USWNT's shock loss to Mexico is more alarming evidence of a program in decline

CARSON, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 26:  Jaqueline Ovalle #11 of Mexico steals the ball from Becky Sauerbrunn #5 of United States in the first half during Group A - 2024 Concacaf W Gold Cup match at Dignity Health Sports Park on February 26, 2024 in Carson, California. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Mexico's Jacquie Ovalle pounced on a Becky Sauerbrunn mistake to put Mexico ahead of the USWNT on Monday. (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

The USWNT’s 2023 World Cup flop was evidence of a superpower in decline, and just in case you needed more of it, the U.S. women delivered Monday night.

They lost, 2-0, to Mexico for the first time in 14 years, and the second time ever.

Just in case there was any doubt that their 2023 flaws transcended a clueless coach, they sank deeper in their third match of 2024.

And no, they didn’t lose “by a millimeter.” They disproved any lingering notion that the World Cup was a fluke. They were outplayed, outshot, out-everythinged by a regional rival who endured decades as an overmatched, underfunded punching bag — but is now much closer to an equal.

There was optimism bubbling around the USWNT this month, prior to Monday. There were youngsters impressing, a disruptive coach incoming, and suspicions resurfacing — suspicions that 2023 had been a blip. The U.S., after all, had conceded only two shots on target in four World Cup games. The Americans won only one of the four; but Expected Goal (xG) models suggested they deserved to win all four. So, perhaps we were overreacting? Perhaps the furor and fallout were extreme?

That logic crumbled Monday night in Southern California.

Mexico’s goals were golazos, but also gleaming examples of an underlying truth.

Mexico took 13 shots worth a combined 0.88 xG; the USWNT took nine worth 0.33 xG.

Mexico earned nine corners; the U.S. earned one, with its lone shot on target, a tame 25-yard effort from fullback Emily Fox.

Mexico, for perhaps the first time ever, was better than the USWNT.

“Mexico,” U.S. midfielder Sam Coffey said, “deserved to win.”

That, of course, does not mean the Mexican program is better than the American one. But they are accelerating in opposite directions, on long-term trajectories that might someday converge somewhere beneath women’s soccer’s elite. Propelled by the growth of Liga MX Femenil, Mexico is rising; hindered by a malfunctioning youth pipeline, the USWNT is falling. And the consequences of deep-seated defects now seem clear.

They were as evident as ever Monday, in a group stage finale at the inaugural CONCACAF W Gold Cup. Mexico went at the USWNT, and U.S. players all across the field repeatedly failed to solve pressure. Their problems were technical and tactical. Their sloppiness ceded control of the game.

In possession, they had simple structural foundations, and a defined shape, with a fullback inverting. But they had no nuanced ideas or, it appeared, depth of thought. They lacked creativity and coordination. “We found some pockets here and there,” forward Alex Morgan said, “but not nearly enough.” There were no synchronized movements, no manipulation of angles, no reading of cues.

There was, instead, the same staleness and on-ball panic that defined their short stay in New Zealand last summer.

Mexico, on the other hand, was calculated — and in many ways, it out-USWNTed the USWNT. Its defenders would draw in U.S. forwards, then play long; its midfielders and forwards won the day by winning second balls and duels they didn’t used to win. Jacquie Ovalle forced Becky Sauerbrunn into a 37th-minute mistake, and put Mexico ahead.

For decades, it was the U.S. that pounced on mistakes. It was the U.S. that overwhelmed regional opponents with speed, strength and athleticism. Monday was an alarming expression of what happens when those athletic advantages shrink. Mexico — like Portugal and the Netherlands last summer — can now hold its own in physical battles. And with newfound structure, it can slow or even stifle the USWNT.

The U.S., meanwhile, has tried to transform into a better pass-and-move team. It has seen women’s soccer mature and evolve; it has tried to keep up. But its players — still, in many cases, physically superior — don’t seem capable.

This, of course, is a developmental flaw, not merely a product of present-day coaching. It was laid bare at the World Cup, and hasn’t yet been addressed at scale. Neither interim coach Twila Kilgore nor incoming coach Emma Hayes can singlehandedly fix it.

The irony of Monday was that the American system actually produced Mexico’s second goalscorer. Mayra Pelayo, raised in West Palm Beach, Florida, was once a U.S. youth prospect; more than a decade later, she drove a dagger into the USWNT.

Her skill speaks to the specific functionality of the American system. As many experts and insiders now acknowledge, it is designed to produce thousands of very good players, but relatively few international-level stars.

It is, to some extent, changing. The best of the best teenage girls are bypassing college and going pro, as many elite players in Europe do. Among those pioneers are Jaedyn Shaw and Olivia Moultrie, teens who brighten the USWNT’s future — and mitigate Monday’s freak-out. Moultrie scored twice in the team’s Gold Cup-opening win over the Dominican Republic. Shaw scored twice in a 4-0 win over Argentina three days later. Neither started against Mexico.

Naomi Girma was also on the bench, as was up-and-coming midfielder Korbin Albert. The USWNT had already clinched progression to the Gold Cup quarterfinals. In the immediate term, this situation isn't dire. The U.S. could still win the tournament, and could still win Olympic gold this summer, because its roster is still stocked with talent.

But it has fallen — first stealthily, now flagrantly — from the women’s soccer mountaintop. The Mexico loss will be framed by some as a wake-up call; but no, those are no longer necessary. This is a team, and a program, with real problems.