Women’s soccer in Mexico continues to grow and to evolve, and no one knows that better than Club Tijuana’s head coach Andrea Rodebaugh. Rodebaugh played college soccer with the University of California-Berkeley in the mid-1980’s before playing professionally in Japan and France and captaining the Mexico Women’s National Team. She’s the only head coach Xolos Femenil has ever had, and she spoke with me about the past, present, and future of women’s soccer in Mexico.
Prior to Liga MX Femenil, there was indeed women’s soccer in Mexico. “Women’s football has existed in Mexico since the 60’s,” Rodebaugh says, “but it has always developed outside of the Federation (the FMF - Mexico’s governing body for the sport) or the ‘official’ governing body.” It was a much more casual affair back then, and even coming into the current day it wasn’t what most would think of when thinking about a professional soccer team. “Some teams that trained during the week and others that did not - they just gathered and played on the weekends.”
Liga MX Femenil however has changed how the women playing look at the game. “Now it’s everybody understanding that this is becoming professional,” Rodebaugh says. “It’s a job, and it should be seen as a job by the players, by the coaching staff, by the club - it’s another team within their structure and should be treated as such, no difference - and by the league as well, having another competition.”
That this is being taken seriously by both the federation and the clubs who are participating in Liga MX Femenil is a shift. It hasn’t always been an easy transition. Rodebaugh said “The bigger struggle is... the girls understanding that this is a job, this is professional. You must come to practice. You must be professional in all of the other different ways possible, on and off the field. I think before it wasn’t so demanding on them, in that sense.”
It seems to be working. In Xolos Femenil’s first season, they finished the 2017 Apertura with a record of two wins, four draws, and eight losses. It was a tough season, made tougher by Liga MX Femenil’s decision to allow only players born in Mexico to participate. “We’d had the tryouts and were preparing to begin, and the Federation said only players born in Mexico would be able to participate. So we had four (players not born in Mexico) on the roster at that time. We had to let them go and keep four players that we most probably would have let go.”
For most clubs in Mexico, this isn’t an issue. But Tijuana’s isolation relative to the rest of Mexico has sometimes proved to be a huge obstacle. “Any player that wants to try out for Club Tijuana must get on an airplane if they’re from any other part of the country if it’s not from Baja (California). Whereas any girl from the center of the country has at least four or five teams that she could try out for before considering getting on a plane.”
The 2018 Clausura was better for Xolos Femenil, who had a respectable five wins, four draws, and five losses. Rodebaugh says that the team she has now is set. When I asked about her goals for this season, she said “We expect to keep improving, to get better. To have better performance each game and in general, overall for the season. The team now has been training for a full year. We’ve let some players go, we’ve registered other players so the idea is to become stronger.”
It’s not going to be an easy feat though. Xolos isolation still looms large. “Everybody in the Mexico City area, they’re playing against each other right now in preparation for the league, and we have nobody to play against” Rodebaugh laments. Even though Xolos Femenil has been in camp since May, “We’ve tried to play against the teams in the United States, but because of the competition that those teams have as well, it hasn’t been so easy.”
As always though, Tijuana’s location can be seen through many different lenses. “It can be seen as a strength because we are so close to the United States and because the United States has so much women’s football,” Rodebaugh says. “The United States’ professional league the NWSL only has Portland and Seattle on the west coast - other than that it’s from Houston to the east so there’s nothing in Southern California, (making Xolos Femenil) the only women’s fully professional team” in the area.
Xolos Femenil are finding their niche in the sports landscape in Southern California. Rodebaugh lives in San Diego and commutes to Tijuana, so she has a good vantage point on how the club is seen on both sides of the border. “I think the club and the success the club has had has given the city and the people a very positive identity. Everybody wears the red uniform, has the logo of the dog and are wearing it or it’s on their cars - it’s everywhere in Tijuana and San Diego because it’s a very unique area. I think it’s created a very positive identity for the people here.”
Raising the profile of women’s soccer in Mexico was ostensibly one of the reasons that Liga MX Femenil was created. Rodebaugh thinks the league is already starting to pay dividends that extend to El Tri. Unlike in years past, Rodebaugh explains “The players are training every day. They’re getting better technically. Tactically, passing, they’re improving and plus since there’s an age limit on the league which is under 23, the message is ‘structure downward, focus on the youth players coming up’.”
Just having a place for these young women to play is itself a boon. “Youth players will have a better development pathway” Rodebaugh continued, “and I can see now there’s a lot of clubs looking for, scouting for the best younger players. Fifteen- and sixteen-year-old players thinking of the future. So it’s impacting the national team and I think we’ve seen it at the youth level. Mexico has done very well in the qualifiers and with the league it’s only going to improve. It’s going to improve them but it’s going to showcase. I think there’s a lot of players who have been discovered by the national team that perhaps had it not been for the league we would not have known they existed because there was no showcase. There was nowhere where they could be seen every week.”
But this optimism should be tempered a bit with some reality. Mexico didn’t win a single game in the 2017 World Cup, and these are the sorts of benefits that will most likely bear fruit much further down the road. “I think it could impact (the 2019 World Cup) but I think it will definitely impact for the next (2023) World Cup because these younger players will have had another four years to develop. Although there are good players that have come out of the league that had not been on the national team so I think that definitely in four years you’ll see the impact.”