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Mexico’s complicated path to prominence goes through USWNT

A 2023 World Cup berth is on the line Monday night for Diana Garcia and Mexico. (Alfredo Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images)

When the final Concacaf W draw in April set the groups of the last round of the tournament, all eyes eventually landed on Group A. As unlikely as it is to have a “Group of Death” in a two-group format, Jamaica, Mexico and Haiti would have to compete against each other and the U.S. for two automatic qualification spots to the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

As May and June passed, and the USWNT lost key players to injury while Mexico blew through much of its competition, anticipation for a group stage upset grew. Adding to the intrigue, the games were to be played in Monterrey, Mexico — a more hostile qualifying environment for the World No. 1 team than they’d seen in years.

The USWNT and Mexico, historically, haven’t been pitted in the type of rivalry we’ve seen on the men’s side, but this year seemed to be trending toward an inflection point that could set a new tone between the two programs.

What actually occurred over the last week didn’t quite meet that expected, giving us a glimpse into a region that hasn’t changed in the ways we projected. A 1-0 loss to Jamaica last Monday set them on the wrong path, and a 3-0 loss to Haiti on Thursday has pushed them to the brink of the unthinkable.

Mexico will need all three points against the USWNT on Monday night to even have a shot at the inter-continental playoff spot given to Group A’s third-place finisher.

In addition to Haiti’s big step forward, the shock in the standings comes from all the progress Mexico had made in recent years to prepare for this exact moment. In 2016, the country founded Liga MX Femenil with the intention of developing domestic talent into a formidable national team that can represent Concacaf on the biggest stages. In 2018, Mexico failed to qualify for the three available spots for the 2019 World Cup, most notably falling 2-0 to eventual inter-continental playoff team Panama.

That failure devastated fans and players alike, but belief in the process kept the team pushing forward. The Mexican Football Federation identified that the future lay in the strength of the next generation, and after strong performances as the coach of the U-17 and U-20 ranks, former player Monica Vergara was named first-team manager in January 2021.

Vergara’s tenure up until a week ago had been considered a great success. She had identified talent both in Liga MX Femenil and abroad, and she had created a free-flowing attack that scored goals with ease. She also appeared to instill a belief into the player pool that they could compete with anyone, as evidenced in the team’s two results against Olympic gold medalists Canada at home last November.

Mexico advanced through the newly established Concacaf W preliminary rounds in completely dominant fashion and entered the final stage of the tournament on a 10-game winning streak, having scored 52 goals in that span.

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Mexican national team star Maria Sánchez is a product of both Liga MX Femenil and the NWSL. (Manuel Guadarrama/Getty Images)

So, when Vergara told the media before Mexico’s first match against Jamaica that they were “going to see a Mexico that they’ve never seen before,” there was reason to believe she was right. In reality, the game felt more haunted by the team’s 2018 failure than the clean slate they had been building toward. Vergara changed her starters against Jamaica, presenting a lineup that prioritized emerging talent without the benefit of experience. Even before the first whistle, the selection changes at the last minute undermined the idea that Mexico felt secure going into the biggest games of the qualifying cycle.

On the field, the team played with a similar aimlessness, as an early goal by Jamaica’s Khadija Shaw left Mexico scrambling for an equalizer. El Tri Femenil sent cross after hopeful cross into the box, rendering the attack both endless and predictable. Against Haiti, belief began to wane as they gave up two penalties and one exceptional free kick. While goals against are expected in tournaments like Concacaf W, Mexico’s lack of attacking bite sunk them before they could even get a foothold in the competition. The team enters Monday’s game still looking for its first goal.

They also didn’t benefit from a dip in the USWNT’s form. In a cruel twist of expectations, the young and relatively un-capped U.S. team has looked as relaxed and confident as they would on home soil.

