The keys behind Mexico's youth success

By Paul Gardner

To say that Mexican youth soccer had a good 2011 does not even begin to describe the quite exceptional achievements of the Mexican boys.

To achieve, within the space of a couple of months, triumph in the U-17 World Cup, and then a third-place finish in the U-20 World Cup is success on an almost unthinkable scale. Only Brazil does that sort of thing. In fact, Brazil did mirror the Mexican saga in 2011, winning the U-20 world cup and finishing fourth in the U-17s.

We expect that sort of thing from Brazil. But, Mexico? Clearly, important developments are taking place down there. This was not Mexico’s first U-17 win -- they had already won the World Cup in 2006.

Considering that we share a vast border with Mexico, also that we (that’s the soccer “we” I’m referring to) spend a good deal of money, time and effort on youth development, we should surely be taking a close look at what the Mexicans are up to.

An opportunity to do just that came at the recent NSCAA Coaches’ Convention in Kansas City. The enterprising Joe Cummings, who now runs the convention, made it his business to bring in two members of the Mexican Federation’s youth division to impart, or at least explain, some of their wisdom. I spent some time with Jose Enrique Vaca, the program’s general coordinator, and Jose Rosario Pina, the goalkeeper coach, then attended one of their sessions. And what did I learn? Above all, that success on the Mexican scale is not a sudden thing. Well, OK, we all feel that we know that.

But to have the details of a highly successful program spelled out, as Vaca and Pina did, is to realize the importance of those unglamorous items, administration and organization. The setting up of a nationwide system of scouting, ensuring the collaboration of the country’s pro clubs, the holding of national camps. But again, there’s a familiarity there. Don’t we do all that right here? Aren’t we supposed to be good at that sort of thing? Come to that, wouldn’t the average American bridle at the thought that Mexicans could do that better?

Probably. But the fact has to be faced. One factor mentioned as particularly important by Vaca and Pina was that the pro clubs had been persuaded to play youth games (at both age levels) alongside pro fixtures. Thus a game between Chivas and Club America would always be preceded by games -- highly competitive games -- between the clubs’ U-17 and U-20 teams. “We’ve convinced the club owners and Presidents to get with the national program -- there is now no resistance from the clubs,” said Vaca

Meetings between the Federation staff and club coaches are held every three months, and Vaca reports that over the past 10 years or so there has been a real improvement in their programs -- with the introduction of areas like nutrition and psychology.

The idea of dedicated youth academies is only now beginning to take hold at the pro clubs ... a hint that great things can be accomplished without academies (or, maybe, that the setting up of academies does not necessarily bring success). Vaca calculates that, in the under-17 age group, there are some 12,000 boys playing with the country’s 18 pro clubs.

I was surprised at the amount of time that selected boys are expected to spend at national camps -- “There are 10 or 12 concentrations [at the Mexican Federation’s HQ in Mexico City] a year,” said Vaca, “each lasting about 10 days.”

As I always feel that giving a young player hefty doses of two different coaching systems (club and Federation) seems like a recipe for confusion, I had to ask ... but Vaca was adamant that all was well, “It helps the boys to be playing in different ways. They’re going to be better players, I’m sure.”

And yes, the Mexican Federation does scout Mexican-American players. As prospective national team players, of course -- “but we don’t take them to Mexico, we want them to stay in the USA, to live there, to be with their families, to keep studying. We don’t want to have boys who don’t want to come. They must make the decision. We want to respect the USA.”

Former Mexican national team coach Javier Aguirre once told me that Mexican teams struggled at the international level because they had a miedo de ganar, a fear of winning. Is that still a factor, I wondered. “That was true,” said Vaca, “We thought only of qualifying from the group stage of a tournament, of the fourth, or maybe the fifth game. But not now. We’re competitive now. We’re no longer thinking of just that fourth game. The young kids feel now like they’re world champions. They’re learning to be not just good players, they’re learning how to behave in hotels, in press conferences. Not long ago their hero was Cuauhtemoc Blanco -- a great player, but not an educated man. Today the boys look to Chicharito, educated, he speaks English, he’s successful in Europe.”

Complicated as it undoubtedly is, I’m inclined to think that the organizational element is the straightforward part of youth development. What truly separates Mexico from the USA is the superior quality of their players. Their uniformly excellent technique, the smoothness of their passing game, the utter naturalness of their movement.

This was touched on by Vaca, who drew worried looks from the hotel breakfast-eaters as he stood up in the restaurant to demonstrate how he wanted players to run and to move and to pass the ball.

