Leo Cuellar on Mexico-USA, Liga MX Femenil vs. NWSL, and Latino players in America

Leo Cuellar  has been a soccer renaissance man on both sides of the border. Mexico's captain at the 1978 World Cup and a title-winning midfielder with UNAM Pumas -- where he teamed up with Hugo Sanchez, Bora Milutinovic and Co. -- Cuellar spent the last half decade of his playing career with the old NASL's San Diego Sockers and San Jose Earthquakes.

Cuellar coached Cal State Los Angeles men's team in 1988-1998 and took charge of its women's program upon its inception in 1995.

When the Mexican federation launched a women's program with the aim of qualifying for the 1999 Women's World Cup, it enlisted Cuellar. He successfully steered Mexico to its first Women's World Cup appearance and ran the program for nearly two decades. More recently, the 68-year-old Cueller coached Club America to a Liga MX Femenil title before becoming the UNAM Pumas women's program coordinator of development.

SOCCER AMERICA: When you played for Mexico in 1973–1981, how did you view the USA? They weren't qualifying for World Cups back then.

LEO CUELLAR: What we realized back then was the inconsistencies in the program. We took advantage of that — they had an idea what they wanted, but for one reason or another they were not successful. They still used nice players — I'm not going to say they weren't serious, but they couldn't find a way to be more consistent. That has definitely changed. Now they are huge rivals.

We always go through the wounds of the World Cup in South Korea and Japan 2002. We always have it in mind and that we want to find each other in another important game and come out with a victory to compensate that one. That was the first sign that things were going to change and that it would be tougher.

We stopped thinking that things would be easy. Then, when everyone started to use things in their favor, like making Mexico play in cold weather with all the famous 2-0s, the chanting, and the pattern of that scoreline. They come into Mexico City and we have some tough games. So it's another competition.

I feel like Mexico has not grown enough to maintain not just a superiority but just to remain competitive. I think the generations in the United States are changing quickly because of internal competition. In Mexico, our generations last too long. They're falling short and not accomplishing their goals.

SA: But Mexico does have more players with European clubs than before ...

LEO CUELLAR: Even though we have players playing in Europe, they're mostly not playing in big roles. Sometimes, they don't start and across their season play 50% of the minutes or even less. Obviously, there are exceptions.

Here in Mexico, when you have a final and from 22 players you have 16-19 foreign players in that final — that's not a good sign.

I think we have sacrificed the Mexican talent for the business. For having foreign players. We were world champions twice in the under-17s and the first generation did great. But in the second generation, only two or three players developed to a good level in the professional league. In my pure opinion, it's because of the lack of opportunities in the Mexican league and abroad. They can't go abroad if they can't show in the [Mexican] league first.

SA: Do you remember the first time you played the USA for the national team? 

LEO CUELLAR: I played in an Olympic qualifying match in the Estadio Jalisco in 1972. It was a purely amateur team — the first time Mexico used amateur players to qualify for the Olympic Games in Munich. We tied 1-1. The second time we played in San Francisco, Kezar Stadium, and tied 2-2. We were a very young team against a senior group of a lot of good American players.

SA: What do you remember about those early matchups?

LEO CUELLAR: That we are a home team even in the States. To play the USA in the Coliseum of Los Angeles — we are the home team. There was no difference.

SA: The USA has gotten smarter since then.

LEO CUELLAR: You've gotten more serious — more about not just developing players, but what it takes to win and take advantage of whatever you have within the legality of the game. Now it has been copied by Canada, no? Having matches basically in the snow and things like that. It's part of competing.

SA: Mexico has a rich soccer history, wealthy clubs, state-of-the-art facilities, plenty of culture. Why hasn't Mexico won a World Cup yet?

LEO CUELLAR: It's a very good question. A very good question. I think we wait until the very end to beat teams. We're not a culture that builds something in the long run. We have a tendency to not set a platform to be consistent. It's amazing that we haven't played the fifth game in the World Cup. It's amazing.

It's not because of the lack of money, interest, fans — it's a lack of structure. It's the lack of having good, solid programs that compete to the highest level and compete internally to make the step when you have to go abroad. 

I think what's helping a lot was to be a part of Copa America. For one reason or another, we're not there anymore. That was good buildup for a better generation. For many years, there has been a good habit of having the international matches in the United States — to travel to Europe, Africa or Asia or even South America to have preparation games. In the end, that counts a lot. Players develop well playing in different circumstances, locations, weather, different food, accommodations.

