By Paul Gardner
What to make of the sudden burgeoning of Mexican soccer, in particular the appearance of so many good young players?
That, of course, is a misleading statement. Because there is nothing sudden about the rise of Mexican youth soccer. As with so many overnight sensations, there is a lengthy background here.
My first experience with Mexican youth soccer came 1968, when I watched local Mexico City youth teams play games against the Mexican team that was preparing for the Olympic games of that year. I liked what I saw, but left it at that. It came as no surprise to see that, at the very first FIFA Under-20 World Cup, in 1977, Mexico made the final, losing to the USSR in a shootout. It has never reached the final since, but its erratic record has included some notable performances, including two narrow QF losses to the eventual winners (Portugal in 1991, Argentina in 2007).
It was not until the 1990s that I began to pay serious attention to the Mexican kids. I was now watching them regularly, every year at the Dallas Cup. But at a much younger age. The under-12 teams from Monterrey played consistently good soccer, and were the title winners in 1991, '93, '95, '97, '98, 2000 and 2002. Other young Mexican teams, including Tigres and CD Guadalajara (Chivas) played the same sort of skilled, intelligent passing game -- something of a rarity at so young an age.
In 2001 the Mexicans took the Dallas Cup by storm -- winning all six age-group titles, from U-12 to U-19 -- with teams from six different clubs. I wondered, at the time in the pages of Soccer America, whether this feat would even be noticed by “the top level of American soccer,” and decided that it would not. That was an easy call, because of my belief that “As far as Mexican soccer is concerned, this country is, has been for decades, in denial.”
But the most telling incident had come a couple of years earlier, during the 1999 Dallas Cup. Favorite to take the U-12 category that year (it had won it in 1998) was Manchester United. That seemed logical. It didn’t happen. ManU didn’t even make it out of their group. Needing to win its third game, the English boys went down 3-1 to a Mexican team. Well, sort of. The team was the Houstonians -- composed mainly of Mexican-American boys from Houston. And this was no fluke. The Houstonians, without any room for doubt, played markedly superior soccer.
If ever there was a moment for the powers that be in American youth soccer to take a fresh, serious look at the college-oriented direction of youth development, that was it. A bunch of poor Mexican-American kids from an inner city program knocking off one of the most famous -- and richest -- clubs in the world? But I’m not aware that any excitement enveloped U.S. youth soccer.
In 2005, the Mexicans topped the world in youth soccer by winning the under-17 world cup. Was that noticed in the USA? Huh! A few months after that success, came the 2006 NSCAA Annual convention. The organizers had noticed something, evidently, for they scheduled a lecture on the Under-17 World Cup ... but not by anyone from Mexico. The featured speaker was the coach of the Dutch team that finished in third place, having been soundly beaten 4-0 by Mexico in the semifinal.
On that front, at least, there is good news to report. Joe Cummings, the NSCAA’s lively, innovative CEO, tells me that he is going to “move heaven and earth” to get a Mexican presence at the 2012 convention. Would that Cummings’ attitude were more widespread.
The USA needs -- can you believe this? but I cannot see another way of putting it -- to discover Mexico. For his 1984 book which he described as “a portrait of the Mexicans,” author Alan Riding came up with the brilliant title “Distant Neighbors.” He wrote: “probably nowhere in the world do two neighbors understand each other so little.” But his book hardly brings the two peoples closer together, certainly not at the sports level. He mentions soccer just twice in 370 pages, and we are told “The Mexican is not a team player: in sports he excels in boxing but not in soccer ...”
But it is now clear that the Mexicans can excel in soccer, just as it is clear -- and anyone who does not know this is quite deliberately refusing to see it -- that the Mexicans do a much better job at youth development than the USA does.
If there are lessons to be learned from that, then American hubris has to be replaced by humility. America has to go in search of Mexican wisdom, and has to listen.
Is that so difficult? You wouldn’t think so, but the record so far is appalling. That is bad enough, but it is a scandalous situation when one thinks back to that game in 1998 when the Houstonian kids upended the ManU kids. Because that reveals another, surely intriguing, aspect of the situation: that there is plenty of Mexican-type talent right here, at home. I called them Mexican Americans, but there is no need for that slightly demeaning appellation. They are Americans.
The point has surely been reached by now when it is undeniable that this growing army of young players must be welcomed into the ranks of youth soccer, must be seen as the most promising route to future professional and international success.
