When El Tri defeated Germany 2-1 down in Chile on Saturday to top Group C of the U-17 World Cup, the result was met with jubilation but not incredulity in Mexico. These types of victories by Mexico's youth teams are becoming increasingly common.
More than anything, El Tri's performance so far in the tournament, which also included a comprehensive 2-0 win over Argentina, has been further confirmation of what we already know: Mexico is producing youngsters who can compete with anyone on the world level. The way individuals such as Pablo Lopez matched Germany's best in central midfield was impressive, as was the manner in which coach Mario Arteaga's team threw players ahead of the ball and put pressure on the German defense even at 2-0 and 2-1 up. There was no sense of panic or of Mexico sitting back and holding on.
Over the coming years, this latest generation looks to have all the necessary prerequisites to battle for places in the senior squad alongside graduates of previous successful national team youth sides -- starting from the U-17s in 2005 with Giovani dos Santos, Carlos Vela and Hector Moreno.
That is the theory, at least, and a positive one from a Mexican point of view. But there is an increasing problem putting it into practice: At present, not enough young Mexicans are getting regular minutes in the Liga MX.
Only 30 Mexicans under the age of 25 started games in the Liga MX (15 percent of the 198 starters) this past weekend. Other countries -- most noticeably young English players in the Premier League -- have had a similar problem, forcing that league into implementing the homegrown quota. But Mexico has gone the other way in the past couple of years, opening up the Liga MX more than ever to foreign-born players.
For the Apertura 2014 tournament, Liga MX rules were changed to allow naturalized Mexicans to play as domestic players as soon as they gained citizenship; previously, they had to complete five years in the country to count. The catch is that South Americans can obtain Mexican citizenship and count after just two years in the country.
Clubs naturally encourage players to become Mexican when the two years is up; it opens up one of the five foreign-player spots each Liga MX club is permitted, giving them more options as to whom they can sign. The result has been the number of naturalized players swelling to over 50 for this present Apertura 2015.
Over the past weekend, America, Queretaro and Chiapas all started their matches with seven foreign-born players. And in (arguably) the best four squads in the league (Tigres, Club America, Monterrey, Toluca), a total of just three Mexicans under the age of 25 began games.
The Liga MX sets the regulations, but it is the clubs and coaches who decide which players to field each week. They have tended toward filling foreigner spots, picking experience over youth, and naturalizing the foreigners as quickly as possible. That may be the case, too, in other leagues, but with so few Mexicans going abroad at an early age, there is an argument for some intervention from the league.
This could perhaps mean considering a return to the Regla 20/11, which forced Liga MX clubs to field younger players for a certain amount of minutes per season. It was heralded for its influence in the likes of Andres Guardado (Atlas) and Hector Moreno (Pumas) getting minutes as youngsters. Or it could mean a focus on Mexico's second division, perhaps vastly reducing the number of foreigners there and opening up the pro/rel system to give the Ascenso MX more competition, publicity and finance. At present, there is a valid argument that the jump from U-20s to a Liga MX first team is just too great.
Of course, it's worth noting that some clubs don't need to change. For example, Pachuca goes against the grain; Los Tuzos have given their young players a fair go and are churning out quality. Chivas continue to field only Mexicans, of course, but there doesn't seem to be many other clubs intent on handing youngsters real opportunities.
If the situation continues as it is, it will eventually harm the Mexican national team and potentially limit the payback from the investment that has gone in at the grassroots level.
A look at the center-forward position, for example, gives cause for concern. At present, the only Mexican strikers who start regularly in Liga MX are Oribe Peralta (America), Henry Martin (Club Tijuana), Miguel Sansores (Morelia), Omar Bravo (Chivas) and Eduardo Herrera (Pumas). Obviously, there are quality players such as Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, Carlos Vela, Erick "Cubo" Torres, Giovani dos Santos and Raul Jimenez abroad, but the pressure for places is next to nil.
It is no wonder there are reports that Chiapas' Colombian striker Aviles Hurtado may come into the mix, even if many fail to point out that the 28-year-old is still over two years away from completing FIFA's five-year residency rule in order to be eligible.
At goalkeeper, Chivas' Antonio Rodriguez is a regular starter at age 23, but the next-youngest Mexican keeper to start a Liga MX game this weekend was Chiapas' 27-year-old Oscar Jimenez. There were only three others under the age of 30 anywhere in the world, including U.S.-born FC Dallas standout Jesse Gonzalez.
There is no fixed blueprint when it comes to youth soccer with players maturing at different ages and in differing environments. And there is no easy solution to the problems these numbers highlight about Mexican soccer. One thing for certain is that quality foreign imports add greatly to the appeal of the Mexican league and even benefit the development of domestic players by diversifying it. But, at present, the sheer numbers are overwhelming and stifling for young Mexicans. The balance is out of sync.
It would be a real shame if the good work done by the Mexican federation and clubs -- which was on show for all to see in El Tri's U-17s this weekend -- was let down at the final hurdle of actually getting these youngsters playing first-team football.