GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Between Mexico's success at the youth levels and two straight Gold Cup wins, all but the most steadfast US national team fans would concede that El Tri have the edge over their nothern neighbors in men’s soccer right now.
In the women's game, the tables are turned, with Mexico historically light years behind their neighbors to the north. However, the last couple years – which have seen Mexico upset the US in World Cup qualification and earn their first ever points at a Women's World Cup – indicate this may be about to change.
The biggest fuel for recent enthusiasm in women's soccer in Mexico has been the formation of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in the United States, with the Mexican soccer federation (FMF) agreeing to pay the salaries of 16 national team players spread across eight teams. Make no mistake, this is a big deal.
“It’s probably the single most important development in the history of Mexican women’s soccer, by leaps and bounds,” former Mexico captain and current ESPN reporter Monica Gonzalez (at right) told MLSsoccer.com. “This will help our program more than anything else ever.”
Getting regular, quality playing time in order to fully develop talent has traditionally been a problem for Mexico national team players and the NWSL will at least start to fill that gap.
“One of the themes that we have had to contend with is that players haven’t had continuity and haven’t been playing regularly at a high level,” national team coach Leonardo Cuéllar admitted at a press conference here earlier this month. “With this new help from our federation, they will have that opportunity.”
Gonzalez thinks the players who head north from Mexico to the nascent league – though almost 50 percent of Mexico’s players at the 2011 World Cup were born in the United States – aren't entirely ready for what they'll encounter.
“They’re in for a rude awakening!” said Gonzalez, with a hearty laugh. “Mentally and physically, it’ll be a challenge. Once they get over that, I think they’ll realize that they’re not far off and they have the talent.”
The NWSL isn’t the only recent development in the Mexican women’s game. Spurred on by the success Mexican men's youth teams have had at the international level, the FMF is sponsoring two new centers of excellence for young female players, the first in Guadalajara and another in Monterrey. Trials are currently being held around Mexico to scout new talent.
“[The young women] will have the opportunity to train for three days a week under a program determined by the national team coaching staff,” said Cuéllar, who has been the head coach of the national team since 1999. “I think that it will be a great benefit, so the girls can start to gain the success the boys are getting us used to.”
Even with the recent improvements, reaching the levels of the US and Canada, currently Nos. 1 and 7, respectively, in the FIFA World Rankings, is a monumental undertaking. Mexico have been stagnant for years, floating between 21st and 26th between 2006 and the present day and currently occupying the 24th position.
But Gonzalez sees no reason why Mexico can’t challenge, as long as the infrastructure improves, and a serious project is put in place for upcoming generations of players.
“I think we have the potential to be as big as anyone,” said Gonzalez, whose Gonzo Soccer Academy, an organization focusing on soccer and leadership for young women, is about to open its second center in Mexico. “We have the potential to be a monster every year.”
Gonzalez isn't exaggerating, and cited a telling encounter with US legend and current development director for women's soccer April Heinrichs.
According to Gonzalez, Heinrichs told her, “I have always referred to Mexico as the sleeping giant. As soon as Mexico gets organized, you guys are going to be a world power.”
In the world of women’s football, Japan have become the outstanding example to follow for many nations – Mexico included – looking to make the jump into the elite, moving from outside the top 10 in FIFA Rankings just five years ago to world champions in 2011.
Mexico matching that feat is a tough ask, but the signs are certainly there that El Tri femenil can step up to become CONCACAF's third powerhouse.
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America for MLSsoccer.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.