Tom Marshall: U-17s once again flying the flag for Mexico

Even if the rest of the teams in the FMF setup are faltering, the U-17s are once again bringing glory to the El Tri jersey.
Mexican soccer has taken a series of blows over 2013, from the dismal World Cup qualifying effort to the flop at the Confederations Cup and on to the Gold Cup nightmare.

Even the Under-20s only scraped through its group and fell to Spain in the first knockout round of its World Cup in the summer.

But Raul “Potro” Gutierrez and his Under-17s side has been the beacon of hope once again after dispatching Argentina 3-0 on Tuesday to reserve their place at the World Cup final for the second consecutive tournament, following victory two years ago in Estadio Azteca.

This time around, the success has been arguably more impressive.

Firstly, the tournament is taking place far from Mexico in the United Arab Emirates, in front of a largely empty stadium. Gone are the huge crowds of 2011 cheering on and surely providing a boost to the home nation.

Then there is the fact that Mexico lost 6-1 against final rival Nigeria in the first match. It is rare in any tournament that a side gets smashed by that kind of scoreline and still manages to make the final.

And the road has not been easy after that. The world powers have come and gone. El Tri overcame Italy 2-0 in the round of 16, defeated the favorite Brazil in the quarterfinals and then Argentina.

Those three countries have 11 World Cups between them.

Gutierrez has installed an identity in his U-17 side that the full national team has failed to find.

“(The team) lacks a style and an idea of what we should be doing on the field," was Giovani Dos Santos’ recent observation of El Tri to Spanish newspaper El Pais. “Spain found a style that suited it. In Mexico a lot of coaches have come, but they haven't found it.”

The U-17s get close to what a Mexican style could look like, with a swift, passing game combined with players bursting with confidence and technical ability on the ball, from the center backs to the center forwards.

There’s also no fear in their play, as Gutierrez acknowledged in a TV interview after the game against Argentina.

“The team made a great effort, it tried things,” said Gutierrez. “Some came off, some didn’t, but I’m happy because (we’ve reached) the objective.”

Gutierrez’s organization of the team is also a key element, with the U-17s good from set pieces and in the general structure of the side, again as opposed to the full national team.

But more than anything, it is the mental side of things that the U-17s have got right.

It would’ve been easy to collapse in the penalty shootout against Brazil and easy to lose all hope after the shocking opener, but the team is made of sterner stuff.

Next up is the final on Friday against Nigeria in Abu Dhabi.

Mexico is hoping to equal the Super Eagles and Brazil on three U-17 World Cup titles, but regardless of the result, the overriding issue for both teams - with very different structures, playing style and history - is how they can convert youth success into competing in the latter stages of World Cups.

With El Tri struggling to make Brazil 2014 and the hard work going into youth systems in many Liga MX clubs, especially from the U-15 level up, the inquest must begin about where the process is short-circuiting in Mexican soccer.

Should the better players go to Europe this early? Should the Liga MX reduce the number of foreigners each team is allowed? Is the league structure not working in terms of permitting younger players to drop down division for playing time?

The debate will rumble, but once again, there is little doubt of Mexico’s wealth of youth soccer talent.

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