Concacaf Nations League a tricky proposition for Mexico

Even if El Tri fans dismiss the new tournament, they’ll also demand their team win the whole thing

The Concacaf Nations League draw took place Wednesday. Unlike most events in Las Vegas, it’s been hard to get heads to turn. 

Even after the success of the concept in Europe, fans in the Concacaf region have been slow to warm to the idea coming to these shores.  

It’s understandable, in a way.  

Concacaf has fewer big-ticket teams, and fans of Mexico, the United States and Costa Rica often are flustered as their teams roll through regional competition, only to be stymied when coming up against teams with more talent. 

The draw itself isn’t what could make this a treacherous competition for Mexico. It’s that attitude. 

Bermuda, with respect to the team after it secured its first-ever Gold Cup berth, still is below the level needed to test El Tri. Panama, on the other hand, has presented Mexico with challenges in the past and likely will do so again this time around. 

There was the 2014 World Cup qualification match in which Raul Jimenez’s bicycle kick was the only thing that kept Mexico in contention for Brazil, a 2015 Gold Cup game that really should’ve gone the other way and even a qualifier in Panama City in 2016 in which Los Canaleros bottled up Mexico and came away with a critical draw. In fact, the last dozen meetings between Mexico and Panama have ended as a stalemate or been decided by a single goal. 

The problem is that El Tri fans won’t accept that. Any result less than winning the Nations League group will be seen as a failure. Even as the same fans and commentators are labeling the competition worthless for making Mexico play games against teams like upstart Bermuda that they view as lessers, they’ll expect them to lift the trophy in March. The final round could feature other Concacaf powers like the U.S. and Costa Rica, perhaps rematches of games Mexico will need to win at the Gold Cup. 

The Nations League format undoubtedly helps the teams in the region trying to punch up much more than it helps the powers like Mexico.  

Why shouldn’t it, though? Concacaf is a confederation made up of 41 associations. The majority of those are more like Bermuda or Saint Lucia than Mexico.  

Some commentators even have suggested El Tri should be more content if it ends up in second place in the group, freeing up the March window for more friendly matches.  

First off, Tata Martino isn’t the type of manager to aim for anything less than winning. More pertinent, looking to finish second leaves a thin margin of error. Not only would being relegated to League B be wildly embarrassing, it also would mean an entire year of matches against teams that truly are below Mexico’s current talent level. 

Perhaps Martino will use the tournament to give young players an opportunity in competitive action. Surely that is worth something as well. Mexico should be able to thump Bermuda using a team like the one the Argentine manager used against Paraguay – or even one made up of the Liga MX-based microcycles Martino is overseeing. That could be another way to squeeze value out of the competition. 

The March friendly matches were against quality South American opposition and Mexico still rolled in both games. Is that really better preparation for the World Cup than playing competitive games against the region’s best? Especially with European teams competing in their own Nations League, the number of top-tier sides available to play in friendly matches in March is shrinking. You can’t play Argentina every window. El Tri played Argentina, without Messi, twice in November. Remember how much we learned from that or how many players have cited that as fundamental for their development. Yeah, me either. 

The Nations League will be tricky for Mexico to navigate. If things go poorly, it really will capture people’s attention. Do well, and the competition will be derided as unimportant. It will be up to Martino and his staff not only to decide how to manage the tournament but also to manage the expectations should they choose to take alternative lineups to certain matches. The best strategy, as always, is to do everything possible to win. 

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