Tijuana's Duvier Riascos, left, Fidel Martinez and Pablo Aguilar… (Gonzalo Gonzalez / Jam Media )
TIJUANA -- When Bob Filner was sworn in as mayor of San Diego last month, he delivered part of his inauguration speech in Spanish.
Apparently you don't become a 10-term congressman or mayor of the country's eighth-largest city without knowing your audience. And while some parts of the U.S.-Mexico border have more cultural tension—such as Arizona—residents living on both sides of the San Diego-Tijuana boundary tend to see the area as one region rather than two countries.
It's a region that now has a championship soccer team in the Xoloitzcuintles of Tijuana, which won the Mexican first division title the day before Filner took office.
"The virtue of having una region y dos ciudades is when our guys are not doing well — like the Chargers — we have champions," Filner, switching from English to Spanish and back again, told the soccer team during its visit to San Diego three weeks later. "So you're our champions also…. Everyone in San Diego is following you."
Don't believe him? Just check the dirt parking lot surrounding the Xoloitzcuintles' new 23,000-seat stadium. Many of those who came to last weekend's 2013 home opener arrived in cars with California plates, supporting team estimates that one-third of its fan base lives in the U.S. and as many as 5,000 people regularly cross the border for games.
"It's the nature of both cities," says assistant general manager Roberto Cornejo, who, like many fans, lives in San Diego. "They're sister cities crossed by the border. And something like sports especially — and soccer even more — transcends that border.
"You get fans from both countries, from both cultures, uniting and celebrating."
It wasn't always that way, however. When the Xoloitzcuintles — named after the breed of dog commonly known as the Mexican hairless — were launched in 2007, they were a second-division team that seemed little different from others in the long line of sports franchises that had previously tried, and failed, to catch on in Tijuana.
What made this team different is that it won. Four years after their founding, the Xoloitzcuintles — or Xolos for short — won promotion to Mexico's first division, an achievement management celebrated by beefing up a thin roster, adding Tijuana native Fernando Arce, U.S. national team defender Edgar Castillo and eventual U.S. national team midfielder Joe Corona, among others.
A year later the Xolos won the Mexican soccer league title, capping what is believed to be the fastest climb up the standings in history. In a region starved for champions — San Diego hasn't won a major professional league crown since the Chargers captured the AFL title in 1963 — that fueled a fervor.
"I didn't imagine that this could happen so quickly," says Arce, an attacking midfielder who has played 12 years in the Mexican league. "The team is drawing a lot of people now, not only from Mexico but from the surrounding area, the United States, nearby border areas, San Diego.
"People come from all over to see good soccer."
So though the team had trouble giving tickets away in its first couple of seasons at Tijuana's bare-bones municipal sports facility, now the demand is so great, says Alejandro Serrano, the team's director of administrative and human resources, the Xolos intend to wipe out planned luxury suites in their new stadium in order to increase capacity beyond the anticipated 33,000.
John Whelan of El Cajon started coming to see the Xolos a couple years ago and said he now comes to several games a season.
"I love going to football games, and this compares easily," he said, as he tailgated with friends from Escondido before last weekend's win over Leon, for Tijuana's fifth straight victory. "It's just the crowd and the chanting. I don't know, I love it. It's going to get bigger and bigger."
As will the area the Xolos claim as their territory. The team already runs youth academies in Chula Vista and Temecula, and 14 months ago it held a preseason training camp in Oxnard. But now some officials envision the Xolos expanding their reach even farther, stretching as far north as Las Vegas.
And while that would bring them into competition with Major League Soccer teams, including the Galaxy and Chivas USA, the Xolos say they're shopping a different product.
"It's a different league, a different tournament," says Serrano, a Tijuana native who attended high school and college in San Diego. "The rivalries that exist between the teams in Mexico, it's different than in the U.S.
"Why stop here if there are people in other parts of the U.S. that like the team or other parts of Latin America that like our team? It's growing tremendously. And the more it grows, the more work there is. We want to continue to grow the fan base."