Both Mexico and the U.S. were tipped for success in Olympic qualifying, but only El Tri have made it out of the group stage, and that is largely down to experience.
The USA’s 2-0 exhibition win over Mexico on Feb. 29 was just that, an exhibition, a game devoid of any competitive significance. The way the U.S. played Mexico off the pitch that evening in Dallas, though, suggested that, after years of watching its fiercest rival achieve success after success at the youth international levels, the U.S. had the potential to come into its own in Olympic qualifying.
Just under four weeks later and that dream is shattered. Mexico is set to face Canada for a place in the 2012 Olympic Games, and the U.S. players are back home, missing those boarding passes to Kansas City with their names on them.
So, what happened to Mexico between that sluggish performance in Dallas and its dominant campaign in the group stage of qualifying?
It was not a question of gelling – many of the players in this group had been together at the Pan American Games in the fall of 2011. Nine had been with Mexico in its 2011 Copa America campaign, where El Tri sent a U-22 squad.
Rather, Mexico’s more extensive professional and international experience proved a boon, and the United States’ lack thereof was part of the team’s undoing.
Both teams got off to imperious starts. The U.S. thrashed 10-man Cuba 6-0, and Mexico matched the margin of victory a day later with a 7-1 win over Trinidad and Tobago. The similarities in the two campaigns end there, though.
Mexico took a quiet confidence into its next game against Honduras, which head coach Luis Fernando Tena had labeled as the pre-tournament favorite and calmly dispatched its feisty opponent 3-0.
The U.S., meanwhile, lacking in self-assurance after Caleb Porter publicly criticized the performance over Cuba, was utterly lost in a 2-0 loss to Canada – a team that, on paper, should have given the U.S. little trouble.
All of Mexico’s players came up in a professional environment. All were part of the youth systems of Mexican teams, and 13 of the 20 have already logged upwards of 40 games. A few even have over 100, all this despite only nine players on the squad aging 22 or 23.
Compare that to the United States. Nine players came through the college system. Only seven have more than 40 professional games under their belts, most in MLS. Only Freddy Adu, the team’s best player in the tournament, has cracked the 100 appearance mark. Even among the U.S.’s trio of Bundesliga-based players, none of them had played for the first team.
This is not to say these players do not have potential. There are certainly plenty of interesting talents among the U.S. ranks. However, whereas Mexico’s players were already well-seasoned at the professional level and drew on that in their performances, the U.S. found itself wanting in a pair of adverse situations. They had less experience as favorites in the ultra-competitive world of international and top-level club soccer.
This idea also extends to the two men who coached the teams.
Comparing the track records of Mexico head coach Luis Fernando Tena and U.S. head coach Caleb Porter, there is a startling gap in terms of experience.
Neither were particularly noteworthy players – Porter made a handful of MLS appearances in the nascent years of the league with San Jose and Tampa Bay. Tena had a slightly longer – if undistinguished – career, spanning over 10 years with a variety of Primera Division teams. It contrasting the pair’s coaching experience that raises one’s eyebrows.
Tena has managed six different professional clubs in a nearly 18 year professional coaching career. Although he has had varying degrees of success (his only two titles coming in 1997 with Cruz Azul and 2000 with Morelia), his extensive resumé speaks for the experience he has gained along the way.
It is no surprise then, that Tena was able to keep his team grounded both in the face of success and of adversity. Regardless of the outcome of a particular match, the mantra was the same – ‘We must show them what we can do.’
At the professional level, every player is very skilled, and Tena never wavered in his confidence in his players, which showed on the field.
Porter, on the other hand, though an unquestionably talented college coach, had never coached a team of professionals prior to taking the reigns of the U.S. U23 team in late 2011. He certainly had his ideas about how a team should play – sometimes they were fruitful, sometimes not.
His undoing, though, proved to be his inexperience at handling a group of players at this level. From the public criticism after the Cuba win to his readiness to accept defeat following the 3-3 draw against El Salvador that put the U.S. out of the competition, Porter did not sound like a man with experience at the professional level.
At 37, Porter has a long and fruitful career out of him. He may choose to stay at the University of Akron for some time, but it is hard to imagine him staying in the college game all his life.
There is plenty of room for him to grow as a coach, and like Sigi Schmid and Bruce Arena before him, there is plenty of room in U.S. pro leagues for coaches coming out of the college game – he was simply put into a high-pressure situation before he had to wherewithal to handle everything that came along with it.
It may be somewhat unfair to judge him against a man 17 years his elder, but the simple fact is that both men were given teams widely regarded as favorites to advance from their respective groups. One succeeded; one didn’t.
Part of the outcome was down to the players, part of it is down to the coaches, but the one constant was experience.