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Do the U.S. and Mexico care about the Gold Cup anymore?

Gold Cup

Mexico's Argentina friendlies highlight the problems that exist, changes that are needed for El Tri

Mexico have some talented young players but two defeats in Argentina were a real reality check in terms of expectations.
Mexico have some talented young players but two defeats in Argentina were a reality check in terms of expectations.

MENDOZA, Argentina -- Labels like "roller coaster," "highs" and "lows" feel lazy. But how else do you categorize the Mexican national team in 2018?

Few fans know what it is like to experience their team winning a World Cup, but not many will go through the range of emotions that El Tri fans did on June 17, when Mexico historically defeated reigning champion Germany in their World Cup opener.

However brief, however fleeting that moment was, it was also real; Mexico finally looked to have a team and a manager in Juan Carlos Osorio to compete with the best.

If El Tri could defeat Germany, then why couldn't they top the group and reach the elusive "quinto partido," or even go further? Let's not forget that this was a group of players in its absolute prime and mainly based in Europe.

A solid 2-1 victory against South Korea followed for Mexico, but what has transpired since has seen El Tri end the year with its worst annual account since the turn of the century. There have been seven losses in the last eight games -- something not recorded since 1952 -- and the yearly total reads six wins, nine losses and one tie, with only 12 goals scored and 21 conceded. The team since -- without many of the European-based players -- has been a shadow of the one that electrified the opening days of the World Cup, shorn of direction and even spirit under interim coach Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti.

The year concluded for the Mexican national team on Tuesday evening in Mendoza with a 2-0 loss to Argentina. On top of the 2-0 defeat against the same opposition last Friday in Cordoba, it's been a difficult international break, filled with logistical problems and negativity. It almost feels like a relief that 2018 is over.

"Thanks for nothing," read one headline in a Mexican newspaper on Wednesday morning.

"It was complicated, that's clear, it could've been different," said goalkeeper Jesus Corona of the trip to Argentina. "You always come to represent the national team with optimism and not to make excuses; everything helps and we know what can be improved."

The games in Argentina were heralded as a chance for Mexico's youngsters to cut their teeth against strong opposition. In reality, it has put things into perspective for Mexico, especially after goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa came out after the first game and made strong statements about Mexican soccer needing to "open its eyes," adding that the national team has lacked "direction" since the World Cup.

After a disastrous end to 2018, Mexico will need to go back to the drawing board and sort out some fundamental and crippling problems within the federation.
After a disastrous end to 2018, Mexico will need to go back to the drawing board and sort out some fundamental and crippling problems.

Ochoa is frustrated. The lack of logistical organization, World Cup bonus payment issues, image rights problems, investigations into Mexican football by both the monopolies commission and the tax authorities have all made this a difficult few months for the Mexican game. Ferretti has also made it clear that Liga MX owners are not all supportive of the national team.

But the underlying issue is not about the money. Instead, it's the lack of respect established players feel from the FMF and the media, which the payments are part of. Take 33-year-old Ochoa, who could have easily played his whole career at Club America and earned more money than he has in Europe. Ochoa is often criticized for moving first to French minnows Ajaccio, then Spain -- mainly warming the bench -- and onward to Standard Liege in Belgium.

From Ochoa's perspective and that of players like Miguel Layun, Hector Moreno and Andres Guardado, they have made sacrifices in their personal lives and financially to establish themselves in Europe in order to reach their maximum potential for the national team.

Against Argentina over the 180 minutes, Mexico were not overawed or outclassed, but they were still second best against an Argentina team without stars Lionel Messi and Sergio Aguero. The difference is that the Argentine "next generation" includes the likes of Paulo Dybala, Lautaro Martinez and Mauro Icardi, all of whom are already established in Europe and will be around for the next World Cup.

Mexico's prospects, especially up front, look weak in comparison and the Argentina trip, the performances, results and off-field issues have blown open a debate about the future of the  national team.

Likely new coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino will come in with a lengthy list of issues to resolve, but perhaps top of the list of questions for the next World Cup cycle will be these: Do the younger players have the desire and drive to reach the top leagues abroad? And will Liga MX clubs ultimately allow them to leave?


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