Mexico's Primera Division kicks off the first of its twin 2011-12 seasons Friday night, and fans in this region have a new dog to cheer for. Literally.
The Xoloitzcuintles of Club Tijuana, who take their name and mascot from semi-mythical Aztec hounds that, more or less, have descended into Mexican short-hairs, bring the best league south of the border right to the border -- and soon, perhaps, into San Diego.
The Xolos were the best team in the second-tier Liga de Ascenso last season and won promotion to the Primera in May, and Mexico's third-largest city isn't the only winner. The opportunity for soccer fans in Southern California to see the region's best league -- and storied clubs such as America, Guadalajara and reigning champion Pumas UNAM, in real competition -- is unprecedented, although tickets will be scarce.
Tijuana's Apertura opener Saturday night against Morelia, another club with a large So Cal following, is sold out. There are plans, not the least formalized, to bring games against Guadalajara and America -- the two biggest clubs in Mexico -- to Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, but that appears at least a year off, provided the Xolos survive their first year in the Primera. We've seen so many times the promoted club relegated after just one Apertura/Clausura cycle, including Necaxa last season.
There are several Southern Californians in the league, too, including Los Alamitos' Jonathan Bornstein (the former Chivas USA captain) at UANL Tigres, L.A.-born Herculez Gomez (the former Galaxy star) at Estudiantes Tecos, Orange's Michael Orozco Fiscal at San Luis, Calexico's Isaac Acuña at America and rising Tijuana winger Joe Corona, from National City.
A newcomer to the league is fading U.S. national-teamer DaMarcus Beasley, at Puebla.
The big change this year: No divisions. The two-season approach, with the fall Apertura and spring Clausura, remain, but now a single table will be used, with the top eight teams advancing to the postseason.
As always, every game, every team, will be televised in the L.A. area by Univision (KMEX/Channel 34), TeleFutura (KFTR/Channel 46), Telemundo (KVEA/Channel 52), Azteca America (KAZA/Channel 54), Galavision and, not quite as often, on ESPN Deportes and Fox Deportes. Select Liga de Ascenso games, usually involving Veracruz, also will be aired.
Here's a quick look at the Primera Division as the Apertura kicks off:
7 BETS TO WIN THE APERTURA
1. CRUZ AZUL (Mexico City): The excruciating wait for a trophy weighs on the Cementeros, who have come so close so many times -- losing in three Primera finals and two CONCACAF Champions League title series since 2008 -- without winning anything of consequence. They've trimmed excess from the roster, sending out players on loan (two each to Pachuca, Puebla and Morelia), and added Israel Castro, who's becoming an institution in midfield for Mexico's national team. The key man, as always, is Cristian Gimenez, but there's enough talent everywhere to win the championship.
2. MONTERREY (Monterrey, Nuevo Leon): The Rayados tumbled a bit last spring after capturing the Apertura title, and Humberto Suazo's shoulder injury had a lot to do with it. So did split focus -- Monterrey won the CONCACAF Champions League crown and will play in December's FIFA Club World Cup -- and often indifferent form. But only a couple of sides can match the depth or talent commanded by Victor Manuel Vucetich, the league's best coach.
3. AMERICA (Mexico City): Mexico's biggest club hasn't been its best for some time, but manager Carlos Reinoso has inspired some stylish play, and Mexico City money has added to the talent. Cristian Benitez, from Santos Laguna, is the big acquisition, but the Aguilas' iffy defense will be aided by the additions of El Tri reserve Paul Aguilar at right back and holding midfielder Jesus Molina.
4. PACHUCA (Pachuca, Hidalgo): The Tuzos crumbled last season, a horrid offense leading to 13th place in the Clausura, and cleaned house during the offseason, with former Galaxy forward Herculez Gomez among those sent packing. They've got the means for a vibrant attack, with the additions of forwards Felix Borja (from Puebla), Enrique Esqueda (America) and Jaime Ayovi (Toluca) and attacking midfielders Mauro Cejas (Estudiantes Tecos) and Elias Hernandez (Morelia), among others.
5. UANL TIGRES (San Nicolas, Nuevo Leon): The club from suburban Monterrey spent big money to bring in talent last winter -- striker Hector Mancilla the biggest name -- and followed it to the top spot in the Clausura standings, largely because it didn't concede goals. Adding Edgar Pacheco to the midfield mix gives Tigres arguably the best attacking depth in Mexico.
6. GUADALAJARA (Zapopan, Jalisco): Chivas' youth movement (and recovery following Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez's move to Manchester United) began to pay dividends last spring, when Guadalajara made a valiant charge toward the semifinals with a roster heavy with potential. Erick Torres and Marco Fabian de la Mora are the big names among the rising stars, but the real payoff might be a season or two away.
