Graham Parker for Al Jazeera America

Two soccer teams, one blurring border

Battle for players and fans between L.A. and Tijuana reflects cultural reality where the US and Mexico meet


At some point this month, Hispanics are set to become the largest racial or ethnic group in California for the first time, according to a report from the state’s Department of Finance. The same report also said that by 2060 Hispanics will be by far the largest group represented in the U.S. workforce, redrawing the map of American labor.

But California soccer fans could have told bureaucrats that the maps started being redrawn some time ago. As the global game has steadily infiltrated North America, it has brought about demographic changes of its own. And in Southern California, in particular, the stage is set for a protracted battle for fans and players and, long term, perhaps the heart of American sports. 

As the Department of Finance's projection was expected to come to fruition, the latest symbolic chapter of that SoCal soccer battle was playing to a conclusion in Tijuana. 

Early tailgaters outside Estadio Caliente in Tijuana, Mexico, before the clash between the Galaxy and Xolos.
Graham Parker for Al Jazeera America

On Tuesday night, the upstart Club Tijuana who had stormed from the lower leagues to win Liga MX in 2012 beat the L.A. Galaxy — the ambitious MLS club trying to build a global presence in the wake of David Beckham’s tenure with the side — in the quarterfinals of the regional CONCACAF Champions League.

CONCACAF is the governing body for North and Central American and Caribbean soccer. Its competitions, particularly World Cup qualifying cycles, have fomented a long and fierce rivalry between the United States and Mexico teams (the traditional powerhouses of the federation) — a rivalry that has grown in significance with the rise of the United States over the last two decades on the soccer world stage. 

Yet more recently, some of the focus of the battle has shifted to the two countries’ domestic leagues. Major League Soccer in the U.S. has a stated ambition of becoming a top 10 league in the world by 2022, yet has repeatedly stalled at the next significant hurdle — overtaking its counterparts from Liga MX in Champions League play. 

Within that context, the potential rivalry sketched out by the clash between the L.A. Galaxy and Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente (or Xolos, as they are better known) suggests a new level of intimacy to the challenge, echoing the other changes that are transforming the region.

Graham Parker for Al Jazeera America

Paul Arriola is an unlikely seeming symbol of a soccer war.

Fresh-faced, with his hair slicked back in a modest quiff, the 5-foot-7, 19-year-old Tijuana striker was a peripheral figure during the two games between the sides — traveling with the team but not making the starting lineup or bench in either game. Yet in one moment, at the Galaxy’s StubHub Center stadium, he offered a snapshot of another front between the two sides: the battle for California youth talent. 

Arriola paused in the Galaxy tunnel after the warmup for the first of the two-game series (which L.A. won, 1–0), seemingly oblivious to the giant mural that decorates it, depicting Beckham lifting the MLS Cup with his teammates with the caption “All Champions.” 

At one point, Arriola might have expected to join the next generation of young players vying to become champions in L.A. A member of the team’s highly rated youth academy, he was expected to sign a professional contract with the Galaxy last year, but at the last minute he decided — believing he had a better chance of playing with the first team in Tijuana — to sign with the Mexican side.

Gyassi Zardes stretches before the first game between the Galaxy and Xolos.
Graham Parker for Al Jazeera America

The signing of another so-called homegrown player, Gyassi Zardes — who joined the local team rather than entering the MLS draft (where he would undoubtedly have been number one pick) — soften the blow for the Galaxy. But the defection of Arriola clearly still rankles team president and former player Chris Klein, who talked about the importance of a new Galaxy reserve team, Galaxy II, in retaining the likes of Arriola in the future.

“It’s vital. If you listen to Paul, one of the reasons that he says [heavy emphasis on ‘says’] that he chose Xolos, is because he didn’t think he was going to get the playing time,” Klein said. “Now, I would debate whether that’s the case now for him, but if he was still in our system he would be playing a minimum of 30 games in between our first team and Galaxy II … We can now say, ‘Here’s your path.’”

