A result not many expected. Most of all, Mexico.
Tri Femenil and their 2019 World Cup dreams ended tonight as they fell to Panama in the final match of group play, 2-0.
After a poor showing in their opening match against USA, a 6-0 thrashing, Mexico looked mentally spent towards the end of the game. But they next found themselves on the rebound against Trinidad and Tobago where they won 4-1, and kept their qualifying journey alive. However, their goal differential meant that they would need nothing less than a win tonight against Panama.
The game started out with Mexico on the front foot. Mexico had much of the possession and most of the opportunity on net, with good play building up on the right. Stephany Mayor was able to get on the end of the ball and deliver good crosses. Katie Johnson was unlucky in her finishing, hitting side netting and the post. Karla Nieto’s impact in the midfield over Nayeli Rangel was felt immediately as she also got shots on goal, along with navigating a midfield that for the most part looked absent this tournament.
With the offense that Mexico was creating, the ball wasn’t going into the net, but at the very least it appeared that goals would eventually come.
But it was perhaps Mexico’s best opportunity of the night that was also the moment that did them in - when in stoppage time of the first half they were awarded a penalty kick. Panama’s Yenith Bailey had been having a good tournament in her group matches, but etched her name in CONCACAF history when she came up with a save against Mexico’s star striker, Charlyn Corral.
It was the kind of save that propelled an underdog team forward, and appeared to leave Mexico in disbelief on their lack of goals, rather than fuel them into in the second half.
Karla Riley scored a goal for Panama in the opening minutes of the second half after Panama bypassed Mexico’s midfield completely and found themselves behind the backline. It was a goal that kept Mexico chasing the rest of the game. A match type moment that Mexico have found themselves in before back in July during the gold medal match in the Barranquilla 2018 Central American and Caribbean games.
With the early goal, Mexico now needed two goals for a win. Yet the goals never came. Substitutions eventually happened. Monica Ocampo on for Maria Sanchez, who wasn’t able to create as much in this match vs her previous games. Kiana Palacios on for Nancy Antonio, who had a better match playing alongside Nieto. Finally Jacqueline Ovalle for Katie Johnson, who left a big game without a big goal.
Panama ultimately sealed Mexico’s fate with a second goal by Lineth Cedeno in the 85th minute.
A devastated Mexico remained on the pitch after the final whistle, eliminated from qualifiers and missing out on the 2019 World Cup in France.
How Did We Get Here?
After two decades of under performing, an early World Cup exit in 2015, and a failure to qualify for the Olympics in 2016 under then Head Coach Leo Cuellar - the federation and former head coach mutually parted ways.
Between all that time, players like Kenti Robles, Mayor, and Bianca Sierra were excluded from team rosters, all found themselves playing in Europe while the Mexican national team continued to spiral.
In a Facebook post, Star forward Corral spoke out against Cuellar and the team’s program - their lack of investment and ideas - and unofficially retired to play in Spain until a change was made.
After being involved in Mexico’s U-20 teams, Roberto Medina was eventually given the reigns to this team in 2017 after initially being placed as an interim head coach for the national team.
A program in shambles, he was given the responsibility of taking a team through this next cycle with limited resources.
Although this team didn’t qualify tonight, he did something else that’s equally important over the last year and half. He got players back and reinvested in this program. Corral, Robles, Mayor, Sierra, and more, all eventually made their way back to the National Team. He kept USA-born players involved in Johnson, Christina Murillo, and Bianca Henninger - despite the Mexican federation’s withdrawal from participating in NWSL player allocation program.
It’s for those reasons alone that the pain from this loss tonight lingers much heavier than the failure to qualify back in 2016.
What Comes Next?
During Medina’s time, Liga MX and FMF established and launched Liga MX femenil, a women’s professional soccer league with emphasis on U23 type of program. The league is still in its early stages and incredibly young.
Their current status has provided little representation on the international scene at the senior level, with results not likely to be seen until future cycles. It will eventually have to grown out of its U23/24 status and look into changing its bylaws about not allowing Mexican-American players with dual citizenship play its league if it is serious about growing.
Tonight, in a nutshell, hurts. Because in Mexican Women’s Soccer, its not just about trying to qualify on the international stage, it’s also about breaking down barriers both culturally and athletically for this program.
Eventually, the team and program has to look ahead to Olympic qualifying. The failure of tonight, is an extension of previous failures of Mexican Federation in the past, and hopefully will push the growth of Women’s Mexican soccer forward and instead of hinder it.