We've been a little too comfortable — sometimes we've had excellent players who have the opportunity to play abroad but they don't because they make some very good salaries here and are very comfortable. 

I think we're not as hungry for success as the U.S. soccer players have been in the last few generations. 

SA: That's a pretty big statement.

LEO CUELLAR: American players want to play for Chelsea, in the Champions League, to challenge themselves. The league here pays very well, Mexican players are very comfortable here. Why should they go to another level or another country?

I think we need those players who break the habits and prove themselves and set examples that 'yes, we can.'

SA: What is needed for Mexico to win a World Cup?

LEO CUELLAR: More internal competition. More fighting between who's going to be the right fullback or the right forward or the center midfielder. We need to have 10 players fighting for one position. We don't have that.

SA: What do you expect from the upcoming match at the Azteca?

LEO CUELLAR: A lot of tension. The stability in the beginning is going to be very crucial. Emotionally and systematically — we have a tendency to show our back to our team if they're not doing well. Even those things are changing — before, fans would chant to the end. Now, they're more demanding and are going there to let everything go from the everyday life. If the everyday life is not in the right way or stable, they use the game as an escape — anger, unhappiness, whatever. That changes the atmosphere of the game. It's not the same as before. 

When I played in the Azteca in front of 110,000, you can see that the opponent is peeing in their pants. Now the atmosphere is not as tough. 

SA: Will you be there on Thursday?

LEO CUELLAR: Yes I'll be there. In my green jersey. Even though they're changing their colors all of the time.

Blazing trails for Mexican women's soccer

SA: How did your long, deep involvement in the women's game begin?

LEO CUELLAR: I got an invitation from Enrique Borja when he was the president of the Mexican federation [FMF] to come in as an advisor for the women's national team program. Considering that I had been living for 20 years in the United States, I had a look to the premier program that is U.S. Soccer. At that point women's soccer [in Mexico] would grow in one state, then disappear, then grow in another state and then disappear — there was not a consistency in their development. So we had to start from all these amateur leagues. They weren't affiliated with the federation. 

My initial job was to prepare a team to qualify for the Women's World Cup in 1999. I came to the program like three weeks before we had the qualifying matches against Argentina home and away. We did well — we won in Mexico 3-1 and in Argentina 3-2, so all of a sudden, out of nowhere, we're in a World Cup.

Then we had to experience the lack of budget, the lack of support, having a poor preparation because there wasn't a consistency in having the players in. We had some good intentions to add some Mexican-American players to our roster, but those players weren't even in the first 600 players. Many players had good quality but not within the level of the competition. 

There was some patching to do, because if the ones who were playing their whole life in the States weren't ready, the ones who were playing here in Mexico were less ready for this kind of competition. After the World Cup, where we lost the three games, immediately came the 1999 Pan American Games schedule with an under-21 age bracket. We had some tryouts and put a team together and from nowhere we did well and lost the final 1-0 against the USA. That was a key event for our federation — that at one point, with a lot of work and better support we'll be able to be competitive in the area. That's how everything started. 

I was going back and forth from my work at Cal State LA to come and put these teams together — in the second half of 2000 I was hired full-time to start the program.

SA: How do you feel after the current state of the Mexican women's national team program?

LEO CUELLAR: It's a lot of good things that are already in place that we'll continue to support, and other ones we need to innovate. Some we'll have to create — the main thing is to be more and more professional with the day by day.

Even though our league is only five years old, it's showing progress with the fans here in Mexico and the media and the television. We are in the right direction with developing the national team players. One of the other things I'm very proud of is that four coaches of the national teams — now we also have under-15s, U-17s, U-20s, and senior — they were all my players at one point and worked with me. That makes me very happy. We have made that progress with equality and as a coach that's a big accomplishment.

SA: How would you compare Liga MX Femenil to the USA’s NWSL?

LEO CUELLAR: In the USA, it's the third time they've tried to put together a good, solid league. The competition of the other sports has been very tough. I think now they are more solid and stable.

I still think because soccer is the No. 1 sport in Mexico we probably have more of a fanbase and following on average than what the USA has.

