Initially seen as among the favorites to earn one of the four direct tickets to the 2023 Women's World Cup, Mexico have immediately put themselves in an unexpectedly difficult situation after kicking off the 2022 CONCACAF W Championship with a 1-0 loss to Jamaica on Monday.
The tournament, in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, was set to be a showcase of the progress made by a national team program that has not only lived in the shadows of the United States and Canada, but also had failed to qualify for the 2019 Women's World Cup.
Coupled with a young but flourishing women's top flight through Liga MX Femenil, and a new generation of talent that was guided by national team manager Monica Vergara -- who coached Mexico in their run to second place at the 2018 U17 Women's World Cup -- El Tri Femenil were ready to step out and become a powerhouse in the CONCACAF region.
Or, as goalkeeper Itzel Gonzalez put it in an interview with ESPN earlier this year: "Not only a sense [to be able to reach the next level], but a responsibility."
With a 10-game undefeated streak heading into Monday's match, which included nine wins and 52 goals scored, Mexico had high hopes in their opener against Jamaica.
That is until eight minutes into the game at the Estadio Universitario.
Leaping literally and metaphorically higher than Mexico was Khadija "Bunny" Shaw, who stunned the home team with a perfect header to put Jamaica up early on. The hosts pushed forward but almost looked dazed as they kept running into a sea of yellow jerseys that did well to absorb pressure, cut out midfield options, and hit Mexico on counters.
Late into the first half, Jamaica would then win a penalty in the 40th minute. Fortunately for Mexico, Havana Solaun launched the ball over the net to keep the scoreline the same at halftime.
Desperation began to kick in during the second half. Countless crosses -- 25 of 34 off target -- were catapulted as Hail Marys into Jamaica's 18-yard box. Try as Mexico may, it was their rivals with fewer possessions who looked more dangerous when the ball was at their feet.
Led by Lorne Donaldson, a former assistant coach in Major League Soccer who has given the national team gig just last month, Jamaica were efficient when pouncing on opportunities to counter. In fact, they were unlucky to only score once after Solaun missed the penalty and Shaw hit the woodwork in the second. Nonetheless, once the final whistle was blown, it was Jamaica who proudly celebrated the three points while Mexico slowly made their way off the pitch.
"I'm responsible for this result. Any criticism you have, I'll take it and I'll appreciate it because it helps me grow. I take full responsibility," Vergara said after the match.
The lesson will be an important one for the manager who has so far gone through very few missteps since taking charge in January 2021. Vergara has done a fantastic job of bringing in new faces and trying out different options in her call-ups, but that also seemed to go one step too far when utilizing an XI that was less than ideal against Jamaica.
Up top, she went with the promising but also inexperienced Diana Ordoñez instead of one of her two best strikers in Alicia Cervantes and Katty Martinez. Defensively, there were question marks over the surprising backline partnership of Casandra Montero with Rebeca Bernal instead of Bernal with Cristina Ferral. The absence of Diana Garcia from the midfield was also a head-scratcher.
It was almost as if Vergara underestimated Jamaica. The same could be said for the noticeable lack of Mexico supporters in attendance who probably expected an easy win and had other games -- including an upcoming showdown against the United States -- and future knockout round fixtures circled on their calendars.
Now, depending on how things go, Mexico might not even qualify for the knockout round, which would thereby not earn them a direct spot for the 2023 Women's World Cup either.
In a tournament that will also have the top two teams from each group qualifying for the World Cup (third in the group will enter a 10-team inter-confederation playoff in 2023), El Tri Femenil are now at a heavy disadvantage with a loss. With the USWNT beating Haiti earlier in the day, it is Jamaica who are sitting in second place of Group A.
It's still too early to do different permutations for match results and points, but it might come down to Mexico possibly needing at least a point or perhaps even a win against the USWNT to directly qualify for the World Cup. That and/or for Haiti, the lowest FIFA-ranked team in the group, to at least hold Jamaica to a draw on the final matchday.
As mentioned, though, no matter how dire things seem, fans and media shouldn't hit the panic button just yet -- and for what it's worth, Vergara and her players haven't.
"[The loss] doesn't define us. We're going to continue our process," Vergara added. "It's simply a stumble in our path and we're going to work on our upcoming games."
Defender Kenti Robles was more candid on whether it's a crisis yet for her team.
"Whoever throws in the towel, they can get off the boat," Robles said after the defeat. "We have two games left and we're going to fight until the last minute."
Looking forward, whatever room for mistakes that Mexico had available, they've all but vanished. If they had won against Jamaica, all that the team would have needed was another three points against Haiti on Thursday regardless of the result against the USWNT next Monday.
Now, they can't afford to make many errors, if any at all in the group stage. If they do once again, they'll likely return to the shadows knowing that they missed out on an invaluable opportunity to reach that next level.