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Direct from Mexico

Catching Up with the American Trio in Tijuana

Edgar Castillo, Greg Garza, and Joe Corona all took different paths to Club Tijuana. But, as Adam Elder learns, the trio is happy and hoping to help the upstart club take over Liga MX.

BY Adam Elder Posted
October 19, 2012
6:57 AM
TIJUANA—On a bright, clear morning in Tijuana, Mexico, three American internationals are going through their paces at practice. Greg Garza is warming up in a juggling circle with the youth team in the empty Estadio Caliente, home of Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles. A short time later, Edgar Castillo and Joe Corona emerge from the tunnel with the senior team.

Garza, a U.S. U-23 international, joins in the typical team-building fun of pummeling, slapping, or striking whoever in the circle makes a mistake. Castillo warms up by juggling, then curling his own volleys from outside the box into the far top corner of the net—several times in a row. He and Corona, both senior U.S. internationals, jog a few laps around the field with the first team, then their group retreats to a corner of the field for a long, laughter-filled game of soccer tennis.

Unless you know better, the three Gringos are impossible to distinguish out of the group. In this Mexican border town at the doorstep of the United States, they’ve found their feet and gained recognition away from the U.S. soccer establishment—at an upstart club that itself is somewhat apart from the Mexican soccer establishment.

“I think the chemistry [at Xolos] is so good that we’re [all] friends on and off the field,” says Garza after practice. “Even though you’re American, you’re still one of them.”

Catch (from left) Joe Corona, Edgar Castillo, and Greg Garza as Club Tijuana takes on Cruz Azul tonight at 10 p.m. ET on Univision Deportes.

Their five-year-old club currently sits in first place in Mexico. And while Corona and Castillo’s club form have earned them a steady string of call-ups with the U.S. national team, Garza, a U.S. U-23 international, scored his first goal for Tijuana on Saturday night away to Santos while deputizing for Castillo at left back. Things are working out well at the moment for all three.

Luckily, in Jurgen Klinsmann they have a U.S. head coach who fully supports his players playing abroad.

“It’s a very good league,” Klinsmann said of Americans playing in Mexico. “The fact that they leave their comfort zone and play in the [Mexican] league means a lot. They work their way through, and it’s exciting to see now how Edgar Castillo and Joe Corona are starters in Tijuana. The point is for the players to see that they are equally evaluated by the national team coaches no matter where they play.”

EVEN THOUGH THEIR PATHS all led to Tijuana, their journeys here were each dramatic and distinctive.

Corona, thoughtful and soft-spoken at 22 years old, is very much the hometown hero, having grown up in Tijuana and San Diego. He’s also already somewhat of a club legend, having worked his way to the first team, as well as scoring their first top-flight goal memorialized on one of a series of banners between the locker room and the field at the stadium.

“Xolos is like home to me personally. It’s where I started playing professionally,” Corona says. “I’m very comfortable here. I’ve been making history with the club since I was in the second division. They’ve always treated me well here. Professionally, I love the way they work, and I’m happy here.”

He never bothered gaining the attention of American soccer’s youth-development establishment, but played club soccer at San Diego Nomads—the onetime youth club of Steve Cherundolo and Frankie Hejduk. Corona earned a partial scholarship to play at San Diego State, but partway through was unable to continue college due to the cost of medical expenses for his sister, who had suffered a stroke. A friend encouraged him to attend an open tryout at Xolos, who at the time were just formed and battling in the third tier of the Mexican soccer pyramid.

Corona turned out to be an undiscovered gem. As an attacking midfielder with a preternatural instinct for positioning, he reads the game well and became an integral part of Xolos’ ascension. Eligible to play for the U.S., Mexico, or El Salvador, he was called up for Mexico’s U-22 squad in 2011. But a tug-of-war ensued, and Corona suited up for the U.S. U-23’s failed Olympic bid. He shined in that tournament, scoring four goals in two matches. Even though he was disappointed not to qualify for the Olympics, his performance led to a senior call-up from Klinsmann in the summer. He was cap-tied in the U.S.’ World Cup qualifying victory over Guatemala on October 16.

