By Ivan Orozco
His face is on giant billboards.
Photographs of him kicking a soccer ball adorn the whole walls of some buildings.
His name is on bus stop benches and his image splashed across the banner of Mexico's Club Tijuana Xoloitzcuntles official web page.
Joe Corona has come close to becoming a household name in the border region of Tijuana and San Diego.
The 22-year-old midfielder is a fan favorite and integral part of "Xolos" -- the Mexican Primera Division's newest club, which ascended to the first division last summer. Along with the club's climb - to sit in eighth and the last playoff spot after last week's games -- came Corona's rise to near stardom.
Corona is a midfielder with sublime ball skills with an uncanny feel for the game. He is a player with what appears to be natural charisma for the game.
His skill has received plenty of attention that he has used to go from being part of Tijuana's third- division to the first team.
Corona, who was born in Los Angeles but raised in San Diego while spending part of his childhood in Tijuana, went from college athlete to being selected by the United States and Mexican national teams within a couple of months.
He was called up by Mexico in August for its under-23 camp prior to the Pan American Games, but only played a few minutes in a U-23 friendly against Chile.
A product of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system, he displayed enough that he was later summoned by Caleb Porter to the United States' U-23 camp in November. He was part of other camps in December, January and February before playing a full 90 minutes in a 2-0 win over Mexico February 29.
Corona, whose mother is Salvadoran and father is Mexican, eventually chose the United States over Mexico despite always being his childhood dream to play for El Tri.
"I always saw myself as part of a national team, especially Mexico," Corona said when called up by Mexico U-23 coach Luis Fernando Tena. "Not everyone gets called up. People worldwide can see your traits and it's a good way to showcase what you can do in front of scouts. You see the bigger picture. They can see if you have talent."
Many expect Corona to be part of Porter's first 11 when the United States opens CONCACAF Olympic qualifying against Cuba in Nashville, Tennessee, on Thursday.
"Since the last three camps I've been coming in, it's been something very nice for me. It's been a great opportunity for me to take that next step," Corona said. "Going to the national level, I think it's a privilege not a lot of players get to have. I just come with a lot of motivation. I really want to be successful here."
For Corona, who was also wanted by El Salvador prior to the 2011 Gold Cup, his career as a professional, playing before sold out home crowds in Tijuana and becoming an icon with the Xolos almost didn't happen.
The often quiet, polite - even bashful at times -- Corona was at a crossroad three years ago. He was stuck between soccer cultures growing up in a border town with financial and emotional challenges at home.
He was playing for San Diego State University as a freshman after leading Sweetwater High, in his hometown of National City in San Diego's South Bay, to a championship.
To address one challenge, Corona was lifting weights trying to get stronger to adjust for the physical demands of American college soccer.
Additionally, he had to hitch rides to campus, paying thousands of dollars for school while trying to play on a partial scholarship at SDSU.
With the economy poor, his father needing more work, the family was challenged even further when Corona's 15-year-old sister suffered a stroke, nearly died and lapsed into a coma for weeks.
While she has made a promising recovery, one of Corona's closest friend's died soon after his sister's stroke.
It all led the 19-year-old Corona to a change in direction. Fluent in English and Spanish, Corona told SDSU coach Lev Krishner he was quitting, leaving to try his luck with Club Tijuana's amateur youth teams.
He enrolled at a community college and began crossing the border into Tijuana to play on Sundays with the Xolos' reserves.
Besides all the emotional turmoil, Corona's decision had several components. While most of his Anglo friends went straight to college, his Hispanic contemporaries often went south of the border for professional opportunities.
His college option was limited by the fact that coaches usually divide their maximum permitted 9.9 scholarships - compared to 14 for women's soccer and 85 for American football - among their 25-player roster. And a full-ride scholarship doesn't pay for everything anyway.
Moreover, his technical play was more suited to the Mexican leagues rather than the more physical American college ball,
With the possibility of landing a pro contract, Tijuana was more appealing than college.
It's a path that appears suited for the new era of U.S. under senior team manager Juergen Klinsmann, who wants kids like Corona that represent the different cultures that make up the United States.
Klinsmann thinks enough of Corona that he sent a scout to Tijuana to keep a close watch on him last summer.
Klinsmann's predecessor Bob Bradley had done the same. He reportedly sent Tijuana a letter requesting the release of Corona, was was on his way to the U.S. senior team before Bradley was fired. Klinsmann opted for another set of players prior to the American's friendly against Mexico in October.
Corona will wait his turn for another shot at the U.S. senior team. After Olympic qualifying, he will return to Tijuana and the club with a Mexican hairless dog as its mascot, where he earned the Primera Dvision's Rookie of the Year in last fall's Apertura championship from the Mexican soccer federation.
"It's been a whole new experience for me," Corona said. "I think Tijuana is a first division city. Not only Tijuana, but I think San Diego. Cities nearby are big on soccer, especially the Mexican league. Ever since we got promoted, it's been crazy. The whole city's been going crazy. Everything revolves around Tijuana's club team, so it's a great experience to be part of something that big."
Big enough that it has gotten his face on billboards, walls and websites.