At the moment, the gap between the men’s national teams of Mexico and the United States could hardly seem larger. Mexico is on top of the world, having defeated the reigning champion, Germany, in its first match of the World Cup. The USA, meanwhile, is watching the tournament from home.
That said, the two rivals are more alike than one may realize, and Mexico’s success foreshadows a roster-building example the United States has shown signs of replicating.
The common perception is that Mexico is the swaggering powerhouse of North American soccer, while the United States is an underdog. But for decades, the matchup between the rivals has been very even, with both teams struggling on the world stage. El Tri has never made the World Cup semifinals. It has reached the quarterfinals twice, both when the tournament was held in Mexico. The country has lost in the Round of 16 for six consecutive tournaments. Mexico would have missed the 2014 World Cup if the United States hadn’t pulled off a miraculous win against Panama on the final day of qualifying.
In both countries, the soccer culture is divided about whether players can develop in domestic leagues. Mexican players have a reputation for struggling overseas, leading many fans to label them soft and overly comfortable with the cushy paychecks at home (sound familiar, MLS fans?). Pro leagues in both countries have been accused of being too insular, of giving domestic players a chance to be comfortable instead of getting better.
Despite all that, the victory against Germany makes it feel like Mexico has finally turned a corner. The current Mexico team is led by a wide contingent of players who have been successful in overseas leagues. Only two of the starting 11 against Germany play for club teams in Mexico, with the rest playing in the United States or in Europe. Hirving Lozano, the 22-year-old goal-scorer in that Germany match, could have stayed at Pachuca in Mexico and become a hero. But he moved to PSV in the Netherlands, won a place in the lineup and scored 17 goals for the Dutch champions.
A way forward for the United States was on display two weeks ago, when the USA played a friendly match against France, one of the World Cup favorites. Even without teenage superstar Christian Pulisic, the Americans fielded a team of mostly young, Europe-based players, such as Weston McKennie, Shaq Moore and Cameron Carter-Vickers.
The squad was no match for France but managed to eke out an improbable 1-1 draw. The United States is hoping that young overseas players soon will make up the core of the national team. And, like Mexico beating Germany, the best hope for the United States is that those players will not only be able to compete with a team such as France, they’ll be able to win.
• We’re halfway through the second round of games in this World Cup and starting to get an idea of how this tournament might play out. The team whose stock has risen the most might be Russia, the tournament’s lowest-ranked team, which won its first two games 5-0 and 3-1. The Russians benefited from being in an easy group, but you can bet that no one will want to play it in the second round, not with the Russian crowd behind it. Belgium is the only other team to look dominant so far.
• At the other end of the rankings, the team whose stock has fallen the most is Argentina, which is winless and has scored ony one goal. Argentina’s results are always viewed as a referendum on Lionel Messi, but with its goalkeeping and defense in shambles and the entire Argentine soccer federation an infighting disaster, it’s hard to see what else Messi could do.
• After Costa Rica reached the quarterfinals in 2014, expectations were sky high, even after it was drawn into a group with Brazil. After two games, though, Los Ticos are out of the tournament and haven’t scored a goal – disappointing for North and Central America’s second-best team.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
World Cup: Mexico vs. South Korea, 10 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. South Korea has Tottenham star Heung-min Son, but if its first game is any indication, it doesn’t have much else. Mexico, meanwhile, is in danger of a letdown after its victory over Germany. Its game plan from that win — to score on the counterattack — probably won’t work in this one.
World Cup: Germany vs. Sweden, 1 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. Germany is in the unfamiliar position of being in danger of not making the knockout round, something that could play into Sweden’s hands. The Swedes were unconvincing in their victory against South Korea, but know that if they can steal another win, they are likely through to the second round.
World Cup: England vs. Panama, 7 a.m. Sunday, FS1. England defeated Tunisia with a late goal, and now can ensure a spot in the second round with a victory against lowly Panama. That’s important, given that England’s final game of the group stage is against high-flying Belgium. The Panamanians will play defensively and dare England to break them down.
World Cup: Poland vs. Colombia, 1 p.m. Sunday, Ch. 9. Neither Poland nor Colombia expected to be in this situation — zero points after one match and in danger of crashing out of the World Cup. Colombia star James Rodriguez, dealing with a calf injury, may be ready to play. His Bayern Munich teammate, Poland striker Robert Lewandowski, definitely will.