There is no more sobering experience for a team than to be left in its archrival's wake. The entire concept of bragging rights almost ceases to exist. Where there was once confidence, there is nagging self-doubt. Yet that is the situation facing the U.S. men's national soccer team at present as it relates to longtime adversary Mexico.
On just about every level imaginable, the U.S. comes up short when compared to its southern neighbor. Where the U.S. once could be counted on to beat Mexico on home soil -- despite some less-than-advantageous crowd demographics -- it now has been more than three years since the Americans defeated Mexico 2-0 in a World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio. The U.S. is 0-3-1 since then, including last year's convincing 4-2 defeat in the Gold Cup final.
The comparisons are even less flattering at the youth level. Mexico is the reigning U-17 World Cup champion, its U-20s finished third at last year's World Cup and, as many observed this past weekend, El Tri was victorious at the Olympics, defeating Brazil 2-1 in the final. The U.S. didn't even qualify for London, falling in humiliating fashion when it failed to get past the group stage in a qualifying tournament it just happened to be hosting. The U-20s failed to qualify for the last World Cup as well.
"There is a gap," U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann said during a conference call with reporters. "[We'd be] foolish not to recognize that. If your team doesn't qualify for the Olympics and the other team wins the Olympics, there is a gap. On the senior national team level, they've done tremendously well over the last two years, too, so you've got to give them compliments for that."
The reality is that gap always has been there to a certain extent. Mexico has long held a sizable advantage over the U.S. in terms of player development, club infrastructure, media attention and overall investment.
So how was the U.S. able to overcome such obstacles, at least at the senior level? In a word, mentality. Granted, to some degree, this is oversimplification. It's not as if the U.S. was completely void of talented players during the 1990s and 2000s. But it's obvious Mexico had a considerable mental block when it came to playing its longtime rival. Given the clear edge in technical ability El Tri enjoyed, the expectation was that Mexico should beat the U.S. comfortably, but that only ratcheted up the pressure. And more often than not, El Tri crumbled. The 2-0, round-of-16 victory over Mexico at the 2002 World Cup, in which an increasingly frustrated El Tri lost its collective head, is merely the most noteworthy example.
The U.S. no longer enjoys such an advantage. And it's not the American player who has changed, but rather the level of self-belief south of the border.
"Over the last few years, the U.S. has had the upper hand against Mexico, but you can see that Mexico is starting to regain it," said former Mexico international Jorge Campos via email, with the help of a translator. "The U.S. had a few more results than us and they won a few more cups and competitions. Winning the Gold Cup last summer has helped Mexico regain some of the confidence that was lost."
The success Mexico has enjoyed at the youth level, which came about in part because of the Mexico Football Federation's insistence that clubs field U-17 and U-20 teams, has increased this self-assurance at all levels.
"I don't think it's just the way Mexico approaches a game against the U.S., I think it's the way that they look at themselves and the confidence they have," said former U.S. international and current ESPN television analyst Alexi Lalas. "There have also been times where Mexico would do what they did, where they faced off against what was on paper a better team, and fold under pressure. I don't think you're seeing that. As it pertains to the U.S., it's not just that Mexico won, but the way that they won last summer. I think it was huge for them."
Complicating matters further for the U.S. is the difficult transition period it is experiencing on multiple fronts. The generation that included the likes of Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and Carlos Bocanegra is getting older, and finding capable replacements has proved difficult. Then there is the change in playing style that Klinsmann is attempting to implement, one influenced by Spain. In this instance, Klinsmann is encouraging a more possession-based approach as well as one in which the team presses higher up the field defensively. It's a style that might be less pragmatic in the short term but one he hopes will plant the seeds for long-term success.
Over the last few years, the U.S. has had the upper hand against Mexico, but you can see that Mexico is starting to regain it.” -- Former Mexico international Jorge Campos
"If you want to be in the top 10 in the world, then you have to adjust to this type of style," Klinsmann said. "There's no other way you can do it. You can't just sit back anymore and [counterattack], then hopefully win the game. You can't play that way anymore. You've got to play with the best ones, and if you saw what Honduras tried to do with Brazil [in the Olympics], they tried to play with them.
"And it requires a lot of hard work. We have to get physically at another level, we have to get pace-wise at another level, which we're working on, and here and there it actually works. And there are many other elements where we have to [improve]. But it's not happening overnight, obviously. I think here and there we are already seeing some results, and here and there we have a setback like Brazil in the June camp."
The difficulty of implementing such a style means comparisons to Mexico could become even more unflattering in the short term, especially with Klinsmann naming a very inexperienced group of players to the roster that will take on El Tri at the Estadio Azteca this Wednesday. But Campos isn't counting out the U.S. just yet, and he is among those keeping a wary eye on what Klinsmann is trying to achieve.
"It takes a little bit of time for everything to come together," he said. "I believe that the US is a country that believes in projects and most importantly, they stick to the project and give it the time to flourish. The US has always been known for that and they have always allowed their coaches to finish their coaching terms so it will be interesting to see how the US will play over the next couple of years."
There also is hope that some of the U.S.'s own player development initiatives -- such as the development academy that involves MLS clubs, among others, fielding youth teams -- will begin to bear fruit.
"The next few years will be exciting for what U.S. soccer can do," Klinsmann said. "But definitely at the moment, Mexico is a step ahead of us."
The U.S. can only hope that step doesn't become a chasm.