Is that what is happening? No, it is not. And it will not happen until the youth development industry (yep, industry) in this country stops kow-towing to the simplistic crudities of college soccer, to the equally misguided financial crudities of sponsors, and the utterly unsuitable stylistic crudities that arrive with the Brit accents now so prevalent in the youth coaching ranks.
Wilmer Cabrera, the Colombian who coaches the USA’s under-17 team, recently told Soccer America’s Mike Woitalla that he was satisfied that he had selected the USA’s best young players for his team, but made plain his frustration that he had “a group of players who cannot yet compete at the highest level with the top teams in the world.”
That much was made obvious by the team’s performance, which included a defeat by Uzbekistan, and elimination after a 4-0 plastering by Germany.
I see no reason not to accept Cabrera’s answers, but I do have a problem with his explanation for the USA’s shortcomings -- that they are, in effect, all the result of the social climate: “At this age, our boys in the United States, they’re very young, they’re immature. At this age in the top countries, they’re already men. They’re more mature. They’re more professional. They have a more professional mentality.”
Quite probably that is true, as far as it goes, but it does not explain the yawning gap in technique so embarrassingly visible in far too many of the young Americans. And it must also be unavoidably clear that the players on Cabrera’s team with the best technique, the players who look most comfortable with the ball, the players who move most smoothly -- the players, in short, who have a pretty good starting point in that they look like soccer players, and look “developable” -- are the Hispanic players.
The distorted programs operated by the vaunted youth development practitioners have brought the USA to that inescapable fact. What they are doing is simply not working. They are producing crop after crop of technically inferior players who are good enough only for college soccer.
Every year, at the so-called MLS SuperDraft (which is, in effect a college draft, primarily a PR exercise with nothing at all “super” about it) MLS Commissioner Don Garber delivers his starry-eyed effusion about all the great young players that the USA is producing ... yet Garber, an intelligent man, knows damn well that this is pure wishful thinking, a travesty of the truth.
It ought to be true -- given the huge numbers of youngsters who are enrolled in youth soccer. But the end-product of all this is pitifully meager. The youth mentors have got it wrong, big time. They have lost a whole generation of highly promising Hispanic talent, boys like those young Houstonians.
Are they prepared to waste yet another generation? Of course they are, because the orthodox thinking in far too much of the youth area does not even acknowledge the problem. They sail blithely on, pointing to a good result from time to time, and to an exceptional player here and there, they hold their clinics and their workshops at which they feast on academic banalities, and in doing so they condemn the USA to mediocrity.
Back in 2001, when I wrote of the USA being in denial as far as Mexican soccer is concerned, I ended that column with a suggestion: that, because I felt certain that the Hispanic presence and talent in the USA would continue to be ignored . . “then there is only one answer. The Hispanics in this country must produce their own leaders and set up their own national organization.”
It was not a suggestion that I felt particularly comfortable with, but I did not make it lightly. I knew it was a divisive idea -- but I saw no obvious alternative, and anyway, who -- other than the orthodox American youth development programs -- was it who was doing the dividing?
Enough is enough. Decades of well-organized and well-financed and (they tell us) well-coached development programs and they have abysmally failed not only to get the job done, but to even recognize that their biggest -- and I would have thought, their most challenging -- task is to find a way of amalgamating the two styles, the Euro (for want of a better term) and the Hispanic.
Yet that is a crucial topic that rarely gets discussed -- I have neverseen it put forward as a subject for discussion at the NSCAA convention.
After this month’s Under-17 World Cup and the invigorating win by Mexico’s youngsters, things have moved definitively beyond merely questioning the efficacy of this country’s youth development schemes. Clearly, they don’t work. Equally clearly, Mexico’s do. Then there’s the fact that we have a huge pool of under-used and under-appreciated Latino talent in this country.
I am suggesting that the answer to that absurdity is for the Latinos to take matters into their own hands and carve their own way to soccer excellence. I say that only because decades of experience have forced me to the conclusion that in the soccer culture-war that wages in the USA, the older culture, the one that feels threatened, the Euro-culture, will not budge. Worse, with the ongoing arrival of Brit coaches and their neanderthal soccer (and how many Under-17 World Cups has that won?), this mulish obstinacy receives constant support.
It is a considerable criticism of all sides in this tangle that the only initiative so far that openly concentrates on nurturing Latino talent has been taken by a television company. A Spanish-speaking station, of course.
I believe that’s called reality TV. It is certainly not reality soccer.