Mexico need more players in Europe if they are to go further at World Cups
SAMARA, Russia -- It's the morning after, and the inquest has already begun in Mexico as to why El Tri failed to get past the round-of-16 stage of the World Cup once again. It is a question that permeates every aspect of Mexican soccer, from the youth structure to Liga MX and, obviously, the full national team.
Part of the debate over the coming hours and days will center around whether head coach Juan Carlos Osorio is the right person to carry the team forward. The federation's answer will probably be "yes." Key figures within Mexican football have been impressed with Osorio's attention to detail, and there is an argument even for extending his duties to give the Colombian more say over how the youth national teams are run as well.
Many will disagree, however, and Osorio will likely want out of a job that involves unique pressures and challenges. Mexico remains one of the world's biggest national teams in terms of sponsorship, ticket sales, shirt sales and size of its fan-base, but has yet to achieve that "grande" status on it. A lot of work remains to make that jump from a respected mid-ranking World Cup team to one that wins knockout matches. It's astonishing that El Tri has only won one World Cup knockout match in history, and even that was at home in 1986 (against Bulgaria).
Ultimately, it does put it the Mexican national team's historical position is within the world game into perspective. And that perception hasn't changed radically in Russia despite having a generation of players in their prime. A huge victory over Germany in El Tri's first game was widely lauded, but Mexico finished the tournament with a 3-0 loss to Sweden and a 2-0 defeat to a very good Brazil side.
So what needs to happen in order for Mexico to turn the possibility of advancing to the latter stages into a probability? It sounds almost ridiculously obvious, but Mexico needs to produce elite players.
Over the country's history, only Hugo Sanchez and Rafa Marquez have reached, and then remained at, the very top of the club game. That process starts right at the bottom with better scouting systems, improved youth coaching, long-term planning and a blueprint shared between the Liga MX and the federation.
Of the 18 Liga MX clubs, some take their youth systems very seriously; others, not so much. In a country with a young population and a total of 130 million people, having fewer than 20 institutions catered to educating and bringing through youth players is not enough. The Mexican federation has put a lot of resources into its youth structure and Mexico youth national teams are widely respected, but there's still a lot of work to do if they're to reach and produce the world's best, mostly in terms of volume and depth of talent rather than the quality at the very top.
There is also a blockage in the system at present after the youngsters graduate from academies. Not enough young Mexican players are getting opportunities in Liga MX first teams. Liga MX rules have been skewed towards improving the quality and spectacle of the league through foreign imports and it's the young Mexicans that have lost out.
All of the above feeds into Osorio stating after the game that Mexico will improve in relation to how many players it exports to Europe. He's not wrong and this is a concern. Even if Mexico's squad in Russia was the first in history to have a majority of players with experience playing in Europe, other Latin America nations are exporting at the same or an even greater rate as the world's game becomes ever more globalized. And while 11 of Mexico's 23 players at Russia play in Europe, none play for truly elite clubs.
The real concern has to be the tendency for young Mexicans to move between teams in the domestic league. For example, forward Rodolfo Pizarro -- perhaps the best Mexican player in Liga MX -- signed for Monterrey from Chivas earlier this summer; the impressive Jesus Gallardo moved from Pumas to Monterrey; Orbelin Pineda started at Queretaro and went to Chivas, while Jurgen Damm left Pachuca for Tigres. All have the ability to explore and benefit from new experiences in Europe, but the financial pull of Liga MX clubs means their paths to Europe are often blocked, even if the players themselves want to go.
North of the border, MLS will also remain a pull factor for Mexican players simply because their value is much greater in the United States than in Europe.
On the positive side, there is a good generation of Mexican players coming through. Youngsters Omar Govea, Joao Malleck and Uriel Antuna are all already in Europe. The ideal would be that Erick Gutierrez, Jonathan Gonzalez, Cesar Montes, Jorge Sanchez, Roberto Alvarado, Eduardo Aguirre, Edson Alvarez and the jewel of Mexico's youngsters, Diego Lainez, all take that risk and join the likes of established national team players Carlos Salcedo and Nestor Araujo over there as well. In all likelihood, the difficulties Mexican players have in leaving Liga MX clubs will stop at least some of them.
Another side issue for Mexico moving forward is just what the future of the international game will bring. El Tri won't play in next summer's Copa America to instead field its best team at the expanded CONCACAF Gold Cup. Add into that the CONCACAF Nations League, which will start in September 2019 for Mexico, World Cup qualifying, the 2021 Gold Cup and friendlies in the United States, and there won't be a lot of room to play competitive games outside of the CONCACAF region.
Whether the glass is half-full or half-empty for the Mexican national team is often difficult to decipher but the direction that El Tri needs to steer ahead of Qatar 2022 simply has to involve somehow getting more players into the very best leagues in the world.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.