Tijuana, Mexico is best known for drug violence and tacky tourist shops. But the city of more than a million residents has deep cultural and economic ties to the north. And now, you can add sports to that connection. The Tijuana Xolos soccer team is tied for first place in Mexico, and they are becoming a regional team whose players, reputation and fans transcend borders. Reporter: Brooke Binkowski
Dean Mitchell isn't afraid to admit it -- he's a soccer fanatic.
"I've been a soccer fan my whole life," he says. "But I've never seen success -- L.A., San Diego -- so I had to go to Portland, Seattle, places like that to see it. But I always knew Mexico loved it."
Mitchell is standing in a dirt parking lot behind Tijuana's Estadio Caliente, the home of the Xolos, Tijuana's soccer team. The Xolos are a fairly young team, having only been around since 2007, but are currently tied for first place in the Mexican League's Premiere Division.
Mitchell is from San Diego and goes to every Tijuana game he can, making the sometimes hours-long trip across the border each time. He says it's the most fun he's had going to soccer games in years.
"The whole city's going nuts, and they haven't had anything before," Mitchell says. "So you've got this city with a real bad reputation, and it's showing off to the League how great an experience it is to be here."
Rafael Maya is also in the crowd of tailgaters, eating ceviche and carne asada in front of his big white truck, which today bears three huge flags: an American flag, a Mexican flag and one bearing the Xolos logo, a white and black dog's head on a red background. Maya, who splits his time between San Diego and Tijuana, says he's thrilled to see his city receive positive attention after years of bad press.
"Tijuana's getting out there, and more people are knowing about Tijuana because of soccer and not necessarily because of the violence," Maya says.
Maya is anxious to defend the border city, which has long been thought of as little more than a haven for drug smugglers and cartel bosses.
"You know, I've lived down in T.J. for 14 years, and I've never seen so much as a robbery," he says.
Xolos is shorthand for the team's full name, which is Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuintles de Caliente. Xoloitzcuintles are also known as Mexican Hairless Dogs, a breed sacred to pre-Hispanic cultures such as Mayans and Aztecs. The breed is known for its energy, loyalty and tenacity, like the team -- and its fans.
At every home game, the stands are packed with happy, rowdy fans wearing the team colors, mostly red and black. A dedicated Xolos fan club called La Masakr3 (a bastardized spelling of "La Masacre," or "The Massacre") sits behind the south goalposts, singing original fight songs accompanied by drums, trumpets and trombones, and yelling bawdy insults at the opposing team throughout the game.
Agustin Diaz is one such fan. He wears all his gear to every game: His hat has a big stuffed dog on it, his shirt has the Xolos logo, and he is wearing a Xolos flag as a cape. He lives in the United States but grew up in Tijuana, and he says he's thrilled to finally have a team to support.
"Now that we've got a team right here, I'm 100 percent with them," Diaz says. "I wear my pet Xolo, I wear my wristband, and even on my cell phone is the Xolo, the big dog and everything. I am Super Xolo. Even if they go down to the second division, I'm still gonna be a Xolo."
That looks unlikely to happen any time soon. As the team's reputation and fan base continues to grow, it is pulling in more and more Americans.
Assistant general manager Roberto Cornejo said they now estimate that a quarter of the people who attend every home game come from the United States, a trend he hopes to see continue.
"San Diego's an educated population in terms of soccer, and Tijuana has, I think, more links to San Diego than, say, Mexico City or farther south," Cornejo says.
Indeed, several of the players come from the U.S. side. Midfielder Joe Corona, who scored the first goal in Xolos history, grew up in south San Diego County.
"I feel proud to be part of this new atmosphere," Corona says. "I feel special to be able to be a part of this."
This season has been especially good for the Xolos, who play in the Mexican League semifinals against the venerable Club Leon this Sunday.
From there -- if they win -- they go to the finals, and if they win in the finals they become league champions -- which will surely bring in even more fans from both sides of the border.