Same old Mexico

Posted by Andrea Canales

It shouldn't have been a surprise that the USA beat Mexico 2-0 in Columbus, Ohio, at Crew Stadium. While it's not preordained, it is standard for the home team to be victorious in CONCACAF qualifying. Aside from their last match, the Americans had been playing well, and though Mexico had chances in the scoreless first half, the players lacked persistence against the USA's stalwart goalkeeper, Tim Howard. In the second half, goals by Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan doomed Mexico to their loss.

Losing to the USA isn't the great failure some pundits made it out to be in the aftermath of the game. It's no shame to lose to another strong team. Mexico's real failure was to be in a position where the loss to the Americans could hurt so much. Those earlier matches with dropped points that too many kept excusing as being inconsequential. In the end, El Tri suffered death by a thousand cuts in losing points to the likes of Jamaica and Costa Rica and yes, even the USA at home. The loss to Honduras was perhaps the worst failure of all, given how Mexico led in the match and would have won with greater defensive discipline.

- Marshall: Mexico player grades
- Carlisle: U.S. player grades

What was surprising was how many were optimistic enough to hope that the switch to Luis Fernando Tena would change things when he had been alongside Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre for Mexico's decline all year long. There was little chance that things would change when only one coach out of the regular team was gone. Tena, who had the golden touch at the Olympics, hasn't had the same influence with the players in this squad.

The Mexican federation needs to shoulder a fair share of the blame for the situation. It was odd to see the self-congratulation of the administrators this year, proud of themselves for backing De la Torre and allowing his "proceso" to continue instead of dumping the coach in the usual trigger-happy style. They broke with tradition and stayed the course, refusing to panic. Or, in another view, they lived in the past of De la Torre's previous wins, took for granted that CONCACAF qualifying would be simple, and steered the El Tri ship straight for the sirens of its destruction.

It was almost amusing to see administrators who spoke about how the players had forgotten the tradition of Mexico and how to win. It's been standard for a long time for underperforming coaches to get yanked from El Tri, big contracts notwithstanding. What made De la Torre so special that he got a pass for so long? Perhaps the idea in the heads of many was simply that there was no way Mexico would be any lower than third in qualifying.

Now Mexico sits fifth in the Hex standings after Panama salvaged a late 2-2 draw with Honduras to move into the fourth spot.

Ultimately, the results on the field are created by the players in the game. Perhaps distracted by European games or big competition in the Confederations Cup, too many players on El Tri failed to prioritize the local competition. When Christian Gimenez, the team's newest arrival, seemed the most excited to pull on the jersey and jump into the trenches with his teammates, it didn't bode well. It's one thing for people to criticize Carlos Vela and Guillermo Ochoa for not coming to help the team. It's another thing for so many not to realize that others were playing like they didn't want to be there, either. CONCACAF games often aren't glamorous competitions against teams in FIFA's top echelon. They are gritty, gut-wrenching contests of endurance and nerve, and the Mexico players who were successful in the past were ready and willing to do what it took to defend the pride of their nation.

Pride, of course, has a flip side of likely being the reason that so many connected to Mexico were blind to the problems festering in El Tri. Pride led to a tragic underestimation of the competition and a refusal to believe in the improvement of the CONCACAF region. Pride in Mexico's early triumphs under De la Torre and Tena blinded the FMF to how ineffective the coaches had become. Pride in Mexico's long-standing tradition of World Cup play probably prompted Andres Guardado to state in a recent interview that he didn't understand why fans were so upset and negative. Pride shone through De la Torre, when, shortly after the loss to Honduras, he opined that failure was actually defined by resigning, not by his or the team's lack of positive results.

Mexico has a long tradition in CONCACAF, and the label of "giant" was earned by the hard work of previous players. But when the giant Goliath laughed at little David, that story didn't turn out so well for the giant. Other CONCACAF nations, especially Honduras, have knocked down proud Mexico. What the USA win has done, securing their own passage to the World Cup at the expense of their fierce rivals, is to kick salt and sand into an already festering wound.

Mexico must show courage to stop the bleeding and humility to take the needed actions, however drastic, to earn their own ticket to Brasil 2013. The first step is to take Panama's challenge very seriously. The next, if it comes to it, is not to overlook New Zealand, either.

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