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Mexico’s Copa América disaster was years in the making

July 1st, 2024

Mexico were knocked out of Copa América on Sunday without reaching the knockout rounds. An anemic 0-0 showing against Ecuador brought their run to an end. Or maybe it was a crawl. The result followed a 1-0 defeat to Venezuela and a slim 1-0 win over Jamaica.

The performance on Sunday was a bitter reminder of Mexico’s lethargic showing at the 2022 World Cup, where they were also eliminated at the group stage. But this summer’s exit was made all the worse because it’s the first time El Tri have returned to the South American tournament since 2016. If this was supposed to be a reset, a chance to prove Mexican soccer was in a stronger place than the showing in Qatar, it failed.

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The reasons are innumerable. Apart from in their victory over Jamaica, they were comfortably outplayed at this year’s Copa. Against Ecuador on Sunday, and in the previous game against Venezuela, the team lacked any fluency going forward. And when things broke down, they lacked the options – or ideas – to adapt.

It was a disaster foretold. Jaime Lozano, Mexico’s coach, is young and relatively inexperienced. His only major success is winning a bronze medal for the country’s Under-20 team at the 2020 Olympics. Before this year’s Copa, Mexico’s former coach, Ricardo La Volpe, predicted that Lozano would encounter problems if he did not adopt new tactics. He also lamented that Lozano has often failed to adapt, whether after a win or defeat.

“Jimmy is a coach who changes very little,” La Volpe said on his YouTube channel. “He is not a coach who shows different tactical positions that can help with various ways to attack. He has a lot of work to do to give the players the tools they need.”

Lozano was never able to create the conditions necessary to field a confident team. Sure, he can point to a lack of talent, a problem that is above his pay grade. But he also must take ownership for culling several important players from his roster. Lozano gave in to calls for generational change after the disappointment of the 2022 World Cup. Big-name players were left at home. But the plan to prioritize youth came before anyone could figure out if they were good enough to dethrone the old hands. Lozano left 38-year-old goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa out of his squad, despite an injury to his would-be replacement. Hirving Lozano, Henry Martín, Jesús Gallardo and Raúl Jiménez were all also left at home, veterans who had a case to be in the squad but weren’t included.

A lack of experience and options came back to bite the coach. While injuries undercut some of Lozano’s plans, he was never able to settle on a balanced team. Santiago Giménez, top scorer for Feyenoord in the Eredivisie last season, cut an isolated figure upfront, hanging around the box waiting for chances. Julián Quiñones, pushed out of the center-forward spot by Giménez, was also left languishing on the left and struggled to combine with Giménez centrally. Cesar Huerta and Uriel Antuna, dynamic wingers, never exploded.

Still, Lozano’s miscalculations are only one element in Mexico’s long-running decline. There are systemic failures. Chiefly: the insularity of Mexican soccer. Young players rarely leave the country to compete in Europe’s top leagues, because the money on offer from Mexico’s biggest clubs is too attractive and the lure of being close to home is too strong.

There has also been a lack of ambition in the domestic league since Liga MX ended promotion and relegation five years ago. It has been a recipe for inertia, with Mexico’s squad filled with young players plying their trade in a league without jeopardy.

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“Now there is an economic penalty [for poor performance in Liga MX] but you don’t lose your category,” Miguel Herrera, who led Mexico in the 2014 World Cup, tells the Guardian. “There is no longer the same pressure, players no longer suffer relegation and that is something needed to help instill a sense of competition.”

If closing ranks domestically wasn’t bad enough, Mexico also stopped competing in Copa América after the 2016 edition and did not return until this year. Meanwhile, the country’s club sides left the Copa Libertadores in 2016, at the behest of Mexican officials who said the economics and scheduling did not align with their priorities. In leaving continental soccer, Liga MX lost a chance to improve by rubbing shoulders with the best clubs in South America.

While Mexico returned to this year’s Copa América intending to use the tournament as a springboard for a home World Cup in 2026, the sad showing this summer is further proof that discarding continental play was a detriment to the national team.

At Sunday’s press conference Lozano, whose is expected to keep his job, was still searching for positives. He saw hope in the latest generation of new players who he hopes will signal a new era for El Tri. “I think that these players in two years can have significant growth,” Lozano said. But the results and performances suggest otherwise. Worryingly, there are few signs that the talent pool will improve any time soon.

  • This is an extract from Soccer with Jonathan Wilson, a weekly look from the Guardian US at the game in Europe and beyond. With Jonathan out in Germany enjoying Euro 2024, he’s entrusted a series of guest writers to guide you through Copa América. He will return on 15 July to look back at both tournaments.

This content was originally sourced and posted at Yahoo! Sports – News, Scores, Standings, Rumors, Fantasy Games »
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