No. 9: Mexico's league, on our doorstep

Captain Javier Gandolfi, right, anchors the Xolos' backline. Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente

Counting down the 11 biggest 2011 stories in Southern California soccer ...

Fans of the Mexican Primera Division have always been in fairly decent shape around these parts. We get every single game on television, which ought to sate the throngs of Chivas, America, Pumas, Morelia, Santos and Cruz Azul fans roaming in and around L.A.

Want to see a genuine top-tier Mexican game in person? You were out of luck without a flight or long, long, long drive south, at least until this past summer, when Club Tijuana made its Primera Division debut.

The Xoloitzcuintles (a Mexican hairless dog), owned by Baja political/business maestro Jorge Hank's family, have in five years evolved from the ruins of so many failed lower-division Tijuana clubs into a cause célèbre in Mexico's third-largest city, a point of civic pride and a conduit that connects this metropolis of 1.5 million with the rest of its country -- and increasingly with legions of soccer fans north of the border.

Tijuana followed last December's triumph in the second-tier Liga de Ascenso's Apertura (or autumn) championship with a run to the Clausura (spring) final. After losing in that series to Irapuato, the Xolos won another, triumphing in the playoff between the two champs to grab one of the 18 slots in the top division -- the premier league, no question, in CONCACAF.

Already, they've welcomed Guadalajara, Morelia, Pachuca and Tigres to Estadio Caliente. The Clausura kicks off Jan. 6, and Monterrey and Santos visit next month, Cruz Azul in February, and America in March.

They take them on with a fine side led by Brazilian-born midfielder Leandro Augusto, former Mexican national-teamer Fernando Arce, Argentine captain Javier Gandolfi, and Colombian forwards Dayro Moreno and Duvier Riascos. Three Americans, all with Mexican ancestry, also are in the first team: San Diego's Joe Corona and newcomers Edgar Benitez, from New Mexico, and Texan Greg Garza.

The primary goal is survival. One team is relegated to the Liga de Ascenso at the end of each Clausura, and it's all based on points per games over three years (six Apertura and Clausura campaigns). Tijuana went 3-5-9 and finished 15th in its first Primera League season, a roller-coaster affair in which it needed seven home games to win in front of its frenzied fans but went unbeaten in the final eight games after Antonio Mohamed's midseason appointment as head coach.

Only three teams lost fewer games -- first-place Guadalajara, regular-season runner-up Cruz Azul, and third-place UANL Tigres, who went on to win the championship -- but only last-place Atlas won less, and the Xolos sit 16th on the “percentage” table, tied with Atlas and just a fraction ahead of Estudiantes Tecos. They need to stockpile points to remain in the top tier.

That's essential. The club has big plans. It has been slowly expanding and upgrading Estadio Caliente, which is adjacent to Hank's massive Caliente casino in Tijuana, with plans to boost capacity from about 20,000 -- with every seat typically filled -- to at least 33,000.

The club is building an academy program, and it is extending its reach beyond Baja, beyond San Diego and into Orange County and Los Angeles. The Xolos are looking to compete with the Galaxy and Chivas USA for the best talent in the region -- and for fans. The push could immeasurably alter the soccer landscape around here.