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Five takeaways from Mexico at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship

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A look back at the Mexico National Football team that failed in their mission to win the title, but did get their goal of qualifying to the U-20 World Cup.

Mexican fans outside Estadio Nacional after the 6-1 win against El Salvador.
Rafael Hernandez

The 2017 CONCACAF U-20 Championship ended with the USA winning the competition and Honduras, Mexico and Costa Rica getting the other three tickets to the U-20 World Cup. On Wednesday March 15th, the U20 World Cup draw will be held for the tournament to be played in South Korea. The tournament in CONCACAF led to several conclusions on how Mexico will fare in South Korea but it also led to many questions.

1. Mexican Coaching might be a problem.

Mexico had a great start to the tournament with nine points and looked to be the team of the tournament. El Tri were pinpointed as favorites coming in and were living up to expectations. Then, on the first game of the second round, they lost to the United States in a game where they were outplayed and outcoached. They bounced back to beat El Salvador and eventually qualified to the World Cup, but the defeat cost them a place in the final and opened up a lot of doubts about the team, especially the coaching.

The big thing here is how all of this was predictable based on the match against Honduras. Honduras physically battled Mexico and got the better of them in the first half. Honduras also got a penalty kick, and although they missed it, the call rattled Mexico.

A couple of days later, the US followed a similar gameplan. Unlike Honduras, Tab Ramos’s side was able to keep the performances for 90 minutes. Mexico coach Marco Antonio Ruiz never knew how to reply to this. As such, the team definitely looked like they had no idea how to break through and relied on long balls to Uriel Antuna because they lost the midfield completely.

The lack of coaching is especially worrying because the last two U-20 World Cups under Sergio Almaguer were marred by coaching problems and were failures by Mexico standards (2 wins against 5 losses in 7 games). Mexico might have to rely on not having teams that aren't as focused as Ramos’s US, buut coaching might once again be the Achilles heel that drags the team down.

2. Mexico will need to call their best U-20 players

Mexican expectations are going to be a lot lower going into this World Cup than in the last two. For starters, they won’t have a player like they did in 2013 with Jesus Corona or 2015 with Hirving Lozano. While Uriel Antuna looked to be the best player of the tournament, he only made his professional debut for Santos Laguna in the game after the tournament and doesn't have the pedigree of either “Tecatito” or “Chucky”. The team will need to call up all their best, especially if they can get Cesar Montes from Monterrey. Edson Alvarez was the only player with significant playing time in Liga MX and he also stood out as the best defender of the team. It's not a coincidence and the fact that Montes is a lot more experience will help this team because the stakes are raised in this type of tournament. The most positive thing was that in the interviews after the World Cup, Ruiz finally made it seem that this might be the plan, and that clubs will be on board.

3. Mexico might benefit from not winning the tournament.

Not winning the tournament for the first time since 2009 was a hit for Mexican expectations and goals. Losing out means they lost on a seed to the U-20 tournament and yet it might be a good thing at the end. In 2015, Mexico won both the U-20 and U-17 tournaments, only to be seeded in tough groups. The U-17 team had a group with Argentina, Germany and Australia before eventually finishing fourth, but the U-20 team got the group of death with Serbia, Mali (both semifinalists) and Uruguay, crashing out in the group stage and finishing last. While it's no guarantee that this will happen and it's a small consolation, it might be beneficial for Mexico to not have as big expectations and getting an easier group.

4. This tournament might show another pattern of U-17 players failing to progress.

The 2015 U-17 team went to the World Cup in Chile and continued Mexico's great play in that level. They reached the semifinals and ended fourth, which was actually a step back from the previous World Cup, in which they finished second. The thing is that the players in those teams have failed to make the impact expected in their careers as they grew older and this team might be following in this same pattern.

While Mexico had some great moments and the team was filled with players from the 2015 U-17 team, the majority of the standouts weren't in the team. Antuna and Ronaldo Cisneros were the main offensive stars, and they weren't part of the team, while Alvarez was the best defensive player, as well as goalkeeper Joser Hernandez, were also excluded. On the other hand, a lot of the players who didn't shine were part of the team. Eduardo Aguirre scored two goals but overall had a lackluster performance. Kevin Magaña and Kevin Lara mostly didn't go 90 minutes, and although they had some spark, they didn't shine. Diego Cortes, who had the goal of the tournament, had one of the better tournaments of all but had a nightmare of a game against the US. What might be the scariest case is Pablo Lopez. Lopez made a splash in the 2015 World Cup and might have been Mexico's best player in the tournament, but in this tournament, he failed to live up to expectations badly. To make matters worse, he was sent in as a game changer in the second half of the United States game and failed miserably. By far the biggest disappointment in the tournament.

While this might just be a thing of this tournament (hopefully) the past history of the players and results (both U-20 World Cups failed to live to expectations) mean that there might be a problem in development in Mexican football.

5. Estadio Nacional in Costa Rica keeps being great for Mexico.

While the last point was a bad pattern, a good pattern for Mexico was the continuing great play for Mexico in the new home of the Costa Rican National team. Estadio Nacional is the newest stadium for Los Ticos and Mexico seem to feel just at home. In the first game El Tri played there, the gave the last great performance under Chepo de la Torre. In the semifinal group of CONCACAF qualifiers, they beat Costa Rica 2-0 with, goals by Carlos Salcido and Jesus Zavala and gave one of their finest away displays in recent memory. A year later they lost in a terrible game that almost knocked them out, but they did create chances that were incredibly missed by Chicharito and company. In this tournament, they kept the tradition going with Mexico having a night and day difference in play compared to the games in Saprissa. While Mexico failed to impress against Antigua and Barbuda in Saprissa, they went to Estadio Nacional and gave one of their best ever games against Canada. They went to Saprissa and suffered against Honduras and lost to the United States only to return to Estadio Nacional and crush El Salvador. While they didn't play as well as they did against Canada, they totally dominated the game when they had a lot of things against them. Not only did they have the hit and pressure from losing to the US but they had only one day rest compared to El Salvador’s four. Hopefully the senior team can continue the tradition before the Costa Rican FA decides to move their home games back to the Saprissa stadium.