Mexico Finally Killed Off The Old USWNT For Good

Highlights don’t always tell the story, but in the case of the United States women’s national team’s 2-0 defeat to Mexico in L.A. on Monday night, they absolutely, embarrassingly do. There’s Kiana Palacios dribbling to her left, dragging every USWNT defender with her, and passing it into a nutty amount of open space for Karla Nieto, who concusses the crossbar with a powerful shot; on the other end, there’s Lindsey Horan sailing a topographically baffling free kick 15 yards over the goal. There’s Mayra Pelayo charging into the center and unleashing a screamer; on the other end of the pitch, there’s a limp attack playing out at 0.75x speed.

For the first time since Bill Clinton was president, the USWNT has lost on home soil to a CONCACAF opponent. An uninspired, veteran-laden USWNT took the field, predictably enjoyed tons of possession, and, if you watched the 2023 World Cup, predictably failed to craft any truly dangerous chances. The Mexicans, on the other hand, gleefully attacked the acres of open space the USWNT allowed them, and their players had all of the game’s