The United States men's national team is not any better than it was ten years ago, relative to the rest of the world. Eventually, if that stagnation continues, it will cause their standing in world football to decrease significantly.
Before presenting any kind of an argument in this piece, I feel the need to clarify a few things. No, I am not writing this piece because I dislike the United States men's national team or United States soccer. I am a big fan of U.S. soccer on all levels, meaning the men's and women's senior and youth teams.
No, I am not writing this piece to piss people off. I actually feel like most football (or soccer, if you prefer) fans are fairly reasonable people who are willing to change their mind when presented with reasonable evidence. The myth that the United States men's national team is catching up to the rest of the world is one that has been perpetuated for quite some time, and I believe it to be false.
No, I am not a fan of any Mexican national team. I am simply an American soccer fan who happens to not hate the Mexican national team and Mexican football in general. I find it to be enjoyable to watch, but I watch both the league and the national team objectively. I don't ever care if the national team wins or loses, except when they're playing the United States, in which case, I root for them to lose.
On Sunday night, in the first half of their Gold Cup match against El Salvador, that Mexican national team was terrible. Despite all of the hype surrounding them coming into the tournament, the supremely talented Mexicans came out flat and looked like a team that had never played together. Then, the second half happened.
El Tri found a new gear, and they scored five goals in a half against a team that had completely held them at bay one half earlier. Javier Hernandez scored a hat trick. Giovani dos Santos was brilliant. Gerardo Torrado, a player who was poor in the first half, was great in the second. It was a remarkable turn of events, and it displayed a lot of the differences between the United States and Mexico.
The USMNT simply does not possess the gear that Mexico showed on Sunday. The reasons for that are numerous (and debatable), but the biggest one seems to be that they're just not that good. Their players don't have the skill and confidence to run at defenders, beat them, then finish with quality or pick out a teammate who will finish with quality. And, incredibly, Mexico was not at their best.
Pablo Barrera and Andres Guardado, talented wingers who were incredible in both of Mexico's warm-up games for the Gold Cup, were not great. Israel Castro was actually quite poor. Giovani dos Santos and Chicharito were pretty good, but both have had better days. That gear that the United States doesn't have? It was maybe a B+ performance.
This is not the Mexico team that the United States beat in 2007 at the Gold Cup. It's not even the one that they faced in Gold Cup qualifying. Those teams had rotating platoons all over the pitch, especially at striker. Javier Hernandez is far and away better than any striker that Mexico has had between now and the prime of Jared Borgetti. Andres Guardado was always injured. Giovani dos Santos couldn't get playing time with his clubs. The back line and goalie switched around all the time.
Now, it's a new era for Mexico. The XI they played on Sunday is their first choice starting XI, and no one questions this. There is a perfect mix of experienced players and young talent, and the entire front four is 24 or younger. Of the backups for those front four, Aldo de Nigris is the oldest at the age of 27. If Mexico had one squad to fill out this summer, de Nigris and Angel Reyna, age 26, might not make the team over the likes of Marco Fabian, Javier Cortes, Erick Torres and Carlos Vela.
It's very likely that this discrepancy between the United States and Mexico has much more to do with positive changes that Mexico has made than things the United States has failed to do, but the result is the same. The United States is absolutely not catching up to their nearest rival, and that rival is the one that should probably be their measuring stick for the time being.
However, even if Mexico had 25 Barcelona academies scattered across the country, that would not make my point invalid. The argument here is not that the United States is doing anything to hurt their players, it's that they're not gaining any ground on Mexico and their other close rivals.
Many of the veteran players in Mexico, players like Maza Rodriguez, Carlos Salcido, Israel Castro and Ricardo Osorio did not become first team regulars for top flight clubs in Mexico until they were around the age of 22. The same applies for older Mexican legends like Jared Borgetti and Cuauhtemoc Blanco. This is similar to the current system in Major League Soccer, where the vast majority of players attend university for some period of time before turning professional. There are some obviously notable exceptions in the US team, but there are just as many in the Mexican national team. The point is, for the veteran players in both teams, most became first team regulars for a professional team around the age of 21 or 22.
For Mexico, this has changed considerably. As a player who became a first team regular at the age of 20, Chicharito is considered a seriously late bloomer. Andres Guardado, Giovani dos Santos, Efrain Juarez and Pablo Barrera all became first team regulars as teenagers. This is becoming more common in Mexico, and it's why there are so many good, young players in their player pool.
These players are playing in a league that is, top to bottom, a better league than Major League Soccer. The teams at the top of MLS would be able to compete in the Mexican Primera, but the league as a whole is not as strong as the more established Primera. This is very understandable, as the Mexican Primera has been around much longer, but it doesn't change the fact that it simply is not as good at the moment, for a variety of reasons.
From a player development standpoint, the Mexican Primera is much more conducive to producing players who are competitive in a variety of professional leagues and in international competition. American teams and players have relied mostly on speed, strength, size and effort for a very long time, which allows them to compete in a variety of environments, but recent trends in world football have put a higher value on technical skills and tactical awareness.
Teams and players in the Mexican Primera are almost certainly, as a whole, more technically skilled in every way than their counterparts in MLS. The league has more teams who are adept and keeping possession through passing on the ground and more players who are good at running at defenders, then beating them with some kind of technical move. Being taught how to do that as an attacking player makes you a more effective, well-rounded player than someone who is not encouraged to do so, and facing players who have those skills as a defender makes you a much better defender.
Additionally, the tactical variations in the Mexican Primera are much more wide-reaching than those in MLS. A player coming out of the Primera will have seen more different tactical setups than his counterpart in MLS. This, almost certainly, is something that makes players better.
Pick out any great young player in the United States player pool, and it is easy to pick out his counterpart in position, skill set, age, and raw talent in the Mexican player pool. On just about every occasion, the Mexican player will be more accomplished. Juan Agudelo does not have the playing time or scoring record behind him that Cubo Torres does. Brek Shea is not on the level of Javier Cortes and Marco Fabian. Tim Ream has a long way to go before he is at the level of Hector Moreno. Though Eric Lichaj seems young to many US fans, he's less than a year younger than Mexico starting right back Efrain Juarez. And of course, the gap between Jozy Altidore and Javier Hernandez is astronomical.
But it's not just Mexico. Where is the American Bryan Ruiz or Celso Borges? How about the American Kenywne Jones? Why isn't the United States even close to the second tier South American nations in player development, nations whose domestic football leagues are not financially stable at all? The fact that football is the most popular sport in those countries is not an excuse; Uruguay and Paraguay have less than 11 million people combined.
The United States may not be regressing in terms of player development, but their stagnation represents regression relative to the rest of the world. I firmly believe that the likes of Pele and Johan Cruyff, as absolutely brilliant and revolutionary as they were in their times, would not be world class players in modern football. Times change, people evolve, and the game evolves. Every generation's best player is the greatest player of all time in his prime. This is why stagnation over a long period of time in football is essentially just a slower form of regression.
Recently, the United States Soccer Federation has made some serious changes in its strategy for developing players and in their coaching curriculum. We will not see the positive results from these changes for a few years. It is my sincere hope that the changes the US Soccer Federation has made in player and coach development have a significant positive impact on those areas, ultimately making this entire article null and void five years from now. However, right now, the United States men's national team appears to be falling behind their competition.