Signs of Promise Amidst Xolos’ Middling Start to the Season
Club Tijuana has so far been the best representation of an average Liga MX team.
Following Sunday’s 1-1 draw against Cruz Azul, Xolos now remain at a middling position at 10th place in the league table.
Although they haven’t scored an eye-catching amount of goals, they haven’t struggled to find the back of the net either. Defensively, the story remains the same. Moments of brilliance stand out just as much as complications within Tijuana’s altered backline. Xolos’ zero goal differential, with four goals scored and four allowed, is perhaps the most obvious example of the team’s mediocre start.
So as we surpass the first-quarter of the regular season, worries continue to hover above the mid-table squad. Most obviously, questions remain about the attack.
While the defense seems set --- Luis Fuentes, Juan Carlos Valenzuela, Julian Velazquez and Omar Mendoza all have guaranteed roles --- there are still unknowns about certain positions in the midfield and frontline. For better or worse, manager Diego Cocca has yet to solidify a consistent attacking setup.
Despite the fact that a few players such as Juan Martin Lucero, Luis Chavez, Diego Rodriguez, Ignacio Rivero and Miller Bolaños have the trust of Cocca, other options such as Erick “Cubo” Torres, Jesus Angulo, Eryc Castillo, Rubio Rubin and Diego “Pulpo” Gonzalez have drifted in and out of the starting XI.
Looking forward, things might become even more complicated when it comes to selecting midfield/attacking names. Newcomer Fabian Castillo, who was given the No. 10 jersey, has a good chance of squeezing into Xolos’ starting squad. Elsewhere, we can’t count out Alejandro Guido either. The American could eventually find a key role after he recovers from a pelvic injury.
Skillful attacking players are obviously available, but the issue of which options Cocca selects will become more of a talking point if the team continues to struggle with collecting victories.
"We are a new team, getting used to each other," recently stated Cocca after Sunday's game, highlighting the need to calibrate his roster. "We are working on it and we will continue to adapt."
At the risk of overlooking the defense, we also have to discuss the backline.
A key component in Tijuana’s success last season was a reliable defense that only allowed a total of 12 goals in 17 games. Pablo Aguilar, who left the team for Cruz Azul over the summer, was by far the most important and influential figure when it came to that 12-goal tally. Without the Paraguayan, it’s doubtful that Xolos’ backline will remain as stable.
With 13 games left in the regular season, should Tijuana fans already begin to worry?
Although it is fair for Xolos supporters to feel anxious about the unrefined attack and weakened defense that helped create the average start, Tijuana is still capable of thriving in the next stages of the Apertura.
As mentioned earlier, Cocca has a number of attacking players to work with.
At the very least, Tijuana now has an interesting amount of depth that can be properly utilized once the manager fine-tunes his ideal XI. The introduction of Castillo --- a former MLS All-Star --- is one that should be fascinating to follow as well. By the time September rolls around, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if the pacey Colombian winger secures a starting spot for Tijuana.
Once there, it's exciting to think of a lethal combination that would likely include Castillo, Bolaños, Rivero and Lucero.
Regardless of Aguilar’s departure for Cruz Azul, Xolos still have a goalkeeper that is capable of compensating for any defensive issues: Gibran Lajud. Once an inconsistent youngster, the 24-year-old has now become a crucial figure that can regularly produce game-changing saves. After earning a call-up to the Mexican national team in January, it seems as though a place with El Tri will also be up for grabs for the player in the next several months.
It must be noted, too, that academy players will be a wild-card for Tijuana. Intriguing young talents such as Daniel Lopez, Antonio Nava, Luis Gamiz and Edson Alvarado are all worthy of earning some cameo appearances as substitutes. With the new league rule setting aside 765 guaranteed minutes for players born in 1997 or after, Cocca might be forced to test out some of the youngsters within the club.
As average as the season has so far been, there is still reason to have faith in Tijuana. If Cocca soon figures out his ideal attacking options and if Lajud remains competent in net, a return to the playoffs wouldn't be out of the question for Xolos.
In a league that is as unpredictable and erratic as the Liga MX, anything is still possible for the Tijuana side that is capable of finding improvements in the near future.