Commentary: Copa América loss to Venezuela is a new low for Mexico's national team

Just when you thought Mexico’s soccer team couldn’t sink any lower, El Tri takes out a shovel and tunnels a little deeper.

The latest excavation project took place Wednesday when Mexico dug itself a hole it may not be able to climb out of in an embarrassing 1-0 Copa América loss to Venezuela before a disappointed pro-Mexican crowd of 72,773 at SoFi Stadium. Drawn into a group with Jamaica, Ecuador and Venezuela, none of which are ranked inside the top 30 in the world, the bare minimum — the minimum — Mexico had to achieve in the tournament was to finish in the top two and advance to the knockout stages.

With Wednesday’s loss, Mexico may not be able to clear even that low bar. If it doesn’t win Sunday’s group-play final against Ecuador, El Tri’s Copa América is over. Venezuela, meanwhile, is on to the next round.

“The situation is clear. We need to win the next game,” midfielder Luis Romo said. “It’s a knockout match.”

With the World Cup returning to Mexico in less than two years, the national team program is in tatters and the panic in the country’s soccer federation is real. It took years of neglect and mismanagement at all levels of Mexican soccer for the national team to fall to this level, so it’s unrealistic to think things can be fixed in 23 months.

But that’s all Mexico has before the World Cup kicks off in Mexico City.

The decline began six years ago in Russia, where the average age of Mexico’s team was just a few months under 30, making it the second-oldest roster in the World Cup. Mexico beat defending champion Germany in its opener, then limped into the round of 16 where it lost to Brazil. But the promised post-tournament rejuvenation of the team never happened, so when Mexico went to Qatar four years later, it once again had the second-oldest team in the World Cup.

And this time it got blitzed, beating only Saudi Arabia en route to its earliest World Cup exit in 44 years. Two years later, it still hasn’t recovered and Mexico’s long-awaited youth movement is nowhere to be found.

If anything, it’s retreated.

Mexico’s U-23 team, which won a bronze medal in the last Olympics, didn’t even qualify for this summer’s Games in Paris. Mexico didn’t qualify for last year’s U-20 World Cup either and won just once in four games in the U-17 tournament. (The women’s team, meanwhile, hasn’t played in a World Cup since 2015 or in an Olympic tournament since 2004. The collapse has been astonishingly complete.)

The talent pool that once fed Mexico’s national team has gone dry. So when 38-year-old goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and backup keeper Luis Malagón were ruled out of the Copa América with injuries, coach Jaime Lozano — more about him in a minute — did not have a goalie with more than six games of international experience to call up.

When forwards Hirving Lozano and the oft-injured Raúl Jiménez were ruled out of Copa, Mexico started Colombian-born Julián Quiñones, who made his first appearance for Mexico last fall, a month after becoming a Mexican citizen. On Wednesday, the high-strung Quiñones committed the foul that set up Salomón Rondón’s game-winning penalty kick.

Not only is the cavalry not coming, it doesn’t even exist. The depth that once made Mexico’s national team one of the strongest in the Americas has vanished and now El Tri is losing to Venezuela, the only South American country never to play in a World Cup.

And it’s not just losing to Venezuela, In fact, Mexico has lost four of its last six games, failing to score in three of those four losses. And it has won just half its 20 games under Lozano.

If Mexico doesn’t beat Ecuador and bows out of the Copa América after three games, it’s likely the federation will use the coach — the third in 18 months — as a scapegoat. But it’s hard to see how this is Lozano’s fault. He can only play the players the federation gives him — and at the moment those players aren’t very good.

Maybe you can blame it instead on the Curse of Chicharito. Tata Martino banished Javier Hernández, Mexico’s all-time leading scorer, from the national team 14 months after the 2018 World Cup — and a few hours after he scoring the first goal in a 3-0 win over the U.S.

Since then, Mexico has won just one trophy, hasn’t beaten the U.S. in seven tries, made its earliest World Cup exit in more than four decades, failed to qualify for the Olympic Games for the first time in 16 years and is on its way out of the Copa América after just two games.

OK, so maybe that’s not an air-tight theory. But as explanations go, the Curse of Chicharito is probably as good as any other.

What is clear, however, is that Mexico has fallen and it can’t get up. The national program is in the worst shape it’s been in decades and the federation has no road map for getting it back on track.

A win Sunday could save both Mexico’s Copa América and Lozano’s job — for the time being, at least. But it’s unlikely to solve the deeper problems, and with the World Cup fast approaching, there appears to be precious little time for the federation to complete the massive overhaul El Tri needs.

Maybe they should just bring back Chicharito. It couldn’t hurt.

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