Xolos' Richard Ruiz celebrates scoring against Leon during the Apertura… (Alejandro Zepeda / EPA )
A couple of years ago, the Tijuana Xolos were just another anonymous team languishing in the second tier of Mexican soccer.
But Sunday afternoon, 18 months after being promoted to the elite first division, the young upstarts have a chance to win the prestigious 18-team Torneo Apertura and stake a claim to being the best team in the country.
How unusual is that? Well, imagine the minor league Toledo Mud Hens joining the National League and winning the World Series a year later. Or an Arena Football League team joining the NFL and winning the Super Bowl.
"It's a surprise," said ESPN Deportes soccer commentator Jorge Ramos. "[And] there is a message in that. If you work hard, if you believe in what you do, you can achieve things even if you don't have the same tools others have."
The Xolos have certainly done that, moving to within 90 minutes of the championship Thursday when first-half goals by South Americans Fidel Martinez (Ecuador) and Pablo Aguilar (Paraguay) gave them a 2-1 win over Toluca in the first game of the Apertura's two-leg final. That leaves Toluca needing to win Sunday's rematch by at least two goals to claim the title; a one-goal Toluca victory would force overtime.
Anything less and Tijuana becomes Mexico's champion. And it had to overcome a lot more than just a lack of tools to make that happen.
Take history, for example. A third of the clubs in Mexico's first division, including Toluca, were formed at least 95 years ago. But the team that eventually became the Xolos came into existence in 2007, meaning Toluca, with 10 national titles, has had more championships than Tijuana has had seasons.
Then there's tradition. In much of northern Mexico, baseball and boxing, not soccer, are the sports of choice. Former world champions Antonio Margarito and Erik Morales came from Tijuana, as did the Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez and former Dodger Esteban Loaiza.
The Xolos' success is part of a changing culture along the border.
"All those [areas] that used to be claimed by baseball, that is no longer the case," Ramos said. "Now the entire country is behind the soccer ball."
Then there's the team's tongue-twisting name, Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente, which was inspired by a breed of dog commonly known as the Mexican hairless. That has likely turned off as many fans as it has drawn (although, to be fair, the team logo is really cool).
But if all those things were seen as handicaps by some, they were embraced by Tijuana's energetic owners as challenges to be overcome.
The club was founded by Jorge Hank, a former municipal president of Tijuana and owner of Caliente Group, Mexico's largest gaming company. At first the team appeared to be little more than a hobby for the 56-year-old Hank, a soccer fan. But after 28-year-old son Jorgealberto, one of Hank's 19 children, took over as team president, he began speaking of an institutional plan that involved much more than a professional soccer team and a new stadium.
The younger Hank, who, along with vice president Gog Murguia, are the youngest executives in the history of Mexican soccer, talked of soccer clinics and recruitment clubs in northern Mexico as well as in San Diego and Los Angeles. And while it was hoped the Xolos would be the catalysts for all that, it's unlikely that even the Hanks thought the team would achieve this much this quickly.
"It's a very serious endeavor, one that can take several years in the lower divisions," said former Mexican league midfielder Jose "Tato" Noriega, an ESPN Deportes analyst. "In this case, like always, there is a lot of credit to spread around. The front office, the players, Coach Antonio Mohamed, whose maturity has been very important."
"Tijuana did many great things," he said. "One of the things that they did is spend money, like other teams do. [But] they tried to have a team. Not great figures, not great and very popular players."
Among those are Argentine midfielder Alfredo Moreno and defender Aguilar, both on loan from San Luis; U.S. national team players Joe Corona and Edgar Castillo; and captain Javier Gandolfi of Argentina.
None of the five were with the team before 2010.
Yet, for all the differences in style and history, Toluca and Tijuana deserve to be in the final. The clubs finished tied for first place in the regular season and while no team gave up fewer goals than Tijuana, only one scored more than offensive-minded Toluca.
"They're very equal. They're very balanced," Noriega said. "It's a very attractive matchup — a huge team, a historic team with many titles against a young title with a title but with big dreams.
"It's very attractive to be sure."