But those are qualities which the Mexicans can almost take for granted. In the USA, one can never be sure. Too often, in their absence, we make do with substitutes -- we concentrate on size, particularly at the youth level, or on tactics, or on fitness. Right now, Jurgen Klinsmann seems obsessed with fitness, calling in his fitness gurus to work miracles, though how they can do that during the short periods that national team players are available to them, I really don’t know.

I can find excuses for Klinsmann. He cannot hope to teach pro players the ball-skill talents they should have learned when they were young. Maybe he feels he has to turn to fitness, but it is a depressing thought -- especially as crash-courses in fitness are not likely to work either.

Nothing can take the place of the most basic of soccer skills - the ease of movement with the ball. The Mexicans have that. Americans, by and large, struggle in that area. If we continue the attempt to replace true soccer skill with fitness or tactics or whatever, we shall forever be in the position that the Mexicans feel they have now overcome: concerned only with winning the fourth game.

17 comments about "The keys behind Mexico's youth success".
  1. tim francis, January 25, 2012 at 2:49 a.m.

    Excellent article, Paul. I hope the National powers are listening.

  2. gary at k, January 25, 2012 at 2:50 a.m.

    Good stuff Paul.
    Just one critical thing though: THERE ARE NO TACTICS IN US SOCCER at all levels.
    The soccer we play here is jungle ball, with every individual constantly improvising and pretty much doing whatever they want. There is no real "set tactical work" done in this country.

  3. R2 Dad, January 25, 2012 at 5:55 a.m.

    Hmmmm. Learning from Hispanics. Culturally that will never fly with the big wealthy clubs outside of the MLS youth system.
    Good point, Gary. I mean, there ARE tactics, but when was the last time you saw them being implemented by a youth team? I was AR1 at a match and was caught totally unprepared when an entire BU14 defending team played the attackers offside on a free kick. It was awesome, but I've only seen that once. Easier to train robots that don't think.

  4. Kent James, January 25, 2012 at 8:01 a.m.

    Although this article is very good, the subject needs more research. The ultimate source of Mexican success is the quality of the players' ball skills, and these are not developed at the U17/U20 club level, nor are they affected by the national team tactics. The question that needs more research is how do the Mexican players develop their skills? Are they learned playing street soccer? is there a coordinated effort to teach skill at the youth level? For if the most important element of the success of the Mexican teams at the international level is their organized recruiting system, that can only be effectively replicated in the US if there is similar talent to be recruited, and by most accounts, that's a problem. Does the Mexican Youth program develop talent better than the US efforts, or simply recruit talent that already exists?

  5. Efrahim Fernandez, January 25, 2012 at 8:17 a.m.

    The reality is kids in the USA have allot of choices as it relates to sports and other activities.The kids here want to grow up to be Kobes,LaBrons, and the Manning's. Not many want to be the LanDo or Dempsey. We have great athletes who choose other sports. I have seen two young soccer players one a girl and one a boy that are good technically not great but are super quick and fast. Both are on the national pool because you can't stop them 1v1.These players could easily star in another sport but they chose soccer.You can significantly improve your first touch but only marginally improve your first step speed.

  6. Soccer Bloke, January 25, 2012 at 8:38 a.m.

    12,000 at 18 clubs: thats 667 players at each. IS that correct?

  7. Rick Figueiredo, January 25, 2012 at 9:52 a.m.

    Excellent article. Mexico has elevated their psyche. Their real test comes in 2014 in Brasil. As for Jurgen, I feel for him. He has a puzzle with no apparent solution. The USA players do lack conditioning which is a surprise considering they grow up generally with good nutrition, but americans for the most part fail to use the bottom of their foot as a controlling devise. And we continue to have an average at- best talent pool. In american sports the best athletes gravitate to American football and basketball, and to some degree baseball. They are African American. The key race to our elevation remains dormant. How to get them interested in what they call a "white man's sport" is the real challenge. We are perhaps 50 years away from really making a mark in the World Cup.

  8. Gus Keri, January 25, 2012 at 12:15 p.m.

    There are two elements required to building a successful soccer nation. 1- Techincally and tactically gifted players 2- A system that identify them and help them grow. Historically, Mexico had the focus on the first element but not the second one while the USA had focused on the second element but not the first one. Currently, both countries seem to be on the path to fulfil both elements. Better organization had helped Mexico faster because the talents are there. The USA will need a much longer time to build its pool of talents, a process that has started already.

  9. Tyler Dennis, January 25, 2012 at 12:48 p.m.

    The keys to the success is passion, culture and increasing amounts of money filtering down to the youth.

