Christopher Cuellar explains the rise of Mexican women's soccer

California-born and raised coach Christopher Cuellar’s latest success with the Mexican women’s youth national team program came in January when Mexico beat the USA in the final to win its first Concacaf Women’s U-20 Championship. He was also at the helm when Mexico reached the quarterfinals of the 2016 U-17 World Cup.

Cueller was born in San Diego, where his father, Mexico’s 1978 World Cup captain Leo Cuellar, played for the NASL’s San Diego Sockers in 1979-81. Christopher’s first coaching job at was Los Angeles’ La Canada High School. He began working with the Mexican Federation in 2005 as an assistant to Leo, who headed Mexico’s women’s program from 1998 to 2016.

Mexico is the only Concacaf nation to have qualified for every youth world championship on the female side since 2010, the USA having failed to qualify for 2010 and 2014 U-17 World Cups. In 2016, Mexico reached the quarterfinals of both the U-17 and U-20 Women's World Cups.

SOCCER AMERICA: How has Mexican women’s soccer evolved over the years?

CHRISTOPHER CUELLAR: With the growth and success of the women's and youth national teams, the response of the people has grown. They get excited for matches when we're in the World Cup and they see how close we've been, getting to the quarterfinals, it's an initiative that people can support and can help the team take the next step.

Definitely since the 1990s the culture has changed. With the initiative of the Federation there is a youth amateur league for girls U-13 and U-16, a professional league, and more spaces for girls to play together. Before, girls were playing with men's teams, youth rec leagues, very amateur opportunities. Now it's more organized, there are more fields, refs, leagues, and teams, many more opportunity for girls now.

Do you think the success of the youth and senior national teams spurred the growth of the sport or do you think it's the other way around?

I think that to get support from our Federation they need to see results. I think the Federation has seen that we've been so close that it's time to put forth more, like the professional league, amateur league, and grassroots stuff.  It's not an owner of a field setting something up for girls to play, now it's more organized, more closely related to an AYSO of the United States, that's focused on getting numbers up and giving players opportunities.

Qualifying for the World Cup has certainly spurred the Federation to support more. If we hadn't qualified for our first World Cup in 1999, then it would've been more time before organization came about. When we make it to the World Cup, the people get excited. They show it on TV, the people actually have a good response, they want to see more success.

How did your father, Leo, get involved in the Mexican women's national team program?

He was head coach of the men’s team at Cal State Los Angeles. He also started a women's team there. He got a call from the Mexican federation asking if he was interested in taking over just before the final games to qualify for the 1999 World Cup, [a two-game series in December 1998] against Argentina. He traveled from the States to there, and afterward, they asked him if he wanted to stay on full-time.

It kind of sounds funny, but he started by himself. He kind of jumped in, he didn't have a lot of support. He had some cones, some balls, and in the beginning there weren't really any fields, so he found some space where they could train and get ready for the first World Cup in 1999.

And then he asked you to help out?

In 2005, and little by little, after a few years of volunteering with the program, I got more and more responsibility.

His way of leadership has always been to give his coaching staff more and more responsibility to help us grow. The key for me was him giving me more and more responsibility and starting to help out with special projects, starting with working out the goalkeepers, and then working as an assistant. It really helped me grow, and many others have had the same experience with him.

Mexico's women's and girls teams have relied much on USA-born Mexican-American players ...

In the past, in Mexico we didn't have these youth leagues, or professional opportunities. The players that we've had in camps from the U.S. have always maintained a level and a rhythm of play. It's really helped us with competition because the players in Mexico played rec. They would play on the weekends but they wouldn't train during the week.

So we got a more consistent performance from the kids from the States. Now, with the league, we have an area where the girls can play, can practice, where they're active. I think it'll start to change a little bit but we're also conscious of the numbers and options we have in the States.

The players that we have in the U.S. now in our youth teams are playing in the best clubs. We don't have any college players who aren't in Division 1 colleges, we don't have very many players who aren't in the ECNL or Development Academy teams. So, it helps us knowing they're receiving at least the best level of play there.

We've got talent in Mexico. There's always talent in Mexico, players who grow up playing with their brothers, playing the streets. But that talent wasn't developed. You start to lose that advantage when the player grows and they're not surrounded by good coaching or good experiences, and travel and playing good competition. Now, the talent we have is being developed by the professional teams and the local league. That is, for me, the difference.

So the reliance on USA-raised players is decreasing?

I think it'll be tougher and tougher for players from the States to make the team. Before, you can probably see in the final roster it was almost 50-50 [Mexican-American vs. Mexican] and now in the last few rosters I think we've had about 6-7 players [Mexican-Americans]. It's dropping a little bit. As the development and level or play here rises, I think we'll see less and less players from the States competing here. But that doesn't mean we're not going to consider players in the United States.

