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Mexico youngsters provide relief
Leave it to Mexico’s Under-17 national team to provide a temporary respite from the issues currently afflicting the senior side.
While concerns about El Tri will always take precedence, the continued success at the lower levels offers a nice distraction from the problems reinforced by the 0-0 draw with Peru on Wednesday night. It is not the first time a Mexican youth side has served in this role, but the continued need for such timely diversions reinforces the differences between the budding talents and the proven stars.
Like their talented and well-compensated brethren with the full team, Mexican youth internationals bear the burden created by operating within a system carefully honed to produce technical players capable of changing and winning matches.
Unlike their older counterparts, they live up to those expectations regularly. The trophy case provides all of the necessary proof. A gold medal from the 2012 London Olympics attracts most of the attention, but the title secured during the 2013 CONCACAF U-20 Championship earlier this year earns plenty of respect as well. And the reminders from a pair of FIFA U-17 World Cup triumphs in 2005 and 2011 burnish the more recent triumphs.
Mexico added another U-17 Championship to its list of honors against Panama on Friday, storming back to defeat their regional counterparts 2-1. Though Panama provided a stern test, the Mexicans entered the affair as favorites and reinforced their perch as the overwhelming force within the CONCACAF youth ranks with yet another victory.
A quick glance at the squad explains why Mexico has progressed through this tournament with little trouble. Mexico manager Raúl Gutiérrez selected his 18 players exclusively from Liga MX academy programs. The tournament's top scorer, Marco Antonio Granads (four goals), learns his trade within the C.D. Guadalajara youth ranks. His teammates turn out for Atlas, Club America, Cruz Azul, Monterrey, Morelia, Pachuca, Pumas and Santos Laguna.
Academy experience may not constitute a significant advantage in some parts of the world, but it does in CONCACAF. Mexico develops players quickly because it possesses the infrastructure – including those academies and the associated national youth leagues – to nurture prospects. No other country in the region even comes close to resembling that sort of setup. And the gap between the Mexican approach and the patchwork systems in place in countries like Canada (headed to the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup) and the United States (left to wonder how it failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in this age bracket) often comes to bear in these sorts of circumstances.
Aside from the opening-day thrashing of Cuba (5-1 on April 7), the Mexicans have proceeded through the tournament with a minimum of fuss and a ruthlessness befitting an outfit further along in its development. Opposing teams received no leniency (one goal conceded in the next three matches – a 90th minute tally to Honduras in the semifinals with the game well in hand) and succumbed to early goals (five first half tallies in those three matches) on their way to defeat.
Similar work against Panama will yield yet another triumph, though the latitude afforded to secure it will diminish significantly. The host nation proved its mettle and its quality by turning over the Canadians after conceding after just four minutes in the semifinal on Wednesday, but it is still an opponent Mexico should defeat on the way to fulfilling its more significant goals in the United Arab Emirates later this year.
Perhaps that last statement offers the best way to quantify the strength of the Mexico youth sides right now. CONCACAF championships and World Cup berths represent the minimum standards, but the primary goals lay further afield with good reason. Mexico has assembled a youth program capable of competing and succeeding against the rest of the world.
The continued success in international competitions at the youth level has also created the rather unfortunate side effect of increasing the already lofty expectations for the senior team. The tasks are not particularly comparable, but the established dominance at the youth level ratchets up the hopes currently left unfulfilled by senior team – accomplished though it may be – on the world stage.
As the expectant Mexican supporters wait for José Manuel de la Torre and his players to rectify their current frailties ahead of a trio of critical World Cup qualifiers in June, they can afford to lavish some attention on the Under-17 team in the meantime. They are not likely to come away disappointed.
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