    If you are not fueled by a passion for something, how can you ever become great at it?

    Over the next 10 years, I would expect that we get great players out of Portland and Seattle areas, because those kids get to experience great soccer environments filled with passion. They'll want to be part of that experience and will work hard to get there.

  10. Al Gebra, January 25, 2012 at 3:30 p.m.

    Couple of comments:
    1. Having lived in Mexico for several years, I can tell you that soccer is not the only sport played there by the masses. The parks are filled with kids playing basketball, baseball and even American Football. And there are college and pro leagues for these and other sports in Mexico.
    2. The Mexican kids are good at an early age because they watch the pros (and their dads and brothers) play the game and they emulate them even down to how they walk, react to a foul called, etc. You see the same thing here in the US with the Latino players.
    3. I can't even imagine LeBron or Shaq or any NFL lineman trying to play soccer. Their bodies are not built to the physical requirements of soccer and their mental approach to sports doesn't fit in with soccer's orientation being a "player's game" and not a "coach's game".
    4.Soccer a"white man's sport"?? I'm not even going to comment on that except to consider the source of such a declaration

  11. James Brown, January 26, 2012 at 12:39 p.m.

    The article mentions that selected boys are at national camps 10-12 times a year for 10 days at a time. Does that mean these 15 and 16 years are done with school at that point or continuing with their education at these camps?

  12. Roger Sokol, January 26, 2012 at 4:49 p.m.

    Paul wrote a very good article. A great deal of the impetus for Mexico improving its performance was the period over the last decade or so where the US sucessfully competed against Mexico and threatened their position as the region's dominant soccer power. Hopefully, now that Mexico has vastly improved, it will provide the impetus for the US to up its performances likewise. We all know the US isn't where we'd like it to be in international competition. But I would ask everyone to just compare where we are now with where we were 10, 20, or 30 years ago. The US's rise has been nothing short of phenomenal. We all are anxious to see the skills instilled in our players, the players identified. the players developed, and a higher level of results acheived. But the process of getting the pieces in place and systemic problems solved to do that seems to go a lot slower than any of us would like. As frustrating as that is, the plain fact is progress is being made.

  13. Al Gebra, January 26, 2012 at 8:35 p.m.

    "Super Man" is Spanish for Massive Dog Wang

  14. tim francis, January 28, 2012 at 4:29 a.m.

    One thing that HAS developed is the quality of this column's commentary shown above, barring what may be a 'wound-based' defensive remark by SM. One more related ponderable clue to the US dilemma may be Guus Hiddink's method to his miracles with Korea and Australia in past world cups: Both are countries with somewhat similar challenges to ours--soccer as secondary sport, smaller & less athletic player pool, less developed pro-league and financial backing, less early skillful player development. Guus has hinted at 'rules' he insists on players following: maybe these are further clues for the US level of players that Paul could expand on?

  15. Jack Niner, January 28, 2012 at 11:35 p.m.

    Let's please dispell the myth that 'the best athletes in America don't play soccer' Most top notch basketball, baseball, and football players would be horrible at soccer for a very simple reason - great eye-hand coordination is totally different (and I would argue more natural) than great eye-foot coordination. Also, great eye-foot coordination must be developed at an early age or by early teens it is to late to fully develop, ever. This is most certainly NOT the case with basketball, baseball, and football.

    In the US they're are pockets of soccer brillance - Usually Brazilian, Portugese, Italian, or Mexican immigrants teaching the basic foot skills to young kids so that later on complex tactics can be used. Unfortunately they are still the minority. Also most American coaches don't know how to use these kind of skilled palyers.

  16. Kevin Kelly, March 1, 2012 at 12:29 p.m.

    I wonder if Paul saw the US v. Mexico U-23 game yesterday? We played them off the park and not just physically. In all aspects of the game. Both teams were missing players that could be starting but I think it would have only got worse for Mexico.

  17. kidssoccergear corner, March 11, 2012 at 10:19 a.m.

    I would have to say from being a parent of soccer players that the US is behind as far as technical skill goes. Although we are starting to get there. I would have to say that the reason I feel we are behind is because we are not a nation that focuses on the sport and also we have all types of training and skill building activities, but what it really takes is just getting out their and playing. The US has all the kids soccer gear and material products, but we lack in endurance, ball handling and just the desire to play for the fun of it. I do believe the reason other countries are better at ball skills is because they are playing the game all the time and learning new moves. Soccer is a game that requires lots of endurance which is another factor because US is a rather lazy society. Don't get me wrong we have lots of talent, non-lazy players out there in all sports but compared to other countries the US is lazy.

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