Klein is proud of the Galaxy’s youth system, and its ability to now draw on a generation of young local players who may have grown up watching the team and naturally gravitate toward it. He touted “the perfect climate — they can basically train with the ball 364 days a year.” And MLS rules mean that within a 75-mile radius, the players L.A. develops and trains are protected from their competitors in the league when it comes time to sign them to pro contracts.

Protected within the MLS, that is — not from cross-border raids.

“Our area is 75 miles from where we’re standing right now and a team like Xolos don’t have those limitations,” Klein said at his team’s home stadium, “so they’re very present in San Diego and they certainly come and scout our academy. They don’t ask our forgiveness for that! They’re trying to build something too…”

Graham Parker for Al Jazeera America

Klein is noting a particular friction between two soccer business cultures: the closed, protectionist model of MLS, with its joint ownership, single-entity structure and rules intended to force competitive parity within its teams, and the free-market Mexican model, where team benefactors have no limits on their spending (and few regulations, it seems — three Mexican sides are currently not paying their players, including Querétaro, which recently signed last season’s MLS top goal scorer, Camilo, after an aggressive bid for the player in the off-season). 

U.S.-based fans of the Tijuana Xolos have designed logos reflecting blended identities in Southern California.
Courtesy Martin Albert

Since being founded as a lower-league team in 2007 — the year Beckham arrived in Los Angeles —Tijuana has made no secret of its ambitions north and south of the border. Rapidly ascending to the top tier of Mexican soccer, Xolos won the title in 2012 and have tellingly built a team that blends Mexican and U.S. talent. Aside from young international players such as Arriola, they also boast international stars such as Joe Corona and Herculez Gomez — a player known for his outspoken views on the fates of Mexican-American players and who sees his current team’s ambition as a challenge to US complacency.

“If I was a Mexican club I’d go to every single place, every single market, where MLS can’t put any type of camp because they have local rules they can’t infringe on,” Gomez said. “I’d go to all those areas and I would just set up shop and just pluck away. I think the rules are silly when it comes to things like that.”

Gomez also notes the cultural barriers, such as pay-to-play programs, that cause certain players to slip through the cracks of the American system.

Herculez Gomez (left) walks with Club Tijuana teammate Paul Arriola before a game against the Galaxy in L.A.
Graham Parker for Al Jazeera America

“You can go back and talk about youth development, or lack thereof, of the Chicano player. I was a kid who wasn’t of means, and I didn’t have the money to play ODP (Olympic Development Program). It didn’t mean I didn’t have the talent — I just couldn’t afford the $100 a day mini-camps,” Gomez recalled. “So I looked south … All these clubs across Mexico are scouting out academies all across the U.S. They really work hard at trying to find that talent — they realize what type of player there is there. And I think US Soccer and MLS are just coming around to it. And I know it freaks them out. I know it scares them that Mexico is so deeply rooted in their own system.”

So while soccer writers were this week praising U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann for persuading U.S.-German starlet Julian Green, who plays for Bayern Munich, to declare as a U.S. international in time for a possible World Cup appearance, Gomez pointed to other players being lost to Mexico through inertia.

“When they choose to go south at such a young age, you can be brought up, even if you are American, you can feel different things,” Gomez said, pointing to Isaác Bruzuela, a U.S.-born player currently playing with Mexican club Toluca who’s also with the Mexican national team and might be the best player in Mexico now. “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with Isaác, and he wanted to come to the U.S. Players like that, they should be lost, and when they don’t have the opportunity here [in the U.S.] and they go over there, that’s the potential risk.”

Graham Parker for Al Jazeera America

It’s not only U.S.-born players who are lured by Mexico. Among the most fascinating presences at Tijuana home games are the collections of Americans electing to cross the border from San Diego to watch Xolos. One group, going by the nickname “Gringoxolos,” is an intriguing glimpse into a new form of hybrid identity and support.

