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Joe Corona proving to be a name to watch for U.S. (and Liga MX) fans

Photo: Steve Conner/Icon SMI

Joe Corona (6) is congratulated by U.S. -- and Club Tijuana -- teammate Hérculez Gómez (9) after scoring against Cuba.

HARTFORD, Conn. -- Joe Corona has the best name in U.S. soccer, maybe the best name in U.S. sports, and I'm not arguing about this -- unless we're calling him Joe Benny Corona, the name his family calls him, and that might be even better.

Think about it. Joe Corona is the perfect handle for the new America, one that straddles both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, just as Corona does. (He lives in San Diego and plays for Mexico's ascendant Club Tijuana.) Joe Corona is a demographer's dream. He's 23, he speaks English and Spanish, and he was born in Los Angeles to a dad from Mexico and a mom from El Salvador.

Oh, and Joe Corona scores goals, too. Gorgeous ones, like the game-winner he had in a 4-1 Gold Cup win against Cuba on Saturday.

Joe Corona, Joe Corona, Joe Corona.

For years (decades?), we've been wondering when the U.S. senior national team will finally tap a critical mass of players from this country's thriving Latino community. And now it may finally be happening. Six of the U.S.'s 11 starters against Cuba were Latinos, including Corona, who was the best player on the field. (Granted, the Gold Cup team isn't the U.S.'s A-squad, but Corona has been getting called up to that one, too.)

How long could it be before Corona gets an endorsement deal with a certain Mexican beer company that's popular in the U.S.? He's exciting to watch, and he has the perfect name for a soccer player, like a fútbol Buzz Lightyear.

"My dad is named José, and my mom told him when I was born: 'I don't want him to have your name. Pick another name!' That's why they named me Joe," says Corona, who was born in L.A., grew up in Tijuana and has lived in San Diego since he was 10. "And Benny is just my second name. A lot of my family calls me Joe Benny. Together it sounds pretty cool."

Joe Corona. Joe Benny Corona. He's right. They both sound pretty cool.

The last four years of Corona's life have been a whirlwind. After playing for one year at San Diego State, he turned pro with Tijuana. Formed in 2007, the Xolos -- named for a dog bred by the Aztecs -- have been on an inexorable trend upward. Since Corona joined the team, Tijuana has won promotion to the Mexican top flight, become Liga MX champion and reached the quarterfinals of the Copa Libertadores, falling in a heartbreaker to Ronaldinho's Atlético Mineiro of Brazil.

Along the way, the Xolos have caught fire with soccer fans not just in Baja California but in Southern California as well. Club Tijuana has won the the popularity north of the border that MLS's Chivas USA has tried -- and failed -- to win over. "After being promoted and then becoming champions, it's a huge, huge fanbase," says Corona. "You see people from San Diego and L.A. crossing the border every week to go watch us play. That's just amazing. And people recognize you in San Diego, which is great."

As Corona established himself with the Xolos, no fewer than three national teams came calling. El Salvador (the birth country of his mother, Janira) was the first, inviting him to join its senior team for the 2011 Gold Cup. Corona told the Salvadorans he wanted to wait and keep his options open. Later that year, U.S. coach Bob Bradley invited him to play for the U.S. in a friendly. Corona was ready to accept -- it was a friendly and wouldn't have cap-tied him to the U.S. -- but a day after he spoke to Bradley, the coach was fired.

"That was a bummer," Corona says. "After that, Mexico['s Under-23 team] was the one that called me. I went to a camp, and it just wasn't what I expected. During all that time I still kept in touch with the U.S. national team and I talked to coaches, the U20 coaches, Coach [Caleb] Porter [of the U23 team], [U.S. youth technical director] Claudio Reyna. A good relationship started building, and I just felt more and more comfortable with the U.S. national team. That's when I decided."

Last October, Corona made things official, playing for the U.S. in a World Cup qualifier against Guatemala and tying himself permanently to the United States for soccer. He has been a regular call-up for qualifiers, and now he's starting games in the Gold Cup. When he joined fellow Xolos Hérculez Gómez and Edgar Castillo in the U.S. lineup on Saturday, it marked the first time three players from the same Mexican league team had started for the U.S. in the same game.

Corona made the game even more memorable by curling a shot from distance past goalkeeper Odelin Molina to put the U.S. ahead 2-1. It was his first U.S. goal, and the entire team gave him a keepsake, with every U.S. player signing the ball and presenting it to Corona.

"Every minute I get, I see it as a new opportunity," Corona says. "You have to take advantage of practice and games, and on the field is where I need to show Jurgen [Klinsmann, the U.S. coach] that I can be a part of this team and earn myself a spot for Brazil" and World Cup 2014.

"Joe has a lot of potential, and slowly more and more he's showing that," Klinsmann said after Saturday's game. "It's a path that he's going through like all the younger players, like Mix Diskerud and Brek Shea, and so we hope to get them step by step to the next level. He's learned a lot over the last year, starting to implement more and more of what he's learned, and he also gets more confidence. A goal like today's shows that confidence."

With Club Tijuana fast becoming Team America, Corona and Castillo have already begun a lobbying effort with U.S. teammates who play for other Mexican clubs, like DaMarcus Beasley, José Torres and Michael Orozco.

"Most of the younger guys with Club Tijuana are part of the youth U.S. national team, and if they keep working hard, maybe they'll be a part of the full national team," Corona says. "And now that we have Herc, me and Edgar were talking to Beaz and Orozco and Torres and saying, 'Hey, you guys should all come to Tijuana!' It would be fun to have all of us together in a club in Mexico."

It's a tantalizing thought: A championship team in North America's best soccer league that's filled with U.S. national team players. Some of the world's top national teams (Spain, Germany, Italy, Russia) are comprised of players who work together each week on the same club. That familiarity helps.

And if Joe Benny Corona's trajectory keeps moving skyward, his perfect sports name will only continue to be more widely known.

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