Tuesday, September 20, 2005
ESPNsoccernet: September 21, 10:48 PM UK
Make way for the new king
So here we had Mexico, in June, entering the Confederations Cup in Germany, riding a 17-game unbeaten streak. Despite the streak, many around the world questioned the quality of this team against the world's best.
After prevailing over Japan, stunning Brazil, and drawing against Greece, the "Tricolores" were eliminated in a classic semi-final against Argentina, a match they let get away. Mexico led in overtime, only to concede a late goal, sending the game to penalty kicks and a victory for the Argentines. They played well in a thrilling 4-3 loss to Germany in the third place game.What we saw was what defines Mexican soccer at its best -- skilled, creative play, with immense comfort on the ball, featuring great attacking moves involving three or four players, a feast for the eyes. In the Conferations Cup, we saw a mobile Mexico, adroitly breaking down teams with tantalizing combination play conducted with breathtaking precision. Surely there was less pressure than in a World Cup qualifier, but where was this stylistic brand of soccer and crafty mentality against the United States in Columbus, Ohio?
At Crew Stadium, they focused on avoiding midfield by knocking balls forward to a lonely Jared Borgetti, who was covered like a blanket by Oguchi Onyewu. Those tactics, defending deep and seeking a chance or two on the break would have been much better served with Cuahutemoc Blanco as the lone striker. It was a gameplan that seem to reflect a Mexico's belief that they could shut out the U.S. in Columbus.
The expected leadership from Bolton's Borgetti and Barcelona's Rafael Marquez never emerged. Both of them seemed to spend more time kicking people and being confrontational, and it reminded us of the lesson the Mexicans failed to grasp from the 2002 World Cup in Japan/Korea when they imploded emotionally.
To beat the United States , you must bring emotional control...an ingredient called composure.
Yet when all was said and done, it was Mexico lacking the confidence to play to their strengths in Ohio. In the end, it was Mexico who played ugly soccer, a game devoid of creative flair, its greatest asset. There was no pressing play, there was no wide play, and there was little combination play. Very un-Mexico like.
They had one legitimate chance off a Ramon Morales free kick in the first half stoppage time; it was foiled on a masterful save by Kasey Keller.
Why would a coach go against the inherent nature of his squad?
Fear, panic, and/or self-doubt come to mind.
Yet this is exactly what LaVolpe did. Lauded for his tactics against Brazil in the Confederations Cup, LaVolpe flunked the tactical test in Ohio.
Why not be more attack-minded, knowing that your next opponent was Panama at Azteca Stadium? After trouncing Panama, 5-0, LaVolpe crowed that Mexico is still best in the region despite the loss to the U.S.
Mexico was also unwise in the use of the press. One wonders if the Confederations performance went to their heads. Mexico's self worth as a team ebbs and flows by performance while the U.S. mentality seems to stay consistent , humbled maybe by the lack of press coverage at home.
Borgetti made an error in judgement prior to the match when he was critical of the U.S. team and its players, challenging them to play attacking soccer. The message: the U.S. can't play.
If there is one thing for sure: you don't tell an American player he's no good or tell him he can't do something. Bruce Arena must jump with joy every time LaVolpe and his players open their mouths.
Truth to tell, Mexico's shadow is fear, ego, arrogance, with a touch of self-denial which all adds up to a lack of confidence against the U.S. The balance of power in Concacaf has shifted and now for the moment it is in favor of the United States. If Mexico is ever to regain supremacy, it will have to take a look in the mirror. Maybe the reflection will reveal the need for humility, accountability, and confidence needed to play to one's strengths.
Following Mexico's defeat in Columbus, LaVolpe called the U.S. a small team and one that his grandmother could play for. Having watched him conduct training sessions when he was the coach of Atlas in Guadalajara I was impressed by his knowledge, yet realized his ego was nearly out of control.
Mexico clearly fears playing the U.S. anywhere other than Azteca Stadium, complete with its smog and altitude. Mexico's only victories in the last ten games against the U.S. have been played at Azteca. Mexico has not scored a goal on U.S. soil since 1999.
That fear of playing the U.S. has trickled down to the youth levels.
The two teams will not play in another World Cup related match -- unless, of course, they meet up in 2006. Mexican players will remain, it seems, in the comfort zone of playing in the lucrative Mexican League while numerous U.S. players continue to risk failure playing overseas.
While the United States has grown in confidence under Arena, Mexico continues to stall at the moment of truth. Change is not easy. A long look in the mirror and a heavy dose of self-realization might be the recipe for the Mexican national team.
There can only be one king. For the moment in CONCACAF, it is the United States.
Glenn Davis is a soccer columnist for The Houston Chronicle and ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org