How Club Tijuana's creative scouting forced Liga MX to create the 10/8 rule
There's a pivotal scene in the third season of "Club de Cuervos," Netflix's brilliant series about a brother-sister combo running their late father's Mexican soccer team (into the ground).
Some spoilers are ahead.
Isabel Iglesias has been summoned by her league's council of owners. She's there because one of her veteran players has shown them up by protesting the treatment of his colleagues due to the implementation of the 10/8 rule, which allowed teams to have up to 10 foreign-born players on their matchday rosters, doubling the amount under the previous criteria. The controversial ruling is just one of the many real-life issues the show weaves into its fiction.
If the player is not fired immediately, the owners on the show allege, it will create further dissent and perhaps create a labor struggle they are not ready to deal with. After all, in Mexico, the council's president says, any middle-of-the-road defender makes more than even the top scorer in Argentina.
"Why should we have to deal with a bunch of Mexicans who don't know how good they have it?" he sums up.
The show's telling of a truth in style for the how and why the 10/8 rule (and as of the 2017-18 season, the 9/9 rule) exists and how both owners and players feel about it is possibly the darkest way to approach it. It's open and pure contempt between team owners at war with their players.
This is not, however, a completely fair representation. It's a pretty hot take for anyone outside of Chivas loyalists to say the integrity of the league is damaged with increased participation from foreign players. Rather, the rule was enacted with the thought of making the league better in quality and thus, more appealing to distribution partners and potential sponsors. Moreover, it attempted to curb the ways teams could game the previous system to their advantage.
Namely one club.
Club Tijuana, with its revolutionary youth and transfer market policies, effectively pushed the league to act.
Much like the fictional Cuervos, Xolos were a fledgling club in 2011, their first season in Liga MX. After going the usual route in trying to stay afloat by signing a mixed bag of foreign and national players with first-division experience, they floundered early.
Enter Antonio Mohamed. The Argentine manager replaced Joaquin del Olmo at the helm and quickly galvanized the team and solidified their record, pushing them away from relegation and into contention in a matter of months.
Faced with the difficulty of using part of their budget to keep building their stadium, Xolos could no longer rely on expensive players to file in every transfer period to repeat and refresh their success. Instead, sporting director Ignacio Palou cast a wide net of scouts across South America, looking to buy cheap and later sell high to other Mexican teams or even to Europe.
The strategy worked wonders. Players such as Dario Benedetto, Duvier Riascos, Pablo Aguilar, Fidel Martinez and Cristian Pellerano were all low-risk investments that later yielded high transfer fees to other teams within Liga MX.
This however, was far from groundbreaking. Other squads, notably Santos Laguna, have done this for years to the mixed acclaim and frustration of their fans. No, what Xolos did to truly carve a niche and later shock the system into change came with a big assist from geography.
Tijuana started recruiting heavily from the mostly unexplored Mexican-American community.
"Since the beginning, we were different," Palou told the SWC Sun in August. "We are a binational team," he continued, noting the influx of fans crossing from north of the border to watch the team on a regular basis.
Their efforts yielded the graduation of youth players like Joe Corona, Greg Garza, Paul Arriola and Alejandro Guido into the first team, among others. They also signed established pros such current and former United States internationals like Edgar Castillo, Michael Orozco and Herculez Gomez.
Several of those players, like Guido, Corona and Arriola, had local ties to the team, having lived or visited the city in their formative years, creating a lasting bond with fans.
"Xolos takes the best of both cultures to create success," said Guido.
Following the initial wave of players signed, Xolos now have five academy affiliates across the United States, ranging from the Inland Empire in California to North Carolina and New Jersey.
Despite the fact that every single one of the players mentioned above chose to play with a different national team than Mexico, they were also protected by law as being Mexican citizens. Thus, they never counted against the hard cap of five foreign-born players Liga MX employed up until 2016.
The flexibility gained by this was bolstered with the amending of a law requiring foreign nationals five years of residence before acquiring citizenship via naturalization. The threshold was lowered to (generally) three years, meaning several players in the league could apply to become Mexicans and not count against the cap.
While many teams took advantage of this rule, Xolos were the only team doing so two ways to game the original system. Via their American connection, they were able to plug in many more foreign-born players than was originally envisioned, albeit in a legal way.
As early as 2014, Tijuana was able to field nearly its entire starting lineup with players born outside Mexico, without violating the league's rules. The increase in non-Mexican footballers within most of the league's squads eventually pushed Liga MX executives to call for change.
In 2016, the league abolished the hard cap and changed its eligibility requirements beyond nationality. Instead of classifying players as Mexicans and non-Mexicans, it decided it would group them into "players formed in Mexico" and those formed elsewhere.
The rule was not without controversy. Despite several players having Mexican citizenship for years and even playing with the national team, such as Christian Gimenez of Cruz Azul, they were now lumped into the "not formed in Mexico" category, essentially the euphemism used to separate Mexican-born from foreign-born.
Initially, teams were allowed to field 10 players not formed in Mexico per game. This year, the number has been reduced to nine, while next year, it will be eight. Other issues, like FIFA's insistence underage players are not uprooted from country to country so easily, still remain.
Despite this, the Apertura 2017 Xolos have a grand total of 17 players born outside of Mexico on their roster, including Americans Corona, Guido and Orozco. Another four are on loan; Garza to MLS with Atlanta United, and three others to sister club Sinaloa in the Mexican second division. The "foreigners" outnumber the natural-born Mexicans by seven on the team's roster.
Around the league, the rule has meant teams are free to sign more players and then decide how to juggle their first-team rosters to make things work on match day. In total, there are 197 players not born in Mexico in Liga MX for the current tournament, an all-time record.
Ironically, it was life imitating art this time around. In early October, current and former players announced the Asociacion Mexicana de Futbolistas, a labor group destined to protect the interests of those affected by rulings made by the Liga MX owners.
It might have been a bit more anticlimactic than on "Club de Cuervos," but, much like on the show, a plucky club looking to make its bones in the country's top division might just have inadvertently caused a seismic shift in the entire league's policies.
Unlike the show and its bumbling protagonists, this was always the way the Xolos envisioned their success.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.