There are a lot of players from the States who could contribute to our program. Really what we do is look for the fit, someone who can do the task that we ask them to do. We play against the U.S. and Canada -- big, physical, fast players, so we need to be able to handle that matchup in certain positions. A lot of it has to do with that, finding players who can handle that matchup.

You mention the USA’s attributes of speed, strength, and physicality. Do you think with the development of the girls game in other countries, such as in Mexico, that can be overcome?

I think that there has been a change in women's soccer since the 2011 World Cup. I think we've got Japan come in with technical, tactical ability, and that made a difference.

It's kind of been a guide of what programs can do to be able to compete with the USA. The women's game has developed so much that you can't get by with just the physical matchups. There are teams that tactically can beat you. We saw it with Japan. And then you see soccer in the U.S. trying to match that.

We have very technical players. But at the same time, we're not at the level of a North Korea or a Japan.

We need to find the balance where we can compete technically and physically so with the players and options that we have here in Mexico and in the United States, we need to find the concepts that makes us able to compete better, both technically and physically, against those teams.

What we try to do is a bit of a mix, we have to find matchups and players who are skilled. For us that's the way to go. In the United States, I don't know what the philosophy is exactly but I see in the national teams, in my experience, it's been the physical matchup and then trying to play a little bit more soccer, and now it's back to the physical matchup. With the next cycle of the World Cup, we'll see where the trend goes.

Do you look to what the USA does with their women’s program for your projects in the Mexican Federation?

The sheer numbers that the U.S. helps out a lot in the development of players. What we try to do here, you know, is start the grassroots, get players starting early, creating spaces for girls to play. Parents are happy about sending their kids to play with other girls and not boys like they've had to do for years here growing up.

The amateur league from the Federation has really created an organized area for players to play: an under-13 league, an under-16 league. The first step is getting players interested in soccer, and then the professional club youth teams are options for players when they decide that they want to continue with soccer. We're getting the numbers up in a grassroots fashion like an AYSO in the U.S.

How important was the U-15 national women’s program that you set up in 2014?

In 2014, it was the first Concacaf competition for younger kids. It was a real turning point for our program because it obligated the Federation to start earlier. Before we would start with a U-17 program, so we'd get kids who were 15, 16 years old, train for a year before our qualifying tournament or the year of our qualifying tournament.

Now with U-15s, we're able to get players earlier, identify players earlier, train them, give them more time before qualifying or World Cup in U-17.

For example, the U-20 team that we have now started with scouting trips in 2013. So the players on this team were players who we found during 2013 when they competed in the youth Olympics in Nanjing. So these players have been with us since 2013-2014, and the plan is to take this group on a 10-year cycle so this can be the base of the national team at the 2023 World Cup.

Having them train from 2013 and having them have their first World Cup in 2023 gives us 10 years of training, and now with the professional league, the players will have another five years of playing professionally before their first World Cup.

They'll average an age of 23-25 years old for that World Cup. The idea is to start earlier with players, give them the experiences they need with development.

How important is “style of play” for Mexico?

We have a very clear and defined style of play that we want to play with our players, and we have the phases that we go through with the U-15s, giving them a little bit of order, discipline, with the U-17s little bit more options in attacking, some more variance, and then with the U-20s it's the next step and then the senior team is the full package.

The philosophy is the same for the women and the men?

The youth women's national teams are underneath the same wing as the youth men's national teams. It's all overseen by the same bosses for the senior teams all the way down. So we have a style of play established in our program for Mexico, men and women. We have certain exercises, training session plans that we execute with our teams. We play a 4-4-2, we model that after our men's team. It's the same thing for the men's team and the women. There's a couple things that may vary between men and women but the plan, the concept, the model, is all under the same thing.

Mexico’s women’s professional league, Liga MX Femenil, launched last year …

It models the men's calendar. We play two tournaments in the same year, Apertura and Clausura. They start in late July and finish in December, then they start again in January and end in May. So, it's helped us that they've been active professionally for the last few months at least.

It started, I'm gonna have to say, with the success of the youth national teams' success qualifying in the World Cups -- we're the only country in Concacaf to since [2010] not to miss any World Cup. The Federation has seen the potential in the youth in the women's side, and they've really tried to help with the professional league.

Before, the national teams used to have long camps. We had three-week long camps and we'd train physically, tactically, and technically, we'd advance a certain level, the players would go back to their homes and they don't have a team to play for. The players who did would continue playing, but when we came back into camp the level of play and the rhythm of play is so dispersed and it's not on the same level, so we'd have to start over again, you know, taking two steps forward and one step back. Now with the league we're able to advance. The players are able to at least maintain their form. In every camp, we're able to work on objectives to be able to keep on taking steps forward.

Women’s professional soccer in the USA struggles financially. The NWSL is the third after two previous leagues folded. How is that similar or different with the professional league in Mexico?

The league in Mexico took a loss, I think, in the first season. But the pro teams are supported by the Federation for the first few seasons, and I think clubs are able to find ways to make money and support the teams.