Some of the tightness the USWNT showed in the Haiti match gave way to flexibility and freedom against a tired Jamaica side, with Sophia Smith scoring one of the best goals in the tournament just four minutes into the game. Jamaica couldn’t match their energy from Game 1 against the world champions, and the USWNT ran away with a 5-0 win while rotating lineups. They clinched a World Cup berth later that day after Mexico fell to Haiti.

This USWNT qualifying squad is a far cry from the roster we saw in France in 2019, and it’s also not the exact team we’re going to see in 2023, but their ability to slot new players in has been a quiet strength of the group.

Vlatko Andonovski’s roster selection came under a fair amount of criticism, with creative attacking midfielders coming at the expense of the defensive midfield. As the Tokyo Olympics made clear, Lindsey Horan is not a long-term solution at the No. 6 and Andi Sullivan hasn’t been able to carry heavy minutes for the team in some time. Losing two starting center backs also raised red flags, as the U.S. depth was clearly going to be tested throughout the tournament.

Those deficiencies, however, didn’t sink the team in their first game, and in their second, they firmly overcame them. Naomi Girma looked just as calm and collected as advertised in her third cap against Jamaica. In fact, the NWSL rookie’s vision in distribution opened the field up for Smith’s first goal. And as the USWNT took a 2-0 lead within the first 10 minutes, any hope for another Jamaica upset seemed to fade.

The storylines all lead to Monday, when instead of granting a World Cup berth, the Mexico-U.S. match might follow old patterns instead. The USWNT does not want to meet Canada in the semifinals, and will do everything it can to get all nine points and set up a likelier meeting with Costa Rica. They’re also in the home stretch of the competition, meaning that they’re less likely to rotate within games as they aim for the tournament’s single-guaranteed 2024 Olympic spot.

For Mexico, the work put into the last four years should have meant that this game against the U.S. was an opportunity, and not an ultimatum. They’ve been bested by two good teams — Jamaica is the region’s established third-best squad with a very good new coach, and Haiti is bursting with young talent — and such is the injustice of the tournament’s draw. But they’re now fighting off the inevitability of defeat and, beyond that, an uncertain future.

After their appearance in the 2015 World Cup, Mexico bought into investment patterns within women’s world football that are supposed to work after a number of years. U.S. Soccer created the NWSL to establish a solid pipeline to the first-team USWNT, and the Americans have won two World Cups within the 10 years of the league’s existence. Across the world, club dominance has since translated to strong national team presences, as the emergence of Spain, France, and England in this year’s Euros can attest.

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Trinity Rodman and Mallory Pugh are two pillars of the USWNT's future. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

History tells us that, eventually, Mexico’s investment in its own domestic league will pay dividends on the international stage.

Whether Mexico walks away with the result necessary to have a chance at the next World Cup or not, those in leadership should understand that this tournament is simply a reflection of how difficult the climb can be. Liga MX Femenil is an increasingly competitive market for top players, Mexican stars are doing well in other leagues, and the national team’s future remains bright even if this cycle goes sideways.

From there, a rivalry against the U.S. remains an achievable — if not delayed — dream. Diana Ordoñez and María Sánchez are establishing themselves in the NWSL, and Liga MX Femenil has already attracted top USWNT prospect Mia Fishel.

Regardless of other results, Mexico can take a big step toward its long-term goals with a win Monday night. If you’re a believer in a healthy Concacaf region, you might in fact be rooting for it.

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

2023 MVP Breanna Stewart Drops 31 Points in Liberty’s Huge Win Over Fever

breanna stewart and jonquel jones of the new york liberty celebrate win over indiana fever
Stewie and the Liberty dominated the court throughout Thursday's Fever home opener. (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty dominated Indiana on Thursday night, winning by a whopping 36 points in the Fever's home opener. 

A sold-out crowd of 17,274 was in attendance to watch as star rookie Caitlin Clark finished the 102-66 defeat with nine points, seven rebounds, and six assists. It’s the first time since January 2021 — her freshman season at Iowa — that Clark's been held to single-digit scoring. 