“At the end of the day, every soccer player wants to be successful,” Corona says about his choice of international teams. “I feel that, maybe if you go for patriotism, you might not be as successful as if you go somewhere and try to get opportunities. But in terms of the U.S., all three of us are Americans, so we have a lot of patriotism. Just because our parents are Mexican doesn’t mean that we’re supposed to play just in Mexico or some other country.”

Castillo, of Las Cruces, New Mexico, is enjoying a career renaissance in Tijuana. Slight, slender, and aerodynamic, the 26-year-old seems designed for speed, built like the platonic ideal of a modern wingback—inked up forearms and all. Castillo led an itinerant life in the Mexican leagues before landing in Tijuana. After winning a championship at Santos in 2008, he was signed by Club America, but couldn’t establish himself there, as he readily admits.

“At Club America, everyone talks about you,” says Castillo, citing as many as 15 reporters attending every practice. “Here we’re [first] in the league and not many people talk about you. And for me, I’ve done better here, so having people all around you, saying so much about you, that’s hard.”

He was loaned out in successive seasons to Tigres, San Luis, and Puebla before being loaned to Tijuana in 2011. That move was made permanent with a new contract before this season. Castillo also has represented Mexico, at both the youth and senior levels, before being courted by the U.S. and making his debut as an American international in 2009. His switch was controversial in Mexico, and he heard about it from opposing fans. But with increasing call-ups and playing time under Klinsmann, he’s happy with his move.

Garza, a good-natured and powerfully built 21 year old, has traveled even more extensively than Castillo. The Grapevine, Texas, native has played on the youth team at Sporting Lisbon, as well as elsewhere in Portugal, Scandinavia, and Brazil. Yet he’s tasted setbacks along the way, having been out of contract for as many as seven months at a time.

He joined Xolos last November thanks partly to Corona, who recommended Garza based on their time together on the U-23 team. Under Xolos coach Antonio Mohamed, who’s known as somewhat of a tinkerer, Garza has steadily earned increasing playing time, often filling in for Castillo. Finding success in Tijuana after playing at so many clubs, Garza is thankful for his move to Mexico.

“I think that Mexico, especially Xolos, has given us the opportunity to show what we can bring to the game,” he says of the team’s willingness to sign Americans.

RIGHT NEXT TO THE XOLOS' opulent, Aztec-inspired locker room, past the Guadalupe virgin statue at its entrance, are the following words, painted grandly on the wall of the weight room: “Humilidad es la clave del exito” (Humility is the key to success). Each of the three Americans on the team say that their club, away from the limelight and pressure-cooker atmosphere surrounding some of Mexican soccer’s biggest clubs, has allowed them to thrive. Ironically, this has earned them wider recognition in America.

“I think [humility] is something that’s helped a lot,” Corona says. “We don’t have as much attention as the big clubs, but that keeps us on our same page. We only worry about ourselves. I feel that no one in Mexico believed that we’d be one of the best, only us.”

They’re also incredibly grounded. All three credit their families for their success. And to hear them describe their daily lives, their families are a big part of it.

Corona lives with his family in San Diego and commutes across the border every day. Castillo, a father of three, lives with his own family in Tijuana. Garza recently bought an apartment in Tijuana that he shares with his wife, and is finishing up a bachelor’s degree in management.

While Corona and Castillo are roommates on the road and are clearly close, complementing one another, all three say they generally do their own thing after practice. Corona spends time in San Diego with his family, friends, and girlfriend; Castillo picks up his kids from school; Garza and his wife go to San Diego several times a week. Yet they say they’re always talking to each other, and find time to hang out away from practice and enjoy their time in Tijuana.

“The people here are sort of Americanized, being so close to the border,” says Garza. “Everyone in the streets here are very nice to us. Some people in the States even, some Mexican-Americans, might recognize you, but I think being so close to the border kind of gives us that extra comfort. Being so far away from home is kind of a sacrifice for me and Edgar, but still, we feel that comfort of having Joe and a lot of other Mexican-Americans.”

It’s a sacrifice that’s proving to be well worth it, with Klinsmann obviously watching. And combined with the resurgence on the other side of the border of established internationals DaMarcus Beasley at Puebla and Herculez Gomez at Santos, it’s further proof for U.S. soccer that looking south is a viable path forward.

Adam Elder is a journalist who writes for The New York Times Goal blog, Wired.com, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @adam_elder

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