Alexi Lalas: Mexico is soft

The former U.S. international explained that El Tri is currently missing some key mental elements, which has resulted in the team's 2013 struggles.

It wasn't that long ago that Mexico was sitting atop the soccer world.

In fact, it was just about a year ago when Mexico truly reached the pinnacle of its recent success, capping off an amazing two-year run with a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics.

Then, 2013 happened.

El Tri sports an unsightly 4-3-7 record this year, which includes a 1-0-5 mark in the Hexagonal, leaving the team in third place and just one point ahead of Honduras in the fourth-placed playoff slot. Where did things go wrong?

“I think its a story as old as time,” ESPN analyst and former U.S. national team star Alexi Lalas told Goal at the Jimi Cup sponsored by el Jimador tequila. “You have a bunch of younger players who are told from a very young age how great they are, even given the moniker of a 'Golden Generation' and without a doubt, some of the results would tend to back it up, but that only lasts so long.

“We've seen countless golden generations that haven't come to fruition, and it's hard, it's sometimes hard to live up to the expectations, especially when the reality that plays out over time might not bear it out that they actually were a golden generation.”

Mexico's run in 2011 and 2012 was remarkable: U-17 World Cup champion, U-20 World Cup third place, Gold Cup champion, Pan Am Games champion, Toulon tournament champion, Milk Cup champion, and, of course, Olympic gold medalist.

While the honors were certainly a positive sign for the future of the program, all but one were at the youth level, which hardly guarantees success at the senior level -- a lesson Mexico is currently learning the hard way.

“At the youth level, everyone gets excited because it's the promise of tomorrow,” Lalas said. “It's the potential and what you do is you extrapolate it out, and people say 'Well, this is how good they are now at this age, so five years from now they should be this good and winning the World Cup.' And it doesn't work like that.”

A key factor in El Tri's recent struggles has been the unusually hospitable treatment away teams have received at thier former fortress, the Azteca Stadium. El Tri has three 0-0 draws in three Hexagonal games at the Azteca this cycle, and the U.S. is 1-0-1 in its last two games there, including an historic friendly win last summer.

For Lalas, that loss of form and belief at home speaks to a bigger, more mental issue.

“I think they're soft,” the former Padova center back said. “I really think they are missing a key component that was always there. Even when Mexico had incredible talent, they always hedged their bets by also coming with an incredible attitude, a mentality and a confidence and a belief in themselves.”

It's that lack of confidence and belief that has many calling for the head of manager Jose Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre. If Mexico does sack its boss, it could be just the spark the team needs, according to Lalas.

“Everyone is talking about Chepo now and I've been around and seen enough coaching changes to know that you get a bump, but you have to use it in the right way,” he explained.

Whether Mexico makes a coaching change or not, the team is certainly fortunate to be qualifying out of a region with a margin of error like CONCACAF, where three of six teams automatically make it to the World Cup and the fourth-placed team gets a cushy playoff matchup against New Zealand.

So long as Mexico qualifies – and despite its slow start, the team still extremely well-positioned to do so – it has enough talent to make a big impact at Brazil 2014.

“I still think they qualify,” Lalas said. “We could be sitting here next summer saying, 'Mexico went to the semifinals of the World Cup.' That's how soccer is, you just have to get there.”