"The physicality is definitely up there... I'm easily pushed off screens," she told reporters after the loss. "The game seems a little fast for me right now. The more I play and the more comfortable I get, it's going to slow down a little bit. It will be easier for me to make reads, see things develop."

The Fever were outscored by a combined margin of 57 points in their first two games — the largest two-game point deficit in WNBA season-opening history, according to @ESPNStatsInfo.

"We've got to get to a level of toughness," Fever coach Christie Sides in her own postgame remarks. "When things are going south on us, we're not stopping the bleeding."

"I have great perspective on everything that happens," Clark added. "It was the same in my college career. There were some moments that were absolutely amazing. And there were some moments I was not happy with how I played and how my team performed. That's just life, that's just basketball."

Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu, who herself experienced a rocky rookie season following a much-hyped college career, offered up some insight on the matter.

"In this league, there are tough defenses all centered around not letting you get the ball, trapping, not letting you score," Ionescu said. "There were many factors that played into what was a tough first season for me in the league, but it helps you be able to figure it out. You have to have those experiences."

But it was reigning league MVP Breanna Stewart that truly stole the show, racking up 31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals, and two blocks on the night.

"In general, I just wanted to come out more aggressive coming off of last game," Stewart said after putting up the 24th 30-point game in her career.

Stewart she also commended the fans inside Indianapolis's packed Gainbridge Fieldhouse, noting that she hopes that level of support to continue across the WNBA.

"This is how you want every game to be and when it's a sell-out crowd, it gives you a similar playoff atmosphere feel," she said. "People want to be a part of this and the thing now is to continue to sustain it, continue to take the momentum that we have and turn it into something more."

WNBA Commissioner Admits to ‘Faulty’ Charter Rollout

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert at 2024 wnba draft
Cathy Engelbert at the 2024 WNBA Draft in New York. (Cora Veltman/Sportico via Getty Images)

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitted to a "faulty rollout" of the new charter travel initiative on Thursday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Ahead of Tuesday's season opener, it was announced that the only teams flying private this week would be Indiana and Minnesota. The announcement came mere days after the league made a new charter flight program for all WNBA teams public. At the time, they said it would be implemented "as soon as we have the planes."

But as two teams out of 12 chartered to their first games of the season, others like the Atlanta Dream and Chicago Sky were forced to fly commercial.

A town hall meeting between Engelbert and the players was held in response to the confusion. Everything from the league's new media rights deal to private travel was covered in the meeting, with players submitting their questions ahead of time. Sky center Elizabeth Williams told Sun-Times reporter Annie Costabile afterwards that cross-country flights were prioritized.

"Flights that are across the country like [the Lynx] going to Seattle, crossing multiple time zones, or flights that usually require a connection, those were the priorities," Williams said. "That’s why New York didn’t go to DC with a charter, but Minny goes to Seattle."

What’s unclear under that metric is that the Atlanta Dream played the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday, which could technically be classified as a cross-country flight. 

On Tuesday, rookie forward Angel Reese shared a photo on her Instagram story lamenting the league's use of commercial flights.

"Just praying that this is one of the last commercial flights the Sky has to fly," Reese posted. The team still has at least three commercial flights awaiting them in the near future.

"Obviously, I think all teams should be able to get chartered," Reese told the Sun-Times. "But I know moving forward... going in the right direction, being able to have some teams [chartering] is cool. Within the next weeks, everybody will be flying charter, which will be really good."

On Thursday, Lindsay Schnell of USAToday Sports confirmed that the league intends to have all teams on charter flights by May 21st.

Brazil Wins Bid for 2027 Women’s World Cup Host

fifa womens world cup trophy on display
The FIFA Women's World Cup trophy on display in Bangkok after Brazil was announced as the 2027 host country. (Thananuwat Srirasant - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Brazil has been named the host for the 2027 Women’s World Cup, with FIFA announced early Friday. 

