Mexico rolled into the first game of the second round of the CONCACAF U-20 tournament confident and left much less so after the United States U-20 dealt it a 1-0 blow.
El Tri had not lost in a CONCACAF U-20 match since 2009 and, unlike the rival Stars and Stripes, rolled through the initial group stage of this competition without difficulty. Yet they were clearly second best Monday at the Estadio Saprissa.
The United States controlled the match in the first half, keeping its opponent from implementing the fluid passing game Marco Ruiz wants his team to show - and that the team put on display in group stage victories over Antigua and Barbuda, Canada and Honduras.
In the second half, Ruiz looked to shift the balance in the middle, bringing on Pachuca prospect Pablo Lopez. While Lopez initially showed flashes of stopping U.S. attacks, the game soon fell into the same rhythm, and a wild effort by Lopez from outside the box was the only shot Ruiz's side managed in the second half. That meant Mexico finished the day with just three shots, all of them off target, and boosted its passing percentage by one point, from 70 to 71 on the day after the second 45 minutes.
Perhaps worse still, the Mexicans found themselves baited into heated confrontations that tested their professionalism. Edson Alvarez, who was a regular for Club America at the end of last tournament and earlier this month earned his first senior national team camp, was booked and perhaps lucky to stay on the field after several fiery exchanges with Luca de la Torre.
Mexico is historically strong at the U-20 World Cup, and has dominated the age level recently in CONCACAF thanks to Liga MX sides' commitment to sub-20 matches played before every league game. No player on the field was even close to being born the only time before Monday the U.S. had triumphed over Mexico in CONCACAF's U-20 championship in 1986 (though a strange format meant the teams had met just nine times heading into this iteration).
There are future stars in this team, as well, Alvarez among them. But others, like forwards Ronaldo Cisneros and Erick Aguirre were non-factors in the game with the American defense able to stifle them as Mexico's midfield was overrun. The confidence the team came in with was gone. Alan Cervantes, wearing the captain's armband, could do nothing to put his mark on the contest.
One defeat, unexpected though it might be, hardly sinks their chances. It's tougher now, though, with a showdown against an impressive El Salvador that saw off host Costa Rica in the group stages now a must-win game.
Ruiz must make sure his side learns the lessons this defeat teaches, both to him about his roster selection and to his boys about how to approach international games. If the lessons don't sink in, Mexico would be in danger of missing out on the U-20 World Cup for the first time since 2009.