When Canada lost 8-1 in Honduras in a World Cup qualifier earlier this month, it raised some serious questions about exactly what the problem was.
Any rational observer can see that Canada has decent players in some pretty good leagues. In a winner-take-all match it should do better than a result befitting a regional super-minnow.
That got me to thinking, and the only answer I could come up with to explain the thoroughness of that beatdown was a lack of self esteem. The Canadians, in retrospect, simply respected Honduras far too much to go there and win. Wasn’t going to happen.
Not only did the Canadians respect the challenge of playing on the road in San Pedro Sula, let’s just go ahead and say it outright - they played scared.
You could hear it in comments before the match, the way the visitors carried themselves on approaching the game, and finally, what they did when they stepped on the field. Canada was beaten before the players ever left the locker room. With that mentality, things can get ugly fast.
The United States does this too, to some extent. Every time there’s a match in Central America - and there will be three in the Hexagonal - it’s proceeded by countless, breathless reports about the difficulty of playing away from home in Latin America (of late, the Caribbean as well). The players and staff are complicit in indulging this kind of talk.
Which brings us to Mexico. Everyone knows it’s always been very hard for anyone to win in Mexico. But that home field psyche-out advantage that the Central Americans have established over the North Americans? Mexico now enjoys that over everyone, more thoroughly than ever.
You can argue that it’s always been that way, but I’d argue that it’s gotten more pronounced of late.
The United States has always fretted about how hard it is to win in Mexico. But historically, Central American teams looked forward to the challenge of playing their northern neighbor. Now, El Tri’s exploits seem to have everyone psyched out.
It showed in Costa Rica and El Salvador’s limp performances in World Cup qualifying, and even in the CONCACAF Champions League. Not only were Mexican teams better, the Central Americans, for once, put up almost no resistance.
Mexican triumphs in international tournaments seem to have been engraved into the psyche of the rest of the region to the point that no team will go to Mexico right now even slightly believing that it can get a result. That’s not just thinking they might be at a disadvantage, as always. These days, teams are expecting a 90 minute struggle.
It was all reflected again in last week’s reports that no one wanted to face Mexico to close out the Hexagonal. A wise choice, certainly, given the history of El Azteca. But no one could be swayed into thinking that facing an El Tri team likely to be qualified by that point might in fact be an advantage?
Perhaps the one man left who does believe success can be had in Mexico is Xelaju Coach Hernan Medford, who led Costa Rica to its famous 2001 win at El Azteca, and led Xelaju to a Champions League group triumph over Chivas despite losing last week’s game in Guadalajara.
But the rest of the CCL visitors? Monterrey trounced everyone at home and long since qualified. Santos, already close to qualified, beat Toronto going away. Needing a win, Tigres pounded visiting Alajuelense, a team among the leaders in a good Costa Rican league.
The difference between those two teams is not 5-0. If there is a difference in quality, the gulf on the scoreboard reflected more the vastly different level of belief in getting the job done.
That belief does make a difference. In soccer, as much as or more than any other sport, confidence plays a huge role. If you don’t believe you can win, you’re not going to win.
In today’s CONCACAF, few seem to believe that winning in Mexico is a possibility. With that mentality, when the Hexagonal rolls around, things could well get ugly for regional opponents, and fast.
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