Like it or not, the most handy measuring stick for American soccer will likely always be Mexico. Admittedly, it's a lazy and sometimes irrelevant comparison. But with the two rivals vying neck and neck for regional supremacy for more than a decade now, sizing up American progress through a Mexican lens can sometimes be a useful exercise.
It works both ways, which helps explain why the Mexicans were so fed up in the spring of 2009. The Mexican under-20 team had just failed to qualify for the under-20 World Cup for a third time in five tries, a year after El Tri's under-23 Olympic team had fallen well short in qualifying, as well. So after years of watching the United States qualify for just about every tournament out there, the Mexicans decided to do something about their youth teams.
One example does not necessarily make a trend, but their performance at the CONCACAF under-20 championship earlier this month would seem to indicate that the Mexicans are suddenly doing a lot right at the youth level.
"Two years ago, sadly, it went badly," said Mexican under-20 coach Juan Carlos Chavez after his team won the regional qualifying tournament in Guatemala. "Since then we've had a two-year process with these players, and we've played something like 10 international tournaments. We've made it to eight finals. We went to Venezuela, Japan and the South American tournament. We've played a lot of games and got some good results."
The results in Guatemala continued that pattern. The Mexicans won all five of their games convincingly, scoring 18 goals and giving up just two. The regional title was a milestone achievement, but the Mexicans will be looking to accomplish much more at the U-20 World Cup in Colombia in three months' time.
The Americans, on the other hand, failed to make the under-20 World Cup for the first time in 16 years. The tournament was scheduled in such an unbalanced fashion that direct comparisons between the two teams really don't amount to much, but the fact remains that the Mexicans showed a cohesiveness and professionalism superior to any of their rivals. While the Americans faced a tough assignment against the host team in the quarters -- and failed -- the Mexicans' incessant attacking play gave the impression they would have found a way to weather the Guatemalan storm under the same circumstances.