Typically, when someone asks whether you want the good or the bad news first, you start with the bad.
And as it pertains to El Tri, bad is an understatement.
The 2022 World Cup marked the first in which the Mexican men’s national team failed to reach past the group stage since 1978. For seven consecutive World Cups, entering the Round of 16 was a bare minimum ask for a nation often aspiring for more but at least remaining competitive for decades, being among the best of the CONCACAF —North American, Central American, and Caribbean— teams.
“We’re embarrassed, and we have to apologize,” Mexican national team sporting director Jaime Ordiales said in a press conference, which also confirmed the finality of Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino as team manager. “It’s necessary to face this failure, and this makes us responsible to have to show the professional embarrassment that we have.”
On Martino, Ordinales said his contract was up, and his time was over.
“With a failure like this, it is impossible for him to continue,” he said. “I know he is a hard worker—I’ve seen him every day. But we work for the national team, and the best thing to do right now is to look elsewhere.”
Mexico was banned from competition in 1990 due to the Cachirules scandal of 1988, in which the country knowingly fielded overage players in that year’s CONCACAF Under-20 Championship. Mexico had hosted the World Cup just two years before, in 1986, reaching the coveted quinto partido —meaning a quarterfinal berth in the Cup— their best showing since 1970.
And they haven’t reached it since.
Before this year’s Cup, El Tri hadn’t been eliminated in group play since 1978, and while they’ve generally dominated most of their CONCACAF counterparts over the past century or so, the gap has narrowed in recent years. Of the CONCACAF nations, Mexico has qualified for the most World Cups, with 17, followed by the United States with 11, then Costa Rica with six, and everyone else under four.
Since its first year in 1991, the CONCACAF Gold Cup has served as the primary fútbol competition for teams in the Caribbean, North America, and Central America. Mexico has taken first place eight times. Only the United States (seven) and Canada (one) have won Gold Cups. Mexico and the U.S. have met in seven of the 16 Gold Cup Championships, with Mexico winning five, but Team USA more recently swung the momentum in its direction, defeating Mexico 1-0 in the 2021 Gold Cup Final.
And now, after their poor showing in the 2022 World Cup, Mexico faces a reckoning.
They were ousted in embarrassing fashion, needing an additional goal to potentially enter the Round of 16 after going goalless in a loss to Argentina and ending in a draw with Poland. They channeled a do-or-die spirit against Saudi Arabia, but allowed a goal in the final moments.
Ahead of what will be a North American-hosted 2026 World Cup —with matches held in Canada, the United States, and Mexico— Mexico’s fútbol future is more uncertain than ever.
Even midfielder Luiz Chávez was flummoxed by Martino’s strategy.
“In the second game,” he said, referencing Mexico’s 2-0 loss to Argentina on November 26, “we didn’t understand what he wanted us to do. We defended well for a period of time, but we did not create any chances. So goals could not be scored, and we ended up losing that game. Personally, I feel very sad. We stopped doing a lot of things in the first two games, and we reacted a little too late. We hoped to be able to qualify but, in the end, we didn’t make it… I’m leaving very down about it.”
On the flip side, Team USA returned to the Cup for the first time since 2014, after not qualifying in 2018, and reached the Round of 16 after three mostly encouraging performances from a team who clocked in as the second youngest roster in the tournament. The U.S. has developmental successes and a host of talented players competing in the world’s top leagues, which are in Europe. And, in general, Team USA is filled with ascending talents.
Christian Pulisic turned 24 in September, which means he’ll only be 27 when the World Cup comes around, returning to the summer season. Team captain Tyler Adams turned 23 in February. Tim Weah and Josh Sargent will turn 23 in February. Giovanni Reyna and Yunus Musah turned 20 last month.
These are all players you saw consistently throughout the USMNT’s 2022 run.
In totality, just three American players on the 26-man roster for the 2022 World Cup were at least 30 years old—Tim Ream is the only one of the three who played consistently. By the 2026 Cup, only another seven will have turned 30. The United States also has players who were left off the 2022 roster, like 19-year-old Ricardo Pepi, who could’ve helped their attack.
Mexico’s top players? Team captain Andrés Guardado is 36. Vice-captain and star goalie Guillermo Ochoa is 37. Third captain Héctor Moreno will be 35 next month. Of their 26-man roster for 2022, 10 are 30 or older, and another six will be at least 30 by the 2026 Cup.
Of the USMNT’s World Cup roster, eight are playing in England’s Premier League, two are in Spain’s La Liga, two are in Germany’s Bundesliga, two are in Italy’s Serie A, and one is in France’s Ligue 1. Those are widely considered the best five leagues in the world.
For those scoring at home, that’s 15 of 26 players playing with clubs in the top leagues in the world.
Comparatively, for Mexico, only three national team players are in the top European leagues: two in Serie A and one in the Premier League. Sixteen of the remaining 23 are playing in Mexico’s domestic league, Liga MX, which is ninth in the world, according to Globalfootballrankings.com.
Former professional footballer turned ESPN analyst Herculez Gomez, who spoke to Latino Rebels about dual-nationals shaping the United States-Mexico rivalry last year, discussed the lack of European-bound Mexican fútbol stars on an episode of Futbol Americas earlier this year.
“I’ve been very critical of Mexican ownerships, of [Liga MX]… But at some point, we need to look at the player,” he said.
“This is what you need to do nowadays, is to put your foot down, take a stance, and leave yourself saying, ‘No, guess what? I don’t wanna take your millions, I know you’re gonna pay me more.’ At some point, the player needs to say, ‘I want this,’” he added, indicating that Mexican players need to take initiative and stand out against the tougher competition in Europe.
Major League Soccer, the top league in the U.S., ranks 15th in the world. It’s the league that formerly housed most of the USMNT’s players, but now, more of America’s top players are competing in Europe than ever, which is why there’s optimism around this particular group of talent.
Additionally, many of Mexico’s young players are coming up domestically, while more players coming from the United States system are leaving for European clubs earlier than they have in previous iterations.
Ultimately, the USMNT has far more signs of hope, given that their players are ascending, competing in top leagues, and have reached the Round of 16 after an eight-year absence. Mexico, meanwhile, just had their worst World Cup showing in decades, with a roster led by highly experienced but old veterans, and now is in desperate need of an immediate culture shift in order to properly navigate the next three and a half years.
Good thing they’re hosts and don’t have to qualify in the 2026 World Cup. Otherwise, who knows what else Alvaro Morales would be declaring about the state of Mexican fútbol.
Bryan Fonseca is an award-winning content creator and sports journalist. He is also the author of Hidalgo Heights, and the founder, host and executive producer of the Ain’t Hard To Tell Podcast and Side Hustle. Twitter: @BryanFonsecaNY