I think that's something that we need to appreciate. The biggest challenge is to have a better game and performance. To work with younger generations to bring the league to a bigger level. That's why every club now is obligated to have an under-17s. Now we have a national competition with them. But if you see the ratings in the TV, they basically cover every game. They'll find Monday nights for women's soccer and they have good ratings. Last Sunday at 9 p.m. on national television, the Clasico — Club America vs. Guadalajara — maybe the attendance wasn't great, just 10,000, but the following on TV was great. So I think we are building this in the right way.

In the end, we need to improve the product on the field. I think it's a big jump for a lot of players and the filters of competition are not as solid as in the U.S. In the U.S., the girls must fight hard to make the team from their streets, town and region — they learn to compete at a younger age. It's tougher so they get used to the demands of the competition. Here it's a much bigger jump to come to a professional team.

SA: How about in terms of salary? Is it possible for women at the highest levels in Mexico to only play professional soccer?

LEO CUELLAR: You have women here who, all of sudden, make 5,000 pesos a month, 6,000 a month — a couple players are making 10,000 pesos [$500] a month. That's a huge jump from how the league starts. ... We only allow two foreign players per team. Now we have unlimited Mexican-American players, so I think that's also going to be attractive to them. Something that's been happening in the U.S. league is that some players who aren't getting enough playing time will get loaned out to Mexican teams so they can play here and get more minutes. Then they go back to play in the U.S. teams — there are several cases of that happening.

Mexican-Americans courted by both countries — a sign of success

SA: You served as the Cal State Los Angeles men's coach in 1988-1998 and fielded Latino players when that was relatively rare in the college game. Do you follow men's college soccer and if so what's his opinion on men's college soccer, especially D1, and it's opportunities for Latino players?

LEO CUELLAR: I think in the days that I worked there wasn't a ton of opportunity because maybe the Latino families needed their kids to work sooner than they wanted. I experienced that a lot at Cal State LA — having to convince the families to let their kids continue their education. To not end it in high school and go straight to work in the factory or the farm. That kind of limited the number of options.

Now I think things are changing — with the growth of MLS and soccer in the States. ... the opportunities in the States have been growing and they're having more success. Now the national teams in different [age groups] are fighting for the Mexican-American kid — is he going to play for Mexico or the USA? Definitely it's a tremendous success of soccer in the USA.

What the U.S. is doing ... it's almost like they're finally getting to the point to have the success that they always wanted. I remember when the goal was to be world champions in 2010 [that's U.S. Soccer's Project 2010, created in 1998]. They were probably too optimistic. Now, to have 60 or more players in good levels in Europe and the results that they get in Concacaf and having younger players by design and winning, it's a sign of progress. And that the system is going to finally pay off.

SA: How do you feel about U.S. youth soccer and the opportunities to play professionally compared to the 1980s when you were coaching?

LEO CUELLAR: To have traveling teams at a much younger age, and that kind of competition is definitely going to help a lot. It's going to help the quality of the players. The internal competition that you guys are having is tremendous. The amount of players you guys have is also something that facilitates more talent. The coaching needs to match up with the quality to further develop these players. In some areas, I still think the USA is a land of opportunity — anybody can go there and coach. But I think if U.S. Soccer is more selective and gets better coaches, these players will develop better.

12 comments about "Leo Cuellar on Mexico-USA, Liga MX Femenil vs. NWSL, and Latino players in America".
  1. oswaldo rodriguez, March 23, 2022 at 10:26 a.m.

    "Latinos" is Spanglish crap and "Latin" (or Lationos) are Europeans.
    "America" in Latin America means: American Contitent (both North America and South America).
    Please stop spreading mis-information.

  2. R2 Dad, March 23, 2022 at 1:11 p.m.

    "LEO CUELLAR: That we are a home team even in the States. To play the USA in the Coliseum of Los Angeles — we are the home team. There was no difference. " What's it gonna take for LA area Hispanics to support the US? The Chivas experiment failed. What can MLS do to turn this tide? 

  3. humble 1 replied, March 23, 2022 at 1:25 p.m.

    As recent as 2016, I attended Uruguay vs. Mexico in Arizona for Copa America Centenario, which by the way according to the name and the definition of oswaldo, should include USA, and Mexico, but this is not the opinion of the eight countries in South America or FIFA, maybe they should have to change the name???, anyway in that game, it was full, the stadium, not a seat empty, 98% Mexican supporters, the Mexican's even went so far as to 'mistakenly' play the Chilean National Anthem for Uruguay, and sang their favorite song to the keeper over and over.  This is how it is and how it will be for a long time.  There needs to be Mexican-American's on the USA MNT for it to change.  In 2014 we took 1 Mexican American to Brazil, one that does not speak Spanish, I believe, and in 2018 we did not go, so long long way to go.  Make it happen! 

