Simply put, Thursday was an embarrassing mess for Mexico‘s men’s national team.
From the ineffective tactics of manager Diego Cocca, to his overwhelmed players, and even up in the stands of Allegiant Stadium where fans took part in anti-gay chants in Las Vegas, the 3-0 CONCACAF Nations League loss to the United States was one of the more significant lowpoints for El Tri in their modern era.
It was also a stark reminder that the once dominant team of the region have continued to lose ground to their rivals. In what was a golden opportunity to wrestle back the spotlight, Mexico’s efforts — including those involved with the national federation and Liga MX — have regressed even further.
For Cocca, who was facing his first major test since taking charge in February, there was a cautious timidness in his tactical approach. More worried about losing to the USMNT than about creating attacking pressure, the Argentine coach took risks by not taking any at all, regularly letting the opposition dictate the pace of the game.
An unwillingness to ditch his three-man backline also foreshadowed his eventual failure. With just one U.S. striker to defend, Cocca insisted on having an extra central defender, leaving plenty of space for the U.S. to easily sprint into dangerous areas in transition.
Mexico’s players didn’t do themselves any favors either. Often a step or two behind the movement of the USMNT, starters like Jesus Gallardo, Israel Reyes, Jorge Sanchez and others were disorganized as they clumsily tried to halt oncoming players.
Down 1-0 by halftime after a goal from American captain Christian Pulisic, Cocca had a chance to alter his tactics at the break. Completely outplayed in the first 45 minutes, he was given a window to bring on another midfielder or to refresh his attack with the immediate incorporation of someone like Feyenoord star striker Santiago Gimenez.
But that’s not what happened. Sticking to what didn’t work in the first half, Mexico stepped out into the second with the same setup, unsurprisingly allowing a goal just one minute after halftime by Pulisic again.
There afterwards, the match became chaotic and scrappy. Unnecessary aggression from both sides led to a flurry of fouls. Red cards would follow, with two earned per team. El Tri did end up improving slightly amid the disarray through second half substitutions, but that didn’t stop the USMNT from deservedly notched the night’s final goal in the 78th minute.
The icing on the bitter cake for Mexico in that third goal? It was scored by U.S. substitute Ricardo Pepi, an up-and-coming dual-national forward who selected to represent the USMNT over El Tri in 2021.
“Being here, winning 3-0… [it] reaffirms my decision, and well, it makes me happy,” Pepi said after the match.
Unable to do much else in response, Mexico would go on to finish the match with more reds than shots on target. Up in the stands, supporters loudly belted the anti-gay chant during U.S. goalkicks, eventually forcing referee Ivan Barton to temporarily pause the game in the 89th minute. When the match resumed and 12 minutes of injury time were shown, Barton then called the game four minutes early after more instances of the discriminatory chants.
Concacaf told ESPN that the match wasn’t abandoned due to protocols regarding the chant, but instead at the “referee’s discretion.”
Following the largest shutout loss for Mexico against the USMNT since a 3-0 defeat in a 2000 friendly, Cocca looked disheartened and fatigued.
“They beat us, we have to accept it, we have to understand it,” said the coach, his first defeat after a modest five-game unbeaten streak (two wins, three draws) which has drawn widespread criticism for his team’s performances. “If you believe you’re going to fix this in four months, you’re completely mistaken. This is a sign that there’s still a lot to improve.”
The thing is, there’s much more to be corrected than what Cocca or his players can do alone.
Mexico’s lull extends to the execs in charge
While it’s simple to point to figures on the field and on the sideline, those in charge of Mexican soccer have done a poor job in recent years of guiding everything from youth national teams to both the men’s and women’s senior sides.
Mexico’s senior men’s team, who flopped out of the the group stage of the 2022 World Cup, are now without a title in both editions of the Nations League and winless in the last six games against the USMNT. On the youth side, the men’s U20 squad didn’t qualify for 2023 U20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics, while the women’s senior national team will miss the upcoming 2023 Women’s World Cup and the 2024 Olympics.
Shaken up by these disappointments, the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) has gone through a number of staffing adjustments over the last 11 months.
Relating to just the senior men’s side, we’ve seen: The firing of general sporting director Gerardo Torrado and sporting director of national teams Ignacio Hierro, the hiring and eventual exit of Jaime Ordiales as sporting director for men’s national teams, the exit of men’s coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, the hiring of Rodrigo Ares de Parga as the executive director of national teams, the hiring of Duilio Davino as sporting director of men’s national teams, the hiring of Cocca as the new men’s coach, the exit of former FMF president Yon de Luisa, and the election of Juan Carlos Rodriguez as the new FMF president.
To add even more shakeup, Rodriguez transitioned to commissioner president in a restructuring of the federation earlier this week, and as part of that restructure, Ivar Sisniega was given the position of executive president.
In fairness to Sisniega and Rodriguez and the new structure that now includes Liga MX Femenil (Mexico’s women’s top flight) in the FMF’s executive committee, both have set lofty goals that have promised a focus on sporting matters over business and less conflicts of interest.
That said, if you’re a manager or player, you’re likely not looking over your shoulder and thinking that there’s much stability surrounding you or a long-term plan.
And if we’re highlighting the deeper issues that have impacted Mexican men’s soccer, Liga MX must be mentioned as well, especially with the lack of transfers abroad.
Liga MX needs to improve too
While MLS has made a recognizable effort to send players to Europe that have boosted the depth and strength of the USMNT, Liga MX tends to look more insular in an inflated transfer market that keeps countless Mexican players from moving abroad. This alone isn’t the only factor for moves to Europe, but it’s a powerful one nonetheless when Liga MX clubs are willing to spend more on domestic players.
For example, remember defender Kevin Alvarez? He’s arguably No. 3 in the depth chart at right-back for Mexico right now after Ajax’s Sanchez and Barcelona‘s Julian Araujo. Alvarez had a lackluster Liga MX season in the 2023 Clausura, but still managed an astounding $11 million transfer fee from Pachuca to Club America, according to Pachuca manager Guillermo Almada himself in late May.
Coupled with an ongoing pause on promotion/relegation, a short-season format that makes it difficult to debut academy players, clubs sharing ownership, and a playoff format that is expanded beyond eight teams, it’s understandable why many have felt that Liga MX is holding back the Mexican game.
Liga MX president Mikel Arriola did announce changes earlier this month, but those changes are only small steps in the right direction and gradual alterations when the league should be taking greater leaps forward.
So you take that from Liga MX, the FMF, just one title from Mexico’s men’s national team since 2016, and what you get is the fan anger that is frequently and inappropriately channeled through the offensive and derogatory anti-gay chant at matches.
The behavior is unacceptable and disgusting, and the Mexican federation and Concacaf should do a much better job of punishing those infractions, but fans do have a right for being angry. When they see the team’s struggles — and the high prices they’re paying for tickets to these games — it’s inevitable that they’re going to be bothered or furious about what’s happening.
But will anything actually change going forward?
More than likely, Mexico will bounce back soon. They’re no longer the big fish in the pond, but they’re still a major carnivore that can effortlessly swallow up the other guppies in the region. And with the USMNT utilizing a more MLS-heavy roster at next month’s Gold Cup, Mexico will have no excuses for not lifting that title.
That’s where El Tri and Cocca can begin their redemption arc and that’s exactly where they can form a base to build off of before the 2026 World Cup. It’s also hopeful thinking at this point, and before Mexico can even begin to prepare for the Gold Cup, they’ll still have to take part in a consolation prize through Sunday’s third place Nations League match against Panama.
And if Mexico lose that game, Thursday’s embarrassing mess would be just a small collection of debris in comparison.