7. MORELIA (Morelia, Michoacan): The Monarcas opened the Clausura with a 5-0 loss to Atlas, won just once in their first five games, then took off on one of more remarkable runs of the split-season era, marching to third in the overall standings and to a spot in the final opposite champion Pumas UNAM. An encore will be tough, but if star winger Elias Hernandez can be replaced, anything's possible.
4 WHO HOPE TO AVOID THE DROP
1. ESTUDIANTES TECOS (Zapopan, Jalisco): Tecos is bottom of the relegation table among returning clubs, and only disposed Necaxa claimed fewer points during last season's twin campaigns. Herculez Gomez's reunion with head coach Luis Sanchez Sola could be big -- the L.A.-born forward won the scoring title at Puebla under “Chelis” -- but the primary reinforcements are ancient. Duilio Davino, 35, arrives from Monterrey to shore a defense that conceded 70 goals last year, and Braulio Luna, 36, and Rodrigo “Pony” Ruiz, 39, are supposed to bolster the attack.
2. GALLOS BLANCOS DE QUERETARO (Santiago de Queretaro, Queretaro): The White Roosters had the Primera's worst goal difference last year, at minus-29, and their roster isn't particularly impressive, a combination of past-their-primes and proven-nothings. One big addition: Adolfo “Bofo” Bautista, from Guadalajara. The colorful forward was on Mexico's World Cup team in South Africa, but he hasn't scored a league goal since February 2010.
3. JAGUARES (Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas): Chiapas' club was finished for the Clausura when Colombian striker Jackson Martinez was hurt at the beginning of the campaign, and so Jaguares finished 18th, or last, with 11 losses in 17 games. A healthy Martinez and the additions of his countrymen Luis Gabriel Rey and Franco Arizala provide hope.
4. CLUB TIJUANA (Tijuana, Baja California Norte): The Xolos have the talent to contend for a playoff berth, but it's tough for new clubs to survive in their first season, and they need to prove they can do so. Colombian national-teamer Dayro Moreno's arrival, as well as those of long-time Primera standouts Fernando Arce and Leandro Augusto, is reason for optimism.
3 WITH SOMETHING TO PROVE
1. TOLUCA (Toluca, Mexico): A year ago, the Diablos Rojos were coming off their second league title in four years and seventh since 1998, solidly part of a dominant trio of clubs with Monterrey and Pachuca (with Cruz Azul outside looking in). It's all gone wrong since, with Toluca slipping to 12th in last season's Apertura and 11th in the Clausura. The club is still seeking its identity following master coach Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre's post-World Cup assignment to guide Mexico's national team, and there's not been a lot of offseason movement.
2. PUMAS UNAM (Mexico City): The reigning champs don't look like much now, not after letting six first-choice players go -- including midfield kingpins Israel Castro and Leandro Augusto. Their excellent youth system's products need to produce immediately.
3. PUEBLA (Puebla, Puebla): Los Camoteros (the Sweet Potato Eaters) have for too long lived in midtable mediocrity. Could a bold makeover -- with 19 new players (and counting) on the roster -- make them contenders? Spain 2006 World Cup forward Luis Garcia arrives on a free transfer from Panathinaikos. DaMarcus Beasley looks to reinvent his club career.
LIGA DE ASCENSO'S 3 BEST BETS
1. IRAPUATO (Irapuato, Guanajuato): With legend Cuauhtemoc Blanco pulling most of the strings, the Strawberry Lashers won the Liga's Clausura title and narrowly lost to Tijuana in the promotion series.
2. LEON (Leon, Guanajuato): The Esmeraldas, once a Primera power, have been out of the top tier for nearly a decade. They were the Liga's best team last spring, and their playoff loss to Tijuana sparked a riot. If Panamanian striker Blas Perez sticks around, they'll be at or near the top again.
3. VERACRUZ (Veracruz, Veracruz): A debt crisis last April cost the Tiburones Rojos a Clausura playoff spot (and a realistic shot at promotion), but the Liga's most popular club will be in the thick again this season.
5 MOST VITAL PLAYERS
1. HUMBERTO SUAZO/Monterrey: The Chilean superstar returned from a fine World Cup in South Africa (and a hit-and-miss loan spell at Real Zaragoza) to score 16 goals as the Rayados won the Apertura championship last December. Injuries slowed him considerably during the Clausura.
2. CHRISTIAN GIMENEZ/Cruz Azul: The Primera Division's most versatile attacking force makes things go for La Machina Celeste, and his numbers -- 17 goals and seven assists last year -- merely hint at what he provides.
