By Mike Woitalla
It's five days after Mexico won the 2012 Olympic gold medal. Scouts from 11 Mexican pro clubs and three representatives of the Mexican federation (FMF) are eying players from ages 13 to 18.
The scouts sit in a stadium 460 miles north of the Mexican border -- in San Francisco, Calif. The players they’re evaluating are U.S. products, mainly Mexican-Americans, who have reached the finals of the 10-city Alianza de Futbol tryouts, a project co-founded by Brad Rothenberg to discover young U.S. Latino talent. Most interested in players who come to these free tryouts have been the Mexican scouts, who this year invited more than 50 Alianza players to trials.
Mexican soccer is on a roll, yet Mexican clubs and the FMF continue scouring the USA for talent.
Besides the Olympic gold, Mexico has since June 2011 won the Concacaf Gold Cup, U-17 World Cup, Pan-American Games, Toulon Espoirs tournament and Northern Ireland Milk Cup and finished third at the 2011 U-20 World Cup.
At the San Francisco Alianza event, I spoke to most of the club scouts, and the FMF’s Dennis Te Kloese, to get their take on why Mexico has been so successful of late. The key ingredient, they concurred, was close cooperation between the FMF and the Mexico’s professional clubs.
A decade ago, the Federation mandated that Mexico’s pro clubs invest in youth programs.
“Before that, some of the clubs had good youth programs,” said Atlante’s Mario Garcia. “Now, out of 18 [first division clubs], 15 have a good or excellent youth program.”
Club America’s Jose Luis Arce said, “Before, investing in youth players was optional and nothing stopped clubs from just buying foreign players rather than developing young Mexican players.”
The first sign of major progress came when Mexico won its first world championship in 2005, the U-17 World Cup. But the Federation kept pushing. That year it introduced the rule known as Regla 20/11, which required first division teams to give at least 1,000 minutes of action to players under the age of 20 years, 11 months, during a season or be penalized with points subtractions. Players such as current Tri stars Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (Chivas) and Andres Guardado (Atlas) established themselves during the Regla 20/11 era.
The Regla 20/11 was dropped in 2011 because it was no longer necessary, said Te Kloese and Pachuca’s Sporting Director Marco Garces, because clubs now have more faith in young players.
“They stopped it because it’s not needed anymore,” said Garces. “The clubs are using youngsters all the time. It was important to make us see you don’t lose quality.”
Another crucial move was to establish national U-17 and U-20 leagues. When top tier teams play league games, their youth teams play in the same stadium before the game.
“Thanks to the U-17 and U-20 leagues, so many young players have come to the surface who otherwise were in the second or third division,” Te Kloese said. “They weren’t really looked it.
“Before, the young players were a little bit out of sight. Now the head coach walks on the field, there’s a game going on and he gets to know the players. When he sees the same player is doing something impressive a few games in a row, he knows this is a guy to give a chance to.”
Teams can field up to four older players in U-20 games, which gives playing time to those in their early 20s who aren’t seeing first-team action. And professional clubs also compete with each other at lower age groups. There’s a U-15 league and even some U-13 competition.
“They play each other, which basically obligates the clubs to scout more and to do a better job on their program,” Te Kloese says. “To have more interest youth programs because now they’re competing publicly against each other.”
Said Cruz Azul’s Hector Pinto, “There is an order we didn’t have. There’s an identification process so we know where players come from and where they go. It’s much more competitive at the youth level than it used to be.”
Garces says the youth leagues have aided the national team program’s identification process: “Now the best players are in the national team. I don’t think that was the case before.”
Club America’s Arce says Mexico’s U-17 World Cup triumph in 2005 played a role in the rise.
“It created confidence collectively,” he said. “Not just in the players, but coaches and media. There was no longer the sense that Mexico couldn’t win anything. And now we have better training, better scouting.”
The club coaches say the Federation doesn’t dictate to them how they should coach their youth, or what formations to play, but Garces says there’s a general agreement of how Mexican soccer should be played.
“I think there’s an overall respect for the game, for the ball,” Garces said. “We all try to play out of the back. We try to play a more sophisticated type of soccer in the sense of having the ball, not losing possession. In general, there are always clubs that try different things. But overall the style of play in Mexico is to try and hold possession and to try and create chances. It’s positive for development."
* * *
'BETTER GRIP.' Before joining the Mexican federation
and serving as Director of Youth Development for Tigres, for which he recruited several American products, Te Kloese worked with Chivas USA in 2005-08, setting up its youth program.
“Obviously, everything is not better and nice in Mexico,” said the Dutchman. “We’re just taking our first steps, we’re still far from being there, and need to keep improving, capitalize on what we’ve achieved, make sure we keep working hard.
“It’s not so easy. But the Federation has basically taken advantage of the talent there is and people are on the same page. … Maybe in Mexico we have a little bit better grip on things. Because historically [in the USA] you have all these factions -- colleges, high schools, enemies, politics …”
Although the U.S. national team program’s record in recent years pales in comparison to Mexico’s success -- the USA failed to qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup and the 2012 Olympic Games (a U-23 competition) -- Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s team did pull off a historic upset four days after the gold medal game when it beat Mexico, 1-0, at Azteca Stadium.
The first win on Mexican soil was notable for the USA fielding five Mexican-American players, at least four of which -- including scorer Michael Orozco Fiscal -- would not have reached the U.S. national team had they not been recruited by Mexican clubs while teenagers. The Mexican scouts in San Francisco say they see no problem if players they help develop end up playing against Mexico.
“I think it’s positive because, besides our obligation to our national team, we have a bigger obligation to our clubs and our job is to find the best players we can find,” says Garces, whose Pachuca has had 24-year-old Jose Torres since he left Texas at age 16.
“It’s good to give players chances,” Arce said. “It’s good for the game. … Some might play for Mexico, some for the USA. It’s up to them to decide.”
Then he looks at the U-19 Alianza finalists playing on the Kezar Stadium field and says, “I wonder why American teams don’t realize they have all these good players here.”
Alianza de Futbol Web site, Facebook, Twitter.
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Bay Oaks/East Bay United SC in Oakland, Calif. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)