The Jorge Almiron era officially begins for the Tijuana Xolos on Friday night, when they host Atlas of Guadalajara in the opener of Mexico’s Apertura season. And the most revealing moment might not come during the 90 minutes on Estadio Caliente’s new artificial turf, but 30 minutes before, when the lineups are announced.
Almiron might want to bring along some duck tape and bailing wire.
Tijuana’s new coach will start a lineup unlike anything Xolos supporters have seen, and not because forward Alfredo Moreno and leading scorer Duvier Riascos were jettisoned in the offseason or because Almiron wants to immediately stamp his personality on the roster.
Tijuana vs. Atlas
What: Opener of Mexico’s 17-game Apertura season.
Site/timeg>: Estadio Caliente, Tijuana/7:30 p.m. Friday
Tickets: Still available, ranging from $24 to $68.
TV: Live on Azteca America.
Regular starters Joe Corona and Edgar Castillo are on Gold Cup duty with the U.S. national team, perhaps through the July 28 final. Forward Herculez Gomez was released by U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann on Wednesday and returned to Tijuana, but there are questions whether the knee issue that sidelined him for three World Cup qualifiers in June has fully healed.
Starting midfielder Fernando Arce, starting goalkeeper Cirilo Saucedo, starting right back Juan Carlos Nunez … all nursing injuries and iffy for Friday night.
But one reason the 41-year-old Almiron was hired over higher profile candidates, Xolos officials insist, is that he isn’t risk averse, embracing the club’s philosophy of building from within and tossing youngsters into the fire no matter the stakes. As many as eight players 23 or younger are expected to be on the Xolos’ 20-man roster, including 18-year-old forward Paul Arriola of Chula Vista.
Greg Garza, yet another Xolos player with a U.S. passport, has been starting at left back in place of Castillo. He’s 21.
Fidel Martinez and new Argentine acquisition Dario Benedetto likely will start up top. They’re both 23.
Oliver Ortiz and Bruno Piceno could figure off the bench, if not in the first 11. They’re 20 and 22.
On paper, Almiron is eerily similar to the man he replaced, Antonio “El Turco” Mohamed. Both were 41 when the Xolos hired them, both were born in Argentina, b oth have extensive playing and coaching experience in Mexico, both hold Mexican passports.
Most of Almiron’s practices have been closed, but players have noticed a clear distinction already. They says Almiron is “stricter” than Mohamed, that training is more regimented.
“He has his own mind and his own style of play,” Castillo said, “so I think things will change a lot.”
That style features a different defensive system after losing possession. Mohamed’s team retreated and organized behind the ball, absorbing pressure and launching counterattacks with the speedy Riascos and Martinez. Not Almiron.
“We’re still an organized team, but we’re a more aggressive team now after we lose the ball,” Garza said. “He wants us to get the ball back as soon as possible.”