3. CRISTIAN BENITEZ/America: Ecuadoran sharpshooter scored 20 goals last year for Santos Laguna, 15 of them en route to the Apertura final, and the Aguilas spent a reported $10 million -- a fortune in North American soccer -- to add him to their collection of attacking talent.
4. ANGEL REYNA/America: The sprite striker has shown glimpses of his talent the last few years, but in scoring 13 goals during the Clausura became the Aguilas' point man up front. He's benefited greatly from his partnerships with Matias Vuoso and Daniel Montenegro and will be fun to see next to Benitez.
5. ISRAEL CASTRO/Cruz Azul: Pumas let the influential central midfielder go for a pittance, and it might be the difference for the Cementeros, who can team Castro with his Mexican national team partner, Gerardo Torrado.
4 BIG ARRIVALS
1. LUIS GARCIA/Puebla: The Spanish striker has starred for Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Liverpool, although he's done little since departing England in 2007.
2. DAYRO MORENO/Club Tijuana: Colombian striker poured in the goals for Once Caldas, comes to Tijuana on a reported $3.5 million transfer after deal to go to Sporting Lisbon fizzled out.
3. CESAR DELGADO/Monterrey: Argentine ring-winger/forward was a consistent scorer for Cruz Azul from 2003 until his 2008 move to French powerhouse Lyon. Now he's back, giving the Rayados even more firepower up front.
4. SANTIAGO HOYOS/Santos Laguna: The Argentine defender will join Felipe Baloy in what could be the Primera's premier central partnership as Diego Cocca takes a talented group through transition.
5 NATIVES TO WATCH
1. ERICK TORRES/Guadalajara: They're already calling the 18-year-old forward the “next Chicharito,” but -- believe it or don't -- he's more versatile, more complete than Javier Hernandez. Man United has noticed.
2. MARCO FABIAN DE LA MORA/Guadalajara: Rising attacking midfielder is one of the young guns expected to take Chivas to a title, if he can shake off any remnants from his role in the Copa America prostitution scandal.
3. ALDO DE NIGRIS/Monterrey: Late-blooming forward has become a force not only for the Rayados, but with Mexico's national team, as first-choice attacker off the bench.
4. CHRISTIAN “HOBBIT” BERMUDEZ/Atlante: Diminutive fan favorite was the sparkplug -- and primary scorer, with nine goals -- as Atlante leapt from 16th in the Apertura to fourth in the Clausura. His international breakthrough was delayed by the Gold Cup doping scandal, now happily behind him.
5. RAFAEL MARQUEZ LUGO/Morelia: The well-traveled forward with the familiar moniker -- that Rafa Marquez plays for the New York Red Bulls after seven seasons at Barcelona -- had a breakout campaign, scoring nine goals to lead the Monarcas to the Clausura title series.
NORTH OF THE BORDER: 5 BEST YANKS
1. MIGUEL ANGEL PONCE/Guadalajara: Sacramento-born, Tijuana-raised, San Ysidro-developed youngster isn't just Chivas' left back of the future. He's the present, and Mexico's national team appears to have won out over the U.S.
2. HERCULEZ GOMEZ/Estudiantes Tecos: Former MLS striker from Las Vegas tore it up for Puebla in his first year down south and won a job with the U.S. World Cup team, but he struggled to find his game until his final weeks at Pachuca. He could be a star for the Owls.
3. JOSE FRANCISCO TORRES/Pachuca: Versatile midfielder is a calming influence, and he looks to take a greater role with the Tuzos, which could lead the World Cup selection back to the U.S. national team.
4. DAMARCUS BEASLEY/Puebla: Once-revered winger isn't been the player he was supposed to be, not since his time with PSV Eindhoven, and he heads to Mexico after failing to make it at Manchester City, Rangers FC and Hannover 96.
5. JONATHAN BORNSTEIN/UANL Tigres: The Chivas USA icon saw limited time with a Tigres side that finished first during the regular season (then promptly lost its playoff opener), but he got experience at an unfamiliar position (central midfield) that could pay off now.
3 MORE YANKS TO WATCH
1. ISAAC ACUÑA/America: A blistering preseason for the 21-year-old Californian suggests he's ready to contribute to the big club. He's only played in one league game for the Aguilas but impressed in spot duty last season on loan to Gallos Blancos.
2. JOE CORONA/Club Tijuana: The former San Diego State standout still lives at home -- it's easy travel to Caliente and back, especially with a Sentri card. He made a big imprint on the Xolos' championship season.
3. SONNY GUADARRAMA/Atlante: The Texan was all over the place during the Clausura, starting off with the Potros, then heading to stints in the Liga de Ascenso with farm club Atlante Neza and Merida, then returning to Atlante for the postseason. At 24, he's ready to show he can contribute.