New manager Diego Cocca's pragmatic approach has Tijuana looking up again
A little less than three months ago, Tijuana made plenty of headlines across the Mexican media landscape, albeit for the wrong reasons.
Amidst the unexpected news on Oct. 30th that then-manager Eduardo Coudet would no longer be working with Tijuana, reports began to emerge that the team was struggling with payment problems. To make matters worse, suspected locker room issues were also reported to have played a role in Coudet's exit from the club.
Xolos were in shambles off the field, and despite the fact that the squad boasted plenty of exciting attacking talents on it, the bordertown team in crisis lumbered to a final league position of 11th. For a side that finished first in the two previous regular season standings, missing out on an invitation to the playoffs was seen as a massive disappointment from all involved.
Very little time has passed since these infamous and recent events, so why should Tijuana fans now suddenly be hopeful? What has changed?
Although it's difficult to forget the negativity that has stubbornly lingered, there is reason to believe that Xolos will drastically change their fortunes in the current 2018 Clausura.
"We needed this win for the fans, because we owe them a couple," said Tijuana midfielder Alejandro Guido to ESPN FC after last Friday's 1-0 win over Necaxa. "We're happy, we're happy that the team is doing much better. There is more cohesion on the field, I don't know if you noticed, it felt better," the San Diego native later added.
If there's one person to trust about the progress of Tijuana, it's Guido. Not counting a couple of short stints with Dorados in 2013 and 2014, the 23-year-old Mexican-American midfielder has been with Xolos since 2012. Injury problems have hurt his playing time in recent years, but since the summer, he has taken part in 17 games in all competitions for Tijuana.
In the first two matches of this season --- a 0-0 away draw against Cruz Azul and the aforementioned 1-0 win over Necaxa --- it was easy to see the cohesion Guido was describing. Boosted by good individual performances from Gibran Lajud, Luis Chavez and Pablo Aguilar, Xolos were able to absorb pressure and frustrate the opposition. What followed were two clean sheets and four valuable points in hand.
The Clausura is very far from over, but thanks to the tactics of new manager Diego Cocca, Xolos have been able to push away many worries and excel during the current transitionary period. In fact, Tijuana is the only Liga MX team left that has yet to allow a goal in the tournament.
Most coaches understandably need a bit of time to adjust, but Cocca's practical approach has already helped Xolos hit the ground running in 2018.
"We must take it slowly, goal by goal," said Cocca last month in one of his first preseason statements as Tijuana manager. "We can't think about a final when we haven't qualified. We know that Mexican soccer is very difficult that in we need to demonstrate in every game what we work on every week. We need to understand that we are a team and we need to do things collectively, sacrifice for the team."
However, with only one goal in two games, it's also fair for doubters to point out that the process has so far been too slow. The same skeptics could note that certain key figures in the attack have been far from exciting and that Xolos have needed a bit of luck to not allow a goal themselves.
Also, when looking at the replay of an opportunity from Necaxa last week, it appeared as though a late goal from Los Rayos was wrongly called offside. If that goal had gone in, therefore securing a 1-1 draw, the conversation regarding Cocca and Tijuana would have a markedly different tone.
That said, every successful Liga MX season has its share of serendipitous moments. Offside or not, Tijuana will be heading into Week 3 unbeaten and with their heads held high.
Although this Saturday's away match against Monterrey will be one of the more frightening encounters of the Clausura, there is faith in Cocca's composed and sensible approach.
"I think he's very level-headed, calm and thinks things through," said Guido about Cocca after last week's victory. "I think that helps the team because it's just more pragmatic, it's more logical and it's not that emotional. That helps a lot for team spirit and for bringing the team together."
Looking past the Liga MX schedule, Cocca will need to be sure to maintain that team spirit if he wants his squad to thrive in the 2018 CONCACAF Champions League.
In spite of the painless matchup against Honduras' Motagua in the first knockout round, there's a good possibility that a handful of MLS and Liga MX clubs will halt a deep run in the tournament. It isn't outlandish to assume that Xolos are a dark horse for the CCL title, but North American powerhouses like Club America, Toronto FC, Tigres and Chivas won't make it easy.
Can Cocca's men return to their winning ways and once again qualify for the Liguilla? Will they make it a season to remember with a captivating run in the CCL?
There's still plenty to learn about the 2018 version of Xolos with Cocca at the helm, but if the last two weeks have given any evidence of hope, there's reason to believe that Tijuana will bounce back after a disappointing end to last year.
Cesar Hernandez covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @cesarhfutbol.