Mexico writing a new chapter of USWNT rivalry with stunning win in W Gold Cup

Soccer

CARSON, Calif. — It took nearly 14 years and 16 consecutive defeats, but on Monday night, for the first time since 2010, the Mexico women’s national team defeated the U.S.

Thanks to spectacular goals from Lizbeth Ovalle and Mayra Pelayo, El Tri Femenil topped their group in the inaugural Concacaf W Gold Cup with a stunning 2-0 win over their border rivals. Despite the rain at Dignity Health Sports Park and the U.S.’s psychological edge — they held a daunting 40-1-1 record in the series entering Monday night’s match — Mexico not only found a way to clinch the historic victory, but were also completely deserving of the result. Hungry, fearless and bold — Mexico coach Pedro Lopez described his roster as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” before the tournament — the players were flawless as they shut down opposing attacks, pressed high and created danger going forward.

Backed by a Southern California crowd of 11,612 that at times made the match feel like a home game for Mexico, it became very clear with every probing forward pass, every confident shot from distance and every crunching tackle that El Tri Femenil were determined to make a statement.

“I think this time it’s a little bit different,” hinted Mexico’s María Sánchez before the W Gold Cup about the rivalry with the U.S. “We know that the history between both teams hasn’t been as competitive before, but I think the growth of women’s soccer in Mexico can hopefully take us closer.”

“The group is at a higher level than we’ve been in the past.”

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For U.S. interim coach Twila Kilgore, the result was clearly a warning sign. “It just shows how far the game is coming and there’s no easy games anymore,” Kilgore said. “If we don’t take care of business and we don’t execute, this is to be expected.”

With the result in hand, is this the start of a new chapter in the Concacaf rivalry that has long been one-sided? Has the development of Liga MX Femenil been a significant factor? Or will this simply be a flash in the pan, like that win in 2010?

Learning to take the neighbors seriously

In order to better understand the trajectory of the rivalry and how it could change, we must first look back at the last chapter that included the only other loss for the USWNT against Mexico.

It’s late 2010 and the U.S. are preparing for World Cup qualifiers south of the border in Cancun. According to one account, it was more of a preparation for a trip to the beach.

“We assumed we would walk through that qualification and we allowed ourselves to lose focus. We were down in Mexico snorkeling and swimming with dolphins,” said Heather O’Reilly, a former USWNT player who won a World Cup title and three Olympic gold medals.

“We didn’t expect Mexico to come out as hard as they did. A very harsh lesson.”

In a semifinal match that would yield an invite to the 2011 Women’s World Cup, it took just three minutes for Mexico to take a 1-0 lead through Maribel Dominguez. Although the USWNT would equalize via Carli Lloyd in the 25th minute, Mexican striker Veronica Perez scored the eventual game-winner just 60 seconds later.

“To be completely honest, in the moment, I didn’t realize how big of a goal that was and has been for Mexico,” said Perez, who before Monday was one of just two El Tri Femenil players to score in a win over the U.S. “Even afterwards it took me a while to grasp the importance of that goal.”

The U.S. would later qualify for the World Cup through a playoff, but the lesson was undoubtedly learned for the group of players that would then pummel Mexico through 16 consecutive wins.

“We have to know the target is always on our back. Everyone loves an underdog story and everyone loves to knock the top team off the pedestal,” said Amy Rodriguez, a former USWNT player who took part in the 2010 loss. “You just cannot count anyone out, and being the U.S. team and having that huge target on your back, no matter who the opponent is, you can never go step into any game lightly. Mexico for sure is one of those teams that you don’t want to take lightly.”

Learning to respect your opponent is one thing, but what happens when they start to close the gap when it comes to talent and depth?

Liga MX Femenil helping sway momentum of the rivalry

Lopez should be given credit for instilling a new mentality for Mexico’s players. “If the things we are planning happen, we can beat anyone,” said the coach before the tournament. But if there’s one major factor that has truly elevated the national team in recent years, it’s Liga MX Femenil.

“In 2010, Mexico didn’t have a pro or competitive league for women,” said Perez, who took part in Liga MX Femenil from 2019 to 2023. “[The league] has given a pathway and so many opportunities for Mexicans to develop as players. To have that stability, structure and organization to be able to train all year.”

Since its inception in 2017, the league has shifted from signing only Mexican-born players to accepting dual-nationals and, most recently, to allowing foreigners who have continued to raise the profile of the nascent competition. Coupled with a growing number of talented NCAA players who are looking for prominent roles that the NWSL may not be able to provide, plus some eye-catching attendance numbers, the league is flourishing at an exciting pace.

Although Mexico’s Liga MX Femenil-heavy roster in the 2022 Concacaf W Championship failed to earn qualification for last year’s World Cup, what’s often lost about the tournament was how difficult El Tri Femenil made it for the U.S. during the group stage. While it’s tough to say that a 16th consecutive loss was a step in the right direction, they were able to hold the Americans to a narrow and hard-fought 1-0 victory that needed an 89th-minute game winner. Previously losing their last seven games with at least a three-goal margin, 2022 was a step in the right direction for Mexico and an omen of better things to come.

By 2024, and with 10 players in their XI representing Liga MX Femenil, Mexico were able to get the job done against the U.S. on Monday.

Ovalle, arguably the best player on the field, demonstrated the same control of the ball and power behind her shots that has made her a fan favorite at Tigres. Reinforcing Mexico’s spine as their captain, Rebeca Bernal looked just as confident and imposing as she typically does in Monterrey. Pelayo found the back of the net from distance in the same manner that she has already done so twice this month with Club Tijuana.

“The women’s game is becoming tighter where the U.S. team isn’t as dominant as they were before, so I just see an exciting kind of exponential growth among the women’s game and especially within the [Liga MX Femenil] teams in Mexico,” said Rodriguez.

Add in a handful of NWSL players in the gameday roster, and you suddenly have a team that won’t fear the USWNT.

“Now we have our own league in Mexico, we have more Mexican players in the NWSL,” said Sanchez, a current member of the Houston Dash who once played with Tigres. “There’s that growth that is obviously happening that’s helping us all around with the Mexican national team.”

The U.S. will continue to be the heavy favorite in this series, and there’s no indication that it has now been upended, but as seen in a growing women’s game that is changing across Concacaf and the globe, teams are beginning to catch up.

“It’s been competitive and it will remain competitive,” said Rodriguez about the U.S.’s rivalry with Mexico. “When you see the investment and the development of the women’s soccer game around the world progressing, it’s no exception that Mexico is going to obviously be a talented team.”

If 2010 taught the Americans that Mexico should be taken more seriously, 2024 is a recognition that their regional dominance can no longer be taken for granted.

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