The Evolution of Xolos

It's been a bit of a bumpy road for Xolos over the last two seasons.

They failed to make the 2013 Apertura Liguilla under Argentine coach Jorge Almiron, though the Championship-winning squad he'd inherited from Antonio Mohamed still had many of the right ingredients for success. Even when striker Duvier Riascos left for Morelia, the need for a replacement was fulfilled by  Almiron's persistence in the signing of Dario Benedetto - an Argentine-Italian with the speed and creativity we saw in Riascos, but with more attacking options. He scored three goals on his debut and has played a key role up top for Tijuana in both finishing and creating chances for Fidel Martinez, Alfredo Moreno (originally loaned to Tijuana and now with Veracruz), and current players Jaimen Ayovi, Herculez Gomez, and Richard Ruiz.

Benedetto has grown into his role with Tijuana, providing an attacking element built deep in midfield. An injury caused him to miss most of the Apertura and in retrospect, their finish on the season might have been better with him in the lineup.

When Tijuana failed to make the Liguilla in late 2013, Almiron was fired and current coach Cesar Farias was brought in from Venezuela. Farias had never coached within the Mexican system, but had seen great success in Venezuela with the national team, becoming the first and only manager to ever have taken Venezuela to the semi-final stage of Copa America. He also took the U-20 squad through the qualification process for a place in the U-20 World Cup. He managed the full national team from 2007-2013. Based on his experience, he was the right man for the job, even without knowing how he'd work with the current system or players who were ready to welcome him.

Two of those players were about to be announced as new signings, although they had both been acquired before Farias.  When Pablo Cesar Aguilar went to America, they added Cristian Pellerano's younger brother Hernan, who has played center-back next to captain Javier Gandolfi. In the Summer of 2013, Xolos acquired the rights to  Ecuadorian International Jaimen Ayovi from Pachuca (where cousin Walter Ayovi currently plays) to provide options up top. Ayovi and Martinez had played together for Ecuador, so they were well acquainted prior to his signing, and Farias has been known to pair them together at times or sub one out for the other.

With any new coach comes changes, and in this case, very few of them had to do with new players because they all came before Farias took control. The most obvious have been reflected in tactical formation and deployment, including a very 'down-the-middle' style opposed to allowing more freedom on the wings.

With Cristian Pellerano in central midfield, and even needing to play a defensive role at times, he somehow became the team's leading goal scorer during the Clausura with seven. Benedetto, as a center forward, played a major role in connecting with Pellerano in midfield and was able to score six of his own, including the only goal of the Clausura 2014 Liguilla.  Martinez, in comparison,  led the team in goals scored under Almiron and had an impressive run in 2013, earning a call up to Ecuador's National Team for the first time since 2008. During this Clausura, though he made 15 lineups, he had three goals and his performance was impacted, sometimes even muted by those playing centrally. 

Farias did something he hadn't done before in the last two Liguilla games: he started Richard Ruiz on the right wing. It was a curious choice because he hadn't relied on that partnership before, but Farias changes his lineups quite frequently, and while it seems counter-productive to this squad (or any, for that matter), he looks to be building a team with solid cohesion regardless of which player is in which position. It's something that will take time.

Farias also likes to incorporate the younger players into the first team, which is essential for their development as professionals. He’s allowed 17 year old Fernando Arce Jr., and U-20’s Edgar Villegas, Paul Arriola, Alejandro Guido, Oliver Ortiz, and Stevie Rodriguez (naming a few) to play up and gain experience.

Assuming Farias keeps his job, I think we can expect Xolos will continue to experience this rotation of players in certain positions, and they'll be expected to adapt so that eventually, it won't matter who starts where. Farias has had the benefit of players like Gandolfi and Fernando Arce (Sr.); the two are consummate professionals who've continued to guide the team through the transitions in leadership. Arce has had an influence on left-back Edgar Castillo, according to some. With the possibility that familiar names and faces could be departing the club, the incorporation of new blood into the core squad could open new options for Farias going forward. These should be ones more to his design.

So who’s out and who stays? Hard to say at this point.  I could see Martinez eventually going to another club, which would allow Tijuana to bring in a foreign striker who would work better with Benedetto, who is unarguably a staple in this offense.  

Another area where improvement is needed is in defense, so it’s possible they add a defender,  and potentially one who can double as a defensive midfielder.

What we do know is the Venezuelan manager is big on teamwork and cohesion, even off the pitch. And while inconsistency in lineups might suggest otherwise, he seems to be building a system bigger than anything we might be able to see now, and over time it could play to the benefit of this team.

** photo is used under a Creative Commons license from Globovision



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