San Diego–based Tijuana fans have started their own club.
Courtesy Martin Albert

“We love high quality futbol so much that going to Tijuana is a no brainer,” said Martin Albert, one of the Gringo Xolos. “We’re a bunch of surfers that rent a house in Baja for that, and now we have a reason to go into the city with Xolos. I think that living in San Diego, so close to the border, opened my mind about the difference in our cultures and made me want to be a part of all cultures.

“Tijuana is a great city with a lot to offer a local or the tourist. It has grown up so much over the last couple of years and it’s a joy to see.”

Albert said he was a Galaxy fan until the Xolos appeared. He was drawn by a closer journey than the two-hour drive to the Galaxy’s stadium, and the generally higher standard of play in the Mexican soccer league. Now he and 15 of his friends from San Diego make the short trip across the border for every Tijuana home game.

A decked-out Tijuana fan roams the crowd in L.A.
Graham Parker for Al Jazeera America

Many more Tijuana fans were clearly visible at the first game in L.A. of the two Champions League games. The StubHub Center is part of a sprawling, almost obsessively manicured facility forming part of Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson, Calif. Efforts by lines of stewards to marshal the official Tijuana fans seemed faintly ludicrous as the stadium began to fill and red Xolos replica jerseys first dotted the crowd, then dominated the white jerseys worn by Galaxy fans.

The official Galaxy fan groups, the “L.A. Riot Squad” stood in one corner, and the constantly chanting “Angel City Brigade” behind the opposite goal, engaged in an entertaining back and forth with the Tijuana supporters — a rare phenomenon in a country so large that domestic games rarely see fans of the visiting team.

Reflecting on the atmosphere, long-time ACB member Brian Lynch remembered being a Galaxy fan before the team’s stadium was built in 2003, when the home crowd had a very different flavor.

“In the Rose Bowl days it was soccer die-hards and families,” he said. “It was very much a niche thing — no one compared us to Mexico back then. MLS wasn’t in competition with other leagues in the world, so you'd get people wearing Club America and Manchester United jerseys who wanted to hang out and watch the game. It was fun, but it wasn’t the kind of thing that was going to build a team or a league.”

Lynch said the intimacy at the team's own stadium creates the conditions for the organized groups to grow organically and, with them, a culture of Galaxy support.

Graham Parker for Al Jazeera America

Despite the loyalty of the hard-core fans such as Lynch, Los Angeles is a famously difficult city to build sporting loyalties in, with so many competing attractions, and the logistical difficulties of transport to midweek games in particular. In Tijuana, meanwhile, the stadium has become a locus of hopes that the city can shed its seedy image in favor of the family-friendly achievements of the soccer team, which won the two-game Champions League series by an aggregate score of 4–3 after a 4–2 win at home Tuesday.

A statue of Club Tijuana's namesake, a Xoloitzcuintle dog, greets fans from high atop the stadium.
Graham Parker for Al Jazeera America

The second leg of the Champions League series landed in Tijuana, where the stadium rises like a concrete fortress on a hill, with a large statue of a Xoloitzcuintle dog stands sentinel over the city on the roof of the main stand. The stadium is next to a dog track and the club chose the hairless border dog as a mascot (the “Gringo Xolos” added sunglasses and a surf background to the dog for their logo). Close up, the stadium is a striking contrast to the neat StubHub Center. It is a work in progress, with steel rods and unfinished concrete hanging off the giant grandstand, whose interiors are alternately unfinished or luxuriously appointed. The stadium reflects the team: raw at times, but brimming with potential. 

Comparing the two stadiums, it’s hard not to see them as metaphors for the respective leagues: one controlled, neat, and aware of contingencies, the other impatiently ambitious, and monied — if a little frayed at the edges. 

And while the flavor of each fanbase bears local idiosyncrasies, the similarities between them outweigh the differences. The universal identity of the soccer fan is a category of its own. Lynch, the Galaxy fan, said he often has more in common with the person next to him at the game than with most of his work colleagues. Given demographic projections and the upward global trend of soccer across all groups, there may be a lot more people standing at games next to him — and across from him, supporting the other team — sooner rather than later.