  4. humble 1, March 23, 2022 at 1:17 p.m.

    Thank you.  Did not know of Cuellar.  His comments on the flaws in the Mexican system are revealing.  Internationals can enhance in a nations top level pro leagues, but can also be problematic for national player development.  This is a universal quandry.  As for the nomenclature, in the article, SA does not make up the terms, they univerally accepted here in the USA. America - here = USA.  Here hispanic = latino and we all know what they mean, this is why we use them.  As far as I know, we in the USA do not have to adhere to the nomemclature of Central or South America any more than they need to switch to speaking English, even though it might significantly help their economies.  Carry on mate!  

  5. R2 Dad, March 23, 2022 at 1:17 p.m.

    Great interview--so much knowledge and experience.
    "SA: What is needed for Mexico to win a World Cup?

    LEO CUELLAR: More internal competition."
    Mexico is heading in the wrong direction, having dropped Pro-Rel. And our highest level in the US doesn't have it, either. I think I will not see in my lifetime the USA or Mexico in a WC semifinal. Because business reasons trump quality football reasons.

  6. Wooden Ships, March 23, 2022 at 7:44 p.m.

    Former teammate Ty Keough in the photo. 

  7. Beau Dure, March 23, 2022 at 7:57 p.m.

    $500 a month?

  8. R2 Dad replied, March 24, 2022 at 2:19 a.m.

    I think that goes a lot further in Mexico than it does in the US, especially living outside of Mexico City and the tourist areas.

  9. Craig Cummings, March 23, 2022 at 8:08 p.m.

    I have refed his teams many times, including the MWNT and he is just a GREAT  guy. He always comes up to the refs after a game and thanks us for comming to ref the game.

  10. Ric Fonseca, March 24, 2022 at 7:36 p.m.

    I've been a fan and follower of Coach Leo Cuellar, especially when he took over the HC reins at Cal St. L.A. where, BTW, both Ralph Perez and Berhane Anderbehan both coached just prior to coach Leo's arrival.  As a matter of fact, if memory serves me right, during the mid-70's and while I was still at UCLA for graduate work, the Bruins hosted a "traveling team" from UNAM, (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico) and of memory continues to serve me well, I recall Leo being on that team.  The game was played at UCLA, during the spring/early summer, and since it was not during the regular season, we had a mishmash of players from the varsity and non-varsity players.  As for Coach Cuellar coaching the Cal St. L.A. first women's team, he was, to put it bluntly, the right guy at the right time as Title IX was by then being strongly implemented nationwide.  He left a helluva of fantastic legacy for the continuation of women's soccer, at the collegiate level as well as recreational, especially in the community that is served by Cal St. L.A.  And I am sure that if he were to come back and tour our heavily Latino communities he'd be very pleasantly pleased to see the development of young Senoritas now playing the sport.   

  11. Ric Fonseca, March 24, 2022 at 7:47 p.m.

    On the matter of the college recruitment of Latino players, whether at the four-yearncaa level, this is a very sore spot for many and sundry reasons.  Coach Leo mentions that he constantly had to convince families to allow their player-sons to continue playingand complete their education.  One of the many factors to consider when recruiting a Latino player out of high school, is the academic factors - gpa, sat or act scores, financial, etc. - factors that, IMHO are not too well explained, coupled with the fact that there may be other four-year programs after the same player.  Another avenue is the community college sector, that offer a two year academic program, and there are some very good community (aka: "junior colleges,") in the greater L.A. region and othr parts of the country.  Unfortunately, the number of 4-year programs are not wont to recruit quality Latino players, and I am sure he can write "chapter and verse" but as to his success at Cal State was and is based on his persona, and his excellent knowledge of the sport and how to teach it and coach it.  (So, there is more to this story, perhaps there will be more information yet to come and put on paper....)

  12. Todd Pablo Saldana, March 30, 2022 at 11:42 a.m.

    Leo is a wonderful human being. He was an idol (don't tell him I said that) became a teammate, mentor, friend, colleague and now keep an eye on his son Christopher who is making strides in the academy youth game here in LA. 

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