For example, this year Fox Sports Televiso and CBN have started what they're calling Monday Night Women's Soccer. The men's teams play on Saturday and Sunday and Friday, and the majority of the women's team for television rights are playing on Monday nights. So with the television money, they've been able to support their players and the costs.

The league is split up into two regions, two groups of eight teams, so the distances are closer. There's only one team, Tijuana, that's in the north of the country, that has to travel. They're the only team that really has to take flights everywhere. The Federation also supports that cost.

The women’s teams being the same clubs as the men’s teams is advantage?

Yeah, I mean, there's a women's team with Club America and there's a following with its men's team, so the people that are fans of the men's team are gonna also follow the women's team.

And there's been a lot of good interactions between the men's side and the women's side. A lot of the professional players support on Twitter, on all the means possible to support and bring more attention to the women's side. The response has been really positive. For example, Club America plays in Azteca, Chivas will play in their stadium, all the teams pretty much play in their [men’s team’s stadium], Pachuca plays in their stadium on Monday nights. The semifinals [43,383 for the two legs] and finals [28,955 for the first leg; 32,466 for the second] had great attendance.

The league has started and now we're finding ways to help it grow, fix the things that need to be fixed. The important thing is just getting it started. I think we had a really good idea and it's been done the right way and should continue that way.

5 comments about "Christopher Cuellar explains the rise of Mexican women's soccer".
  1. Ric Fonseca, March 17, 2018 at 10:52 p.m.

    FELICIDADES CHRISTOPHER!!!!  I am very pleased to say that I had the distinct pleasure of having met Leo, his father, back in the early 70's, especially when a team comprised of Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM) came to the Los Angeles area to play several games against UCLA and other universities.  I am very pleased to say that we hosted several of the team members, and even more pleased when I later learned that one of the players was Leo himself, whom I saw on close circuit TV, in a movie theater, the game they played against Germany and vividly remember Leo stopped a cannof shot and was knocked out.  I am also proud to say that I also had my then CSUN team play against Cal St Los Angeles when Leo was their coach - we lost! - but never lost touch with him and followed his coaching career. I also vividly remember Christopher as a tiny guy, and later learned that he played for his father.  Lastly, I vividly remember Frank Rojas, then Cal Soccer South Adult association ask me if I knew Leo and what I thought of his coaching abilities, not knowing that he'd eventually head the women's program in the country of my birth. I am very PROUD/ORGULLOSO, to say that I am even more PROUD AND ORGULLOSO to see that Christopher is now in charge of the Women's program!!!  More on this later!!!

  2. Ric Fonseca replied, March 18, 2018 at 6:11 p.m.

    I also want to mention that - in danger of being chided by others for patting myself on the back - that I was also instrumental together with others in getting women's soccer started at CSUN back in the very early '80s, when a group of young ladies approached me about letting use the field for their club team practices, and it didn't take long to learn they were playing in a women's team college league against UCLA, Westmont College, Biola College, USC, and several other college club teams whose names escapte me. Shortly thereafter, the full might of Title IX was implemented and the named universities and others implemented women's intercollegiate soccer. My entry into women's soccer was quite by happenstance and being at the right time at the right place, however, during the late '70s when I decided to enter officiating, during several games I was assigned to in the San Fernando Valley, and other areas in Greater Los Angeles, I then wondered why there were only several high schools - public and private - that fielded girls teams even though club competitive soccer Cal Youth Soccer-South, and or recreational ayso, should've been at the forefront of fileding and establishing girls programs but dragged their feet only and until Title IX "forced the issue."  As to what this has to do with Leo or Chris Cuellar, they should also be lauded and praised for what they've accomplished in Mexico, and this only leads me to say that I've personally seen Mexico grow by leaps and bounds, and have witnessed the number of Mexican American young women enter the sport, in a Latino cultural/society that is still very much "macho" oriented not just in Mexico but here in the US, and it undoubtedly because of the Cuellares' dedication and, yes, devotion, to press on and develop the sport.  Finally I just want to say that I am extremely and very proud for what they've done and wish them continued success on both sides of the border.   

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, March 18, 2018 at 11:39 p.m.

    Well stated Ric. I just don't get the people who think life is a zero sum game and put down others so they fell better about themselves. I will stop now before I become terminally sappy.

  4. frank schoon, March 19, 2018 at 9:42 a.m.

    Hey, Ric, do you know of someone in soccer you haven't met..LOL. I enjoy reading those little fillers that brings color to the game....Keep up that rich info that makes the soccer subculture so interesting.....

  5. Ric Fonseca replied, March 19, 2018 at 11:52 p.m.

    Muchas gracias Bob and Frank, and in answer to the aboves question, yes I can say that I haven't met the two of you, though I look forward to doing so sometime soon!!!  Saludos cordiales y abrazos!!!  Ric

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