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Border crossings into Mexico become more frequent for soccer

SportsMexicoMajor League SoccerToronto FCHerculez GomezJoe Corona

Paul Arriola probably isn't the most representative example of a Mexican soccer player.

Born in California, he played for two U.S. national teams and, as a teen, trained at the Galaxy's academy in Carson. Though he could see Mexico from his house in Chula Vista, he never spent much time there and his Spanish is very much a work in progress.

But Arriola, in his second year with the Tijuana Xolos, is representative of the direction Mexican soccer is headed. Because in recent years that country's top club teams have recruited dozens of U.S. citizens just like him to come play south of the border — something that would once have been unthinkable.

"It's a growing trend for a reason," says Arriola's Tijuana teammate Herculez Gomez, who represented the U.S. in the last World Cup but has spent the last five years playing for club teams in Mexico. "Mexican teams are seeing the value of what we have in the U.S. I think we should take pride in that."

This season there are more than 20 players with U.S. citizenship on teams in Mexico's top two leagues — including seven with Tijuana, which plays the Galaxy on Tuesday in Mexico in the decisive second leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal.

And that number figures to grow because big clubs such as Chivas, Club America and Pachuca now scout heavily in the U.S. while others, such as Tijuana, operate youth academies here.

"Mexican clubs have realized how much talent American kids have," says Arriola, who at 18 set up a goal just four minutes into his Liga MX debut last summer. "It's usually when they're young, 14, 15, 16 years old. This is when the Mexican teams realize, 'Hey, before these guys get stuck in an MLS team or college, let's try to take him down here, get him adjusted to the system, get him more technical and he'll be fine.'

"There's many examples."

Even Chivas, which boasts of being the only Mexican club never to suit up a foreigner, has used Glendale's Miguel Ponce and San Jose's Jesus Padilla in recent years. Because both players have Mexican-born parents, they qualify for dual citizenship and are considered domestic players under Liga MX rules, which limits teams to four foreigners.

The cap on imported players, which some have criticized as xenophobic, actually has merit and was adopted largely to benefit Mexico's national team. If Liga MX rosters were filled with imported players, the thinking went, there would be fewer minutes for Mexicans, whose development would be stunted.

For proof that theory might be accurate, Mexico can point to England, where the Premier League is dominated by international players and the national program is in decline. Not surprisingly, support for a Mexican-style roster limit is growing in England.

In Tijuana, the Xolos have adhered to the letter of the law while violating its sprit. All seven of the team's American-born players have Mexican parents or grandparents, qualifying them as domestic players. But all seven have also played internationally for the U.S. and some, like Gomez, Arriola and midfielders Joe Corona and Alejandro Guido, still cross the border daily, commuting from homes in San Diego County to Tijuana for games and practices.

Tijuana Coach Cesar Farias, who is Venezuelan, sees that as a positive.

"Mexican soccer looks for talented players no matter their nationality," he says matter of factly. "In the United States there are players with talent."

Gomez agrees.

"They see the value here," he says. "You really haven't scratched the surface when you look at all the Mexican Americans playing in Mexico and all these U-20, U-17, U-15 programs. So on a personal note, it gives me great satisfaction to see where this is going.

"I think it speaks volumes of not only what we produce on this side but how they value us on that side."

The widening of the border hasn't cooled the bitter soccer rivalry between the U.S. and Mexican national teams, though. If anything, it has fanned the flames.

Gomez, who has played for the U.S. national team against Mexico and for Mexican clubs against U.S. teams, says the emotions can be similar in both settings.

"You're in the locker room and you hear the way they talk, the way they pump themselves up," he says of his club teammates. "It's kind of an eerie resemblance to the way we pump ourselves up when we're about to play against Mexico. It's gotten to the point where, whether you want to admit it or not, it does become U.S.-Mexico.

"Once you experience it, you do kind of get that deja vu, like, 'I've felt this before.'"

And sometimes that passion can be hard to contain to only one country north of the border. When Gomez played for Mexico's Santos Laguna against Toronto FC in a previous Champions League tournament, he remembers an assistant coach working himself into a lather while rallying the players for a semifinal match.

"He's a great motivational speaker and he's getting us pumped up," Gomez recalls. "He's like, 'These guys have baseball, these Americans have football, these Americans have basketball, they've got NASCAR. They don't have [soccer]. They're not going to take this from us!'

"And I'm sitting there like, 'They're Canadians.' But it just goes to show how passionate, how much they take it into U.S. vs. Mexico. So … it does become something special."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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SportsMexicoMajor League SoccerToronto FCHerculez GomezJoe Corona
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