The U.S. national team has been forced to watch a stunning run of achievement by El Tri, but Mexico's success should ultimately work in its favor.Let's face it: it's not a fun time to be a U.S. national team fan right now.
With two years until the World Cup, it's unclear if the team has made any demonstrable progress towards improving upon its round of 16 finish in 2010. Huge question marks in defense and attack loom large.
Meanwhile, the team's mortal enemy, Mexico, is sitting atop the soccer world.
The accomplishments of El Tri over the past year and change are remarkable, and would make any footballing nation proud: U17 World Cup champions, U20 World Cup third place, Gold Cup champions, Pan Am Games champions, Toulon tournament champions, Milk Cup champions, and, of course, Olympic gold medalists.
At the same time El Tri has been enjoying a dream run, the U.S. has stagnated. It went out in the round of 16 of the U17 World Cup and disastrously, failed to qualify for both the 2011 U20 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics.
There is good news though. If U.S. fans are able to get past the ignominy of watching their archrival pick up truckloads of silverware, they will see that Mexico's success is actually a silver lining during a rough patch, rather than adding insult to injury.
Let us first remember what the ultimate goal of the U.S. soccer program is, as well as almost every other nation, the World Cup. It's soccer's grand prize and frankly, most everything else is just window dressing. Advancing beyond the round of 16 in 2014 is job number one, two and three for the Americans right now.
Mexico's success is not going to stop the U.S. from getting to the World Cup. CONCACAF is guaranteed three places and a fourth playoff slot, so the USA's passage to Brazil 2014 is mostly independent of Mexico's performance in qualifying. In fact, a dominant qualifying campaign from El Tri could actually help the U.S. if the Mexicans take down some of its competition for a second or third place spot.
There is also the element of "A rising tide lifts all boats." Mexico's high-profile triumphs – and those of Honduras to a lesser extent – have helped accelerate the growth of CONCACAF's global reputation.
With standout performances from many Mexican and Honduran players highlighting the Olympic Games, you can bet several will earn moves to European clubs. The more CONCACAF players perform well in Europe, the more scouts will be inclined to ramp up operations in North America. Opportunities, including those for Americans, will increase across the board.
Just last month, new CONCACAF president Jeffrey Webb met with South American officials to discuss the possibility of hosting a joint CONCACAF-CONMEBOL Copa America tournament in 2016. With CONCACAF's recent achievements, it becomes that much more of a viable foe for South American teams.
The TV money coming from the U.S. and Mexico won't hurt CONCACAF's chances of making the tournament a reality but ultimately, there has to be a competition on the pitch. Mexico and Honduras carried the torch for the region in London and as a result, the U.S. could reap the benefits with a high-level international tournament appearance in 2016.
More than anything though, what Mexico has given the United States is motivation, and hopefully, a big fat chip on its shoulder.
In the early-to-middle portion of the last decade, the U.S. appeared to be wresting control of regional supremacy away from Mexico. A famous 2-0 win in the 2002 World Cup round of 16 seemed to be the moment that would usher in a new era of American dominance.
Instead, Mexico has struck back with a vengeance, creating a big advantage in youth development by increasing focus on bureaucratic affairs and player development, while offering a highly competitive playing environment for clubs' youth and reserve players – an area where the American game is sorely lacking.
The result? Mexico has produced young talent at a staggering pace in recent years, while the U.S. has been left behind.
The U.S. Soccer Federation can use its neighbor to the south as a model to make changes to its own system. The U.S. players, on the other hand, can just be pissed off.
USA's archrival is now undoubtedly the class of North America. Any competitive player wants to be the best and when their team becomes the best, and then gets usurped by anybody, their efforts should be redoubled. That the team taking its place is Mexico, and has done so in such quick and decisive fashion, only adds more fuel to the fire.
How will the U.S. respond? We'll soon find out. And what better time to start than on Wednesday, when the team heads to the Azteca Stadium and takes the pitch against its biggest rival.
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