Not since the golden days of Fulhamerica has a foreign club so taken to American players, but with its proximity to the United States, rabid fanbase, and success in Liga MX, Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente (whose full name deserves to be written out, because it’s great) has officially received the mantle. The U.S. men’s team has seen Joe Corona, Herculez Gomez, Edgar Castillo, Michael Orozco, and most recently Greg Garza and Paul Arriola all contribute both on the international level and for Xolos, but their influence doesn’t stop there. Xolos are also responsible for a whole host of other U.S. youth prospects.
.@xolos_en youth players called to #USMNT @ussoccer_ynt Esparza, Uribe, Perez and Espinoza at U18 camp in Florida. #GoXolos #WeAreSoccer. pic.twitter.com/vFJmYyjdFh— @Xolos_En (@xolos_en) January 24, 2017
Esparza, Uribe, Perez, and Espinoza are just the latest in a long line of prospects to suit up for the U.S. John Requejo Jr., Fernando Arce Jr., Amando Moreno, Brandon Vasquez, and Alejandro Guido have all also played for the U.S. at various levels of the game. A couple players over the course of a few years is a coincidence. 10 to 15 players in the same amount of time earns you a reputation.
Tijuana hasn’t managed this by accident, either. It’s location and the opportunity it represents offers a chance many players don’t get in MLS. Sure, plenty of these players were born in the States to Mexican parents, but plenty more made their way to Xolos because it was the best shot they had at a career in soccer. Greg Garza found his way there after a promising youth career in which he represented the United States at every possible youth level stalled in Portugal, and it kick-started the senior level of his career. Paul Arriola saw a window closing for him with the LA Galaxy, a club renowned for having one of the best academies in MLS, and is now a starter and important attacking piece for the team that finished first in Liga MX’s last regular season and former Mexico boss Miguel “Piojo” Herrera. Think about that: there wasn’t any room for Paul Arriola in the LA Galaxy setup as they groomed prospects like Jose Villarreal and Bradford Jamieson IV at the end of 2013. Now, Jamieson and Villarreal still haven’t managed to become first team regulars for LA, while Arriola has three caps to his name with the promise of many more to come if he keeps up the wave of form he’s currently riding. Club Tijuana has given him the competition and opportunity to further his career where soccer in the States simply did not.
And it’s not just players where Tijuana has staked its claim in the American sports consciousness. While San Diego mourns the loss of the Chargers and contemplates an MLS bid, Xolos territory extends far enough North of the border to make the team unnecessary for more than a few fans.
MLS academies continue to attempt to close the gaps in American development schemes, but for many American players with the right passports, the game south of the border represents far greater opportunity to develop, succeed, and make money in a profession. Tijuana have doubled-down on their proximity to the States and the amount of players who have represented the U.S. over the past couple years, and it benefits them as much as benefits the USMNT. They get crossover appeal in the United States and proximity to two top-50 U.S. markets to capitalize on. The U.S. gets players testing themselves in the best league in CONCACAF.
There is no one size fits all development path for players. Christian Pulisic and Landon Donovan have done extremely well after turning pro very young an moving abroad, while others like Clint Dempsey succeeded in college before joining MLS. The rise of Club Tijuana has presented an alternative path for many U.S. youth players, and it’s placed many of them squarely in USSF’s international plans.