Brent Latham: Mexico women's team has a Yankee accent

Long lagging behind its powerhouse neighbor, Mexico has begun to fill the ranks of its women's program with U.S.-born players.

At Estadio Cementos Progreso in Guatemala, the field has gone dark and most everyone has headed home. But Mexico women’s coach Leonardo Cuellar is hanging out for a few more interviews.

He’s in town to coach the U-17 women’s version of El Tri, hopefully to a second straight World Cup at this level. But there’s not too much interest in this level of women’s soccer anywhere, particularly in Mexico, so Cuellar grants a short series of one-on-ones.

A former national team player, Cuellar has worked for years to promote women’s soccer in Mexico. He’s been the women’s coach for the better part of two decades, and laments the lack of coverage in the Mexican media of his talented young team.

But that’s not what bothering Cuellar today. No, he’s got another bone to pick with the media.

“We won’t stop looking for the Mexicans who are in the United States,” the coach says emphatically, taking an unexpected detour from a question about style of play. “Or they could be in China, or Germany or anywhere, we’ll look for them, because our goal is to have the best representation possible of our race and our country.”

Cuellar, by all accounts Mexico’s most staunch advocate of the woman’s game, and the coach who led El Tri to a qualifying win over the mighty U.S. last year en route to the Women’s World Cup in Germany, won’t back down on the issue of his young legion extranjera. Like the full national team and Olympic team, this U-17 squad counts among its ranks plenty of girls who grew up and learned the game outside the national territory - more precisely north of the border in the United States of America.

Exactly how many Mexican-Americans play for El Tri’s U-17 girls’ team is a matter of who you ask. Mexican coaches (a couple of whom are from the U.S. themselves) count about nine, while the USSF might tell you, in passing, that it’s 11 of the 20 on Cuellar’s roster for qualifiers.

No matter how you slice it, some of Mexico’s most promising and important players are dual-national Americans who learned their game in the U.S. The dynamic attacking grouping of wingers Taylor Alvarado and Hallie Hernandez, No. 10 Jenny Chiu, and target forward Luz Duarte are all U.S.-based players, and center midfield lynchpin Cynthia Pineda even has a brother on the American U-18 national team.

For better or worse, the American accent of this team has been a thorn in Cuellar’s side as he tries to get these girls to Azerbaijan for this year’s World Cup. When he does answer questions about the team, it almost always has to do with whether the American-born players are Mexican enough for El Tri.

“We give priority to what we’re developing directly in the country, which we can control directly,” Cuellar says defensively. “So, I’m not worried about the comments, and it’s being completely exaggerated.”

It’s also not unusual in the world of international soccer, he adds, for a nascent program like Mexico’s women to look abroad to stronger footballing nations in an attempt to provide a building block for the game locally.

“If there are 20 or 30 million Mexicans in the U.S., they’re Mexicans, and they can represent us,” he said. “I remember when the United States depended completely on foreign players, because nothing was being developed in their country, and they were trying to create the chance of having future success.”

Cuellar went on to give what he sees as a more recent example: “The U.S. just had a team in the Olympic qualifiers on the men’s side, where some didn’t even know the national anthem, and it wasn’t a controversy. But when Mexico does it, it’s a theme to be criticized. For me it’s unnecessary, the girls who are Mexican have every right to represent out country.”

FIFA, as well as most countries in the world, would agree. There’s nothing even remotely underhanded about bringing in foreign-based or even foreign-born citizens to represent a country on a national soccer team. It’s common practice worldwide in the modern game.

All the talk of whether this young group of Mexicans -- or for that matter any foreign-born Mexican representing El Tri (the likes of Miguel Ponce and Richard Sanchez have starred on the men’s side recently) -- is Mexican enough, then, seems to be simply a sign of the unusually strong sense of national identity with which Mexico is blessed.

As attractive a brand of soccer as these young Mexican-American girls play, though, it might make more sense for those raising questions to instead sit back and enjoy the geographic diversity of Mexican culture in the new millennium, which promises to help usher Mexican soccer to even greater heights in coming years.