolos are one of the planet’s truly international teams, drawing fans from Baja California Norte in Mexico and Southern California.                                          Photos by Natalie Mosqueda

TIJUANA, Mexico – Soccer is the “Beautiful Game,” but few people expected it to have the power to lift and heal a city racked with violence.

Tijuana’s little big dogs, Los Xolos, have not stopped this city’s gruesome drug wars, but they have brought a new hope and new energy to Mexico’s largest border city.

Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente was founded in 2007, an especially horrible year during the war between drug cartels for dominance of this international gateway. In 2011, Los Xolos earned the right to compete in the top tier of the Mexican professional soccer league, Liga MX. One year later, the team improbably won its first national title. The presence of a champion professional soccer team provided salve for the scarred image of the city.

Soccer-crazy Southern Californians also love Los Xolos and flood across la linea in their red and black jerseys for matches at Caliente Stadium, the “biggest dog pound in Mexico.” Ignacio Palou, Xolos General Manager, said the team binds Mexico and the United States as one of the world’s few truly international teams.

“Since the beginning, Club Xolos has been characterized as being different,” he said. “We are a binational team. Thousands of families come from the other side of the border to watch the games and feel a passion for our sport. They celebrate the same goal.”

Los Xolos takes their name from the ancestral Aztec dog, Xoloitzcuintle (cho-los-wink’-lay). In Aztec mythology, the hairless canine was a gift from the god Xolotl, and considered a fearless guardian and loyal ally.

Roberto Cornejo, Director of Soccer Operations, said Xolos symbolize hard working people from both sides of the border who, day-to-day, fight to succeed in life.

“The spirit we demonstrate in every match tries to emulate those immigrants who came to our region searching for new opportunities,” he said.

Spanish and English can be heard in the dorms and locker rooms at the Caliente Stadium. Soccer players with dual nationality pepper the roster. “La Jauria” has star players like Paul Arriola, Amando Moreno, Joe Corona, Michael Orozco and Alejandro Guido, who represented the U.S. national soccer team in World Cup qualifiers and international competitions.

Southwestern College student Alejandro Guido, an attacking middle fielder, said he has soccer running through his veins. He started playing when he was 4, with his father and brother teaching him how to kick a ball.

“I used to live in Tijuana,” he said. “I remember playing in a local league during the mornings and then I crossed the border to play in the United States in the evening.”

Guido, 23, was part of the U.S. Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program tasked with developing young prospects who could play for the United States national team. A turning point in his soccer career came when he was selected for the U.S. squad at the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup held in Mexico.

“Many doors opened after the World Cup,” he said. “I went to Holland to be part of the SBV Vitesse, an Eredivisie professional team, but sadly, things did not work out. Then Xolos offered me an opportunity to fulfill my dream and I did not hesitate.”

Guido’s first match as a professional soccer player was in Copa MX (Mexican Cup) against the Celaya Futbol Club. Two years later, Guido made his first appearance in Liga Mx against the legendary Mexican team Chivas de Guadalajara. He was 20.

“It was a dream come true,” he said. “A lifetime’s work was finally paying off.”

The Mexican-American player said the team has given him the chance to interact with people, especially children, who find happiness through the “Beautiful Game.”

“It is an incredible feeling,” he said. “You have the opportunity to meet people who infuse you with joy for life.”

Guido said he believes Xolos is a team without borders.

“I have learned how to embrace my two nationalities,” he said. “Xolos takes the best of both cultures to create success.”

Xolos have become a bridge for young athletes on both sides of the border who want to be professional soccer players, said Palou. The team offers a platform for players to mold their technical skills and give them tools to reach the top level of the Mexican soccer league.

“Our fans are everything to us,” he said. “We want to acknowledge that support by providing a platform where young talent can have an opportunity to develop technical skills and fulfill their dreams.”

The team is building an ambitious youth program that includes the CIX, Centro de Iniciación Xoloitzcuintle on the Mexican side and the Xolos Academies in Chula Vista, Temecula, Oxnard, Minnesota, New Jersey and North Carolina.

Director of Xolos Reserves Ignacio Ruvalcaba, said the academies reinforce the connection of the borderlands and their social impact is inarguable.

“Our doors are open for everyone,” he said. “We do not care about the nationality, we care about the talent.”

Xolos offers education scholarships, psychological preparation, housing, physical trainers, sports physicians, and nutritionists to young players who want to be part of the first team. Some players even receive monthly stipend provided for their transportation. Economically speaking, it costs almost nothing to practice with the reserves. Cornejo said having a foundation is key.

“Our mission is to build a solid base with players from our reserve teams,” said Roberto Cornejo. “We consider California and the Southwestern region of the United States as important targets where we can find and develop young talents.”

Xolos reserve teams are divided into multiple categories according to the players’ age. These categories include players born in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007. CIX admits candidates born 2013 or later and it currently has six schools in Tijuana. The under-15, under-17, and under-20’s squads are part of the Mexican league. The team currently has 25 Mexican-American players on their roster and 15 Xolitos are already branded with “international experience,” either representing Mexico or the United States.

Scouting is essential when it comes to evaluating talent. Once discovered, prospects have a short period of time to demonstrate their abilities on the “green carpet.”

“We give 22 days where the prospect can practice with the team according to his age,” said Ruvalcaba. “Then we make a comparison with other players to finally decide if he stays or not.”

Jesus Enriquez, who plays as a left-winger for the Xolos U-20s, moved from San Francisco to Tijuana at a young age to pursue his dream. Risking it all, nothing to lose and everything to gain, he left his family and friends behind after Xolos offered him an opportunity to prove himself on the soccer field.

“When I first got the call for the tryout I had to talk with my parents for a while” he said. “They were not really going for it, but I was able to convince them. That is when everything started.”

Enriquez said moving was not easy, but he adapted quickly to the city. Being away, he said, has helped him to cherish his family, appreciate American bounty, and the opportunity the club has given to him.

“I have learned that in the United States some things are just given to you and we do not care about it,” he said. “Here in Mexico, people actually appreciate what they have.”

He said he finds an interesting contrast between Mexican soccer and the American soccer. Mexican style is more technical while the American style is more about speed and strength. Enriquez said he likes the Mexican league a little more, but if he had the chance to play for Mexico or the United States, he would probably play for the United States.

The connection between San Diego and Tijuana may grow stronger thanks to soccer. After Alex Spanos announced the Chargers’ departure to Los Angeles, new plans arose to replace aging Qualcomm Stadium with a Major League Soccer team. SoccerCity would include a new stadium surrounded by parks and recreational areas. Having another professional soccer team in the borderlands could further Futbol fanaticism.

Ignacio Palou said he believes a San Diego team and Xolos can exist side-by-side with a positive impact on the border.

“Just imagine the possibilities,” he said. “Competition is always good and we can have an amicable partnership. Xolos fans are loyal and they will not stop supporting our team.”

Like art and food, soccer can erase the border. A little hairless doggie is showing the way.

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