Earlier this month, against their archrivals, Mexico made a statement. Or perhaps that should be, yet another statement.
Mexico’s under-20 national team won the CONCACAF U-20 championship in Puebla against the USA, 3-1. They were far, far better than the USA, even if the score didn’t reflect that until extra time.
That followed an Olympic gold medal win for Mexico in London, where Mexico’s U-23s shocked Brazil 2-1. The USA failed to even qualify for the Olympic games.
And even if the senior US national team won their last game in and against Mexico 1-0 in August 2012 in a friendly, it was just as plain there that El Tri has become a vastly more talented outfit.
How did this happen? Meet Dennis Te Kloese, Sporting President of Chivas Guadalajara – and one of the architects of a top-down rebuild of Mexico’s development program.
Te Kloese, a Dutchman who played in the world-famous Ajax academy, has spent the last decade in Mexican soccer working in scouting, youth development and player recruitment. Before taking up his current role with Chivas, he was the youth national team director at the Mexican federation. In that role he helped, in his words, “take advantage of different rules and regulations that have been implemented in our first division.”
That’s made all the difference between North America’s archrivals. In order to incentivize youth development by Mexico’s biggest clubs, the federation mandated some 10 years ago that the clubs had to field at least one home-grown player under the age of 21. Then, in 2009, it created national under-20, under-17 and under-15 leagues populated by the corresponding youth teams of Mexico’s top-tier professional clubs. They play the same schedule as the senior team, often appearing in the same stadiums as a pre-game undercard, giving them invaluable experience in a competitive environment.
"The clubs don’t want to lose," says Te Kloese. "They just want to be competitive at U-15s and U-17s and U-20s level because it’s in the public eye, it’s a rivalry. Which means they have to look better and scout better and need better training facilities. And every club is doing the same thing. Their competitiveness is for the benefit of soccer in Mexico."
The federation’s schemes have been so successful that the average age in Liga MX is down, the level of play is rising and that teams’ equity in their player development has risen so sharply that the youth player quota was abolished a few years ago.
"The clubs realized that there’s a big value in their youth development," says Te Kloese. "Instead of looking outside of Mexico for more experienced international players, little by little, they started to trust more young players.
"It’s been a complete benefit for the young player who has grown more, has more competitive exposure and has more first-team games under his belt," adds Te Kloese. "There are a lot of teams now that play with young players."
This has translated directly into success for Mexico’s national team program.
The senior team has won two straight Gold Cups; has reached the second round of five consecutive World Cups; and now consists, in large part, of the young players who won the 2005 under-17 World Cup. In 2011, the under-20s placed third at their World Cup. Their successors at that level dominated the aforementioned CONCACAF tournament this year, after winning the under-17 World Cup in 2011.
In contrast, the American youth system remains scattershot if not simply incoherent. Major League Soccer’s youth academies are embryonic, the club system is often prohibitively expensive and the high school and college track is more of a drain on talent than it is a benefit to it. The US youth national teams, for their part, have achieved little to nothing at the youth level in recent years, missing out entirely on as many tournaments as they’ve qualified for.
Despite this, US Soccer president Sunil Gulati doesn’t believe Mexico has jumped out ahead in youth development. "I don’t," he said recently. "I think they’ve had a good run. There’s been periods where the reverse happened. These things go a little bit in cycles. I don’t read too much into that." Gulati concedes that the youth quota at the highest professional level could be helpful though, and that the federation and MLS have looked into it.
There’s no denying that Mexican clubs can offer a more direct and efficient path to professional soccer, which by extension bolsters their national team program. The superiority of the development system south of the border is underpinned by the number of Mexican-American kids opting to play in the youth academies of Mexican clubs.
"There are certain advantages," says Te Kloese. "At Chivas, we have a residency program, a complete program of schooling, nutrition, personal development, training every day, a high level of competition in national leagues that will give a big benefit to how a player is developed or formed and might make him ready for a bigger challenge, for playing for a first team."
Some MLS teams offer many of the same things – but the overall quality of the soccer education is inferior.
When Te Kloese was head of the youth academy at Tigres in Monterrey, he brought in a dozen young Mexican-American players across the border. Now, he estimates two or three players on every Mexican youth national team were born and mostly raised in the U.S. – about 15 percent of each generation.
Why? Well, the choices a young prospect makes are calculated and unambiguous: he goes where he thinks he’ll do best. Right now, that’s in Mexico, which, to borrow a political cliché, is winning the future.