Alexei Lalas learns of a turning point when he sees her.
It happened in his first match as a junior for the national team, at the Colosseum, against a Mexican team who had lost only one of their previous 26 matches against the United States. But that day, 20-year-old Lalas helped the Americans draw 2-2, starting a streak that would see them lose just one of their eight games against Mexico.
“I was there on that occasion,” Lalas said. “It was like the beginning of that generation that didn’t accept that we were still inferior to Mexico in this field, that we were still losing.”
By the time teenager Landon Donovan made his national team debut nine years later – also against Mexico at the Colosseum – the pendulum swung again and the USA went down again. Donovan changed that, starting his goal of winning a winning streak that would lead the United States to 9-2-2 in their next 13 games with Mexico, their most successful stretch in the cross-border rivalry.
Now, another group of young Americans is about to turn the tide again at this week’s Nations League in Denver. If the two teams win their qualifiers on Thursday – the United States against Honduras and Mexico over Costa Rica – they will meet for the 71st time in the championship game on Sunday. The United States reached the semi-finals with perhaps the deepest and most talented group of young players in their history. 19 of the 23 players belong to top-flight teams in Europe, with nine of them making at least 30 league appearances this season. Twelve of these European-based players are under 24 years old.
For its part, Mexico, ranked 11th in the world according to FIFA, occupies a list of 12 veterans from the last World Cup in Russia, in which it presented the second oldest team in the tournament.
If the momentum changes again, it could be long-term, as the core of the US team could be together for a decade, while Mexico’s senior roster will soon need a makeover.
“This generation of young people comes with an attitude of confidence and arrogance that makes them want this moment,” Lalas said.
“If I had been in the Mexican Football Federation, that would have been cause for concern.”
The two countries followed different routes to reach the final crossroads, routes that were greatly influenced by their national federations. Liga MX’s deep academy system has made Mexico a global powerhouse at the youth team level, reaching finals in three of the last five FIFA U-17 World Cups, while also winning the gold medal at the 2012 Olympics.
“The level of talent that appears in [las] U17 and U20 are second to none. Probably one of the four, the eight [mejores] “Programs at the youth level around the world,” said Denis T. Kloese, General Manager of Galaxy, who was the director of the Mexican youth teams for several years before taking over the entire national team program ahead of the 2018 World Cup. talent. that’s not the point”.
However, once those players make it to Mexico’s first-team roster, they can get stuck there, which is why only eight of the 23 Mexican Nations League players play on the continent, while half of them play more in Liga MX.
The exorbitant transfer fees Mexican clubs often demand of their players and the relatively high salaries in Liga MX are two reasons why players are not leaving. Another factor slowing the development of young talent is the Liga MX system, which allows teams to bring in up to nine foreign players on their match rosters. Under pressure from Mexico’s coach, Tata Martino, that number will drop to eight next year and seven in 2022-23.
“In the United States they give young players and in Mexico they are more interested in bringing in foreigners than giving a chance to young players from Mexico,” Carlos Hermosillo, who is fourth in his history with Mexico, said his 35 goals. “The clubs must understand that in order for our football to grow we must produce young players.”
The Mexicans have heard this countless times, which is why so many of their players were happy that their team qualified for the Olympics – the Under-23 Championship – for the third time in four attempts, while the US failed.
“Young Mexican players are familiar with everything that is said in the United States about young people playing in Europe,” said Stu Holden, a former US national team player and current Fox Sports analyst, who has covered the Olympic qualifying stage. “They have some really good young players who will be about to move to Europe in the next couple of months. Or at least in the next year and a half.”
“So I don’t think it’s clear that we are above them at our next talent level.”
American players come first, in part, because they usually face far fewer obstacles. Although the MLS academy system continues to grow, it has already helped current national team players, such as Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah and Josh Sargent, move to the top clubs in Europe without playing a single MLS match. Others, such as Christian Pulisic, Jordan Sepacho, Anthony Robinson, Sebastian Leggett, Serginio d’Este, Conrad de la Fuente and Yunus Musa, have developed on the continent.
“These American players are not dependent on Major League Soccer and these Mexican players are dependent on their National League to go abroad. And that is a big problem because if the National League thinks its product is worth more, there will be no teams in Europe that will take the risk with them,” said Hercules Gomes, player A former US international who played five years in Liga MX. “Their chances in this aspect are greater than they are in Mexico.”
It’s not that the Mexicans have never played for the big clubs. Dozens, not now, with only two players under the age of 24 on the Nations League roster – Edson Alvarez and Gerardo Arteaga – playing in Europe. The United States has six times that number, T. Kloese said, which gives it an advantage.
“There is not a lot of science in it. It comes down to the youngest players.” “The more players you have in high competition, in good environments and the better you play against the best, the more players beat themselves up.”
“Obviously this will be important. You will have a positive impact on the American football program. I am 100% sure.”
However, it was the success of Mexico and the failure of the United States in the last World Cup that brought both countries to this final turning point. Mexico won the CONCACAF Qualifiers Championship, defeating holders Germany in their first World Cup appearance in Russia, and advanced to the knockout stage for the seventh time in a row. Brazil is the only other country to have accomplished this feat.
Mexico went on to win, losing only twice in 25 games since Martino took over as coach in 2019, and climbed to the top 10 in the world rankings for the first time in 15 years. As a result, there was little reason to change course and a revision of the inevitable roster was delayed, with only five players appearing on the Nations League roster for the first time with the national team since the last World Cup.
“It’s actually quite a dilemma for them now,” Holden said. “Tata hasn’t really flipped the team yet because nobody holds those positions.”
Claudio Suarez, whose 177 caps have been the most capped in Mexican history, added: “My point is that you have to bring your best players at the moment. It doesn’t matter if they are 30, 22 or 23 years old. You have to bring the best.” You have to think about winning and not building a base.”
But he added, “It is unbelievable that there is no long-term project … planning for the future.”
Meanwhile, for the United States, their failure to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in more than three decades led to a fresh start to American football, with national team coaches Dave Sarachan and Greg Berhalter broadcasting the soccer equivalent in Open Tests, giving 64 Their first calls with the national team in the last three and a half years. Fourteen of the 23 players on the Nations League roster made their debut for the national team during that time.
“The lowest point in American football history was not qualifying for the World Cup,” Lallas said. “However, we are probably at the most positive moment in our history, not just given the talent we have, but its depth. It remains to be seen if it will live up to the expectations we have.”
This question will be answered in the crucible of CONCACAF competitions, including the Nations League and World Cup qualifiers this fall. Because while the players on the US roster have 80 matches in the Champions League, only seven of them have participated in the World Cup qualifiers.
The competencies couldn’t be more different.
“The only way to feel comfortable in this environment is with experience,” Donovan, who has played 40 World Cup qualifiers, said, trailing only Clint Dempsey and Josie Altidore among the Americans. “There is no excitement in going to Barbados, on a small island, to play in a horrible stadium, with 95-degree weather and 90% humidity, other than doing it and feeling the stress that comes with it.”
“At the moment we don’t have enough children who have had these experiences.”
Yes Mexico. And if this young American team can’t adapt to those challenges, it won’t matter how many of them play in Europe or how many Champions League matches they win.
To read this note in Spanish, click here.