The decision came after a vote at the 74th FIFA Congress in Bangkok, with Brazil earning 119 votes to the joint European bid’s 78. 

This will be Brazil’s first time hosting the Women’s World Cup, with the country having hosted the men’s World Cup twice before in 1950 and 2014. It will also be the first Women’s World Cup held in South America. The tournament will follow the same 32-team format as the 2023 WWC in Australia and New Zealand.

Brazil winning the bid was not entirely surprising after FIFA issued a report just last week, stating that the Brazilian bid had pulled ahead as host following technical inspection. After evaluation, Brazil was given a score of 4.0 out of 5, compared to the 3.7 awarded to the Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

Brazil ranked higher in a number of key areas, including stadiums, accommodations, fan zones, and transport infrastructure. Though considered to be a frontrunner, the US and Mexico withdrew their joint bid prior to the technical inspection period, saying they would instead focus their efforts on 2031.

On Friday, Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF) president Ednaldo Rodrigues called it a "victory." 

"We knew we would be celebrating a victory for South American women's soccer and for women," he told reporters. "You can be sure, with no vanity, we will accomplish the best World Cup for women."

"We are working on a transformation, not only for the country but for the continent," added bid team operational manager Valesca Araujo.

Brazil intends to use 10 of the venues utilized at the 2014 men’s World Cup, including holding the final in Rio de Janeiro on July 25th. The CBF's proposal outlines that the 2027 tournament run from June 24th through the end of July. Last summer’s World Cup began at the end of July and concluded on August 19th.

Another notable element of Brazil's newly unveiled plan to grow of the women’s game is that "all [men’s] clubs wishing to take part in high-level national and continental competitions must now provide a structure for a women’s team." While the definition of "structure" was not specifically identified, the country has set targets with CONMEBOL to help increase the number of women’s club teams in the country.

In last week's inspection findings, FIFA noted that selecting Brazil as the next WWC host could "have a tremendous impact on women's football in the region."

Chelsea Eyes Weekend Finale With WSL Title in Sight

chelsea players celebrate win against tottenham in the wsl
Chelsea beat Tottenham on Wednesday, moving to the top of the table in an effort to win departing coach Emma Hayes some silverware. (John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Chelsea did what they needed to do on Wednesday in order to make Saturday's slate of season-ending WSL fixtures interesting: Beat Tottenham.

The Blues are now number one in the league, with an edge over Manchester City on goal differential thanks to an eight-goal outing against Bristol City last week. 

Yesterday's result tees up a league finale for the books as Chelsea looks to send coach Emma Hayes off with another trophy to add to her cabinet. The Blues will play FA Cup winner Manchester City at Old Trafford on Saturday, while City is away at Aston Villa.

"We will be leaving nothing on the pitch, we will be giving everything and no matter what the result is," Chelsea midfielder Erin Cuthbert said after Wednesday's win. "At least we can look each other in the eye and say we gave everything."

It makes for a thrilling end to Chelsea's Emma Hayes era, as the decorated WSL coach will take over the USWNT in June. And it comes after Hayes all but conceded the title race early this month after Chelsea fell to Liverpool 4-3.

"I think the title is done," Hayes said at the time. "Of course, mathematically, it's not, but I think the title is done. Our job between now and the end of the season is to keep pushing until the end, but I think it will be very difficult.

"We will never give up. But the title is far from us; it's not in our hands. I think City are deserving, their consistency has put them in that position. Of course, we will go to the end, but I don't think the title will be going to us this year."

Be it mind games or Hayes truly thinking her team was that far off, her words lit something in Chelsea. Their following two performances showed the team’s determination to have a shot at some silverware.

As for Saturday's schedule, Hayes believes her team is facing the "tougher of the two games."

"It's a fitting finale for me, being my final game," she told BBC Sport. "As I said to the players if someone gives you a second chance in life, make sure you don't need a third one. We're in the position we want to be in, and we'll give it everything on Saturday no matter what."

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