GUADALAJARA, Mexico -- It had been 623 days since a Club Tijuana manager told Joe Corona he would be starting a Liga MX game for Xolos. For a 26-year-old so inextricably linked to the border club's history, it felt like a long time.
In the intervening period between May 9, 2015 and Club Tijuana's 1-0 win over Liga MX giants Chivas in Guadalajara on Saturday, Corona struggled to match the expectations generated from his sparkling early career.
The 2013 Gold Cup winner was sent out on loan to Veracruz and starved of playing time in a team that has become one of the more direct in Liga MX. Then came a loan spell with Dorados de Sinaloa in Mexico's second division, which, like Xolos, is owned by Grupo Caliente. All the while, Corona gradually slipped out of the U.S. national team picture.
"It was a tough ride, but all I get from being at two other teams and going back to the second tier is that the learning experience was very good for me," said Corona to ESPN FC after Saturday's match.
"I feel a more mature player on and off the field and I think that has helped me a lot. Now that I'm back with Tijuana, I'm very motivated and excited for this new phase."
- Tom Marshall (@mexicoworldcup) 22 de enero de 2017
The return almost didn't happen. Corona's solid form as a regular starter during Dorados' run to the Ascenso MX 2016 Apertura title caught the eye of Major League Soccer teams, but options were limited in Mexico's first division.
"At the time [last season], I had some offers from MLS, so I was already looking to that, but I wasn't counting on Tijuana calling me back," said Corona. "[The MLS options] were the only ones I had until Tijuana came through."
It was after the Ascenso MX championship final on Dec. 4 that a brief chat turned Corona's path from MLS and back to the club he helped advance to the first division and lift the 2012 Apertura title -- becoming a crowd favorite in the process.
"[Xolos president] Jorgealberto [Hank] went to the Dorados final and after the game he told me that he saw I was doing well and he wanted me to join Xolos," said Corona.
The return has gone well so far for the San Diego native. The bilingual dual U.S.-Mexico citizen netted the final goal in Tijuana's 6-2 mauling of Puebla in Week 2 of the Clausura and he went 90 minutes against Chivas on the right side of a midfield three. His confidence appears to be back and that was evident as he disrupted El Rebano Sagrado with his characteristic work-rate and intelligent use of the ball in possession.
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"It's been a few games since I came back. Getting the start this fast is very good. It's an opportunity for me. I'm happy the coach is taking me into consideration and hopefully it stays that way," said Corona, who added that Tijuana manager Miguel Herrera sees him as a central or wide right midfielder.
It is premature to talk about a return to the U.S. national team, but Corona and the rest of Tijuana's U.S. contingent (Michael Orozco and Paul Arriola) will head to the Stars and Stripes' match against Serbia at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego on Jan. 29 to cheer the team on and perhaps exchange a few words with new coach Bruce Arena.
"I'm looking forward to going. We're all planning to go with the U.S. boys [at Club Tijuana] and support the national team," he stated.
Next up for Liga MX leader Tijuana and Corona is Mexico City's Cruz Azul on Friday in Estadio Caliente, as Xolos attempt to once again to upset one of the league's "grandes."