What exactly is the Xolos blueprint?
TIJUANA -- When the Los Angeles Galaxy confirmed David Beckham's arrival in January 2007, two hours down the road and over the United States-Mexico border in Tijuana, another football-related experiment was in its embryonic stage: The idea for Club Tijuana had been conceived, but the team hadn't played an official game and the Estadio Caliente -- which will play host to Galaxy in the CONCACAF Champions League second leg quarterfinal on Tuesday -- didn't exist.
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Back then, the loose goal of the team's current owners was simply to bring quality football to a region of Mexico that had been under-represented for years.
The club's ascent since those first baby steps has been well-documented, but is worth repeating.
Promotion to the first division came in May 2011, followed swiftly by winning the Liga MX's Apertura 2012 tournament. Then there was that heady Copa Libertadores quarterfinal run last year.
But while the club has garnered international press and stories about increasing numbers of American players at the club both rile and excite soccer fans north of the border, not too much is known how the organization is set up and what the future plans are.
With that in mind, ESPN FC sat down recently with general manager Ignacio Palou to dig a little deeper into a club that is clearly working with a different ethos than most in the Liga MX.
Palou, a former Puebla and Cruz Azul goalkeeper, was actually involved in setting up a project in Tijuana before the current owners came onboard. He doesn't speak much to the press, but is the key person in the institution in bridging the football and business elements of the club, overseeing the youth system, signing players and putting coaches in place.
"In 2007, nothing was here," admitted Palou in Tijuana recently. "What attracted me was the chance to be able to grow a team in a region that needed a sporting identity."
In other words, it was a blank canvas and the aim for the nascent Xoloitzcuintles was to go from nothing to reaching the first division in five years.
At the time, it would've seemed highly ambitious, especially with only one team gaining promotion each year from Mexico’s second division and the winner of the Apertura and Clausura seasons facing off each year in a playoff.
Once in the first division, the club pumped significant money into buying experienced players like Egidio Arevalo, Cirilo Saucedo, Fernando Arce and Jose Sand to avoid the common occurrence in Mexico of a team dropping straight back down.
But while the club clearly has the type of money to go out and invest in ready-made players when it needs, it is the youth system that seems to be the real priority moving forward.
"In the longer-term future, we want to produce players and have 50, 60 or 70 percent of the first team (produced) in-house," stated Palou, who has previously managed Puebla. "It is the cornerstone (of the club)."
"My dream is to make it the best development process in the country," he added.
Palou admits that it is difficult to compete with teams in Mexico that have storied histories of producing quality players, but it doesn't seem that the desire to become Mexico's best is just bravado from Palou, especially when considering the infrastructure Xolos are putting in place.
The club employs four full-time scouts and currently has over 1,000 young players (from aged four upwards) in its schools -- three of which are in California (Oxnard, Temecula and Chula Vista).
The best are taken to Tijuana to continue their development. Unlike some other Mexican teams, the Xolos schools aren't franchises -- they are free -- and Palou says that the club has even had to take action against "pirate" Xolos schools springing up in Michoacan and Monterrey and charging young players.
The key to the youth development model that Tijuana is following is that Palou and Xolos believe they have a niche corner of North America that is both rich in talented young players and under-explored.
The Mexican states of Sonora, Sinaloa and Baja California, along with California and part of Arizona in the United States are the main focus of scouting efforts, according to Palou.
The acquisition of Dorados de Sinaloa last May was another step in integrating the process of the youngsters. Javier Guemez and Elio Castro had experience playing competitive, professional soccer week-in, week-out in the second division with Dorados before becoming established first team regulars this season.
At present, young players like Alejandro Guido, Stevie Rodriguez and Edgar Villegas are moving between Dorados, Tijuana's Under-20s and the first team and are the first batch of players to go through a process designed to bridge the substantial gap between U-20s soccer and that of the Liga MX.
Like around “35 to 40 percent” of the youngsters in the Xolos youth system, Guido and Rodriguez are dual nationals and the fact the United States is so close is naturally important to the club's identity.
"We are a bicultural region because we live on the border," said Palou. "My daughter studies at university in San Diego, there are kids that go to school in the U.S. and live in Tijuana."
Palou adds that U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann and assistant Martin Vazquez are kept informed of who the dual national youngsters are.
"There are children and youths in our academy that have dual nationality, not because they look for it for football, but because it is normal here (in Tijuana)," explained Palou.
But while the U.S. influence in Xolos is important, it isn’t the only foreign influence on a club in a city known as being somewhere in which “the majority of the inhabitants are not tijuanenses,” according to Palou.
"Our team mirrors Tijuana, with many ideologies, many nationalities, Mexican-Americans..." said Palou. "We've been labeled (as a team) with a lot of foreigners, but having two nationalities doesn't mean you are foreign."
In terms of the five foreigner berths that each club in the Liga MX is allowed, Tijuana's outlook is also different from the general trend in Mexico.
"The idea is to get players that can be sold on to Europe, that come to contribute and help us and then keep growing," said Palou. "Players that want to be in their national team."
That involves bringing in talented South American youngsters -- who are naturally attracted to the Liga MX's higher wages -- and developing them. The prime example is Fidel Martinez, who is now a crowd favorite at Tijuana. The 24-year-old Ecuadorian arrived at Xolos in 2012 and has matured to become one of the team's key figures.
Intense research was done into the player's lifestyle and off-the-field habits and the whole Martinez clan -- mother, father and two siblings -- uprooted to Tijuana after Fidel signed.
Now an Ecuadorian international with realistic ambitions of making the World Cup, Martinez is on course to accomplish the club's and his hopes of moving to Europe.
Certainly a tour around the club's brand new changing rooms, expanding stadium and its closeness to San Diego would likely appeal to future players like Martinez.
Despite the initial and surprising success for Xolos, it is still early days for soccer in Tijuana. There will no doubt be ups and downs moving forward, but the positive for the city and region is that there is a long-term infrastructure in place that makes you think the club won't be going anywhere anytime soon.
A win against California's L.A. Galaxy in the CONCACAF Champions League would be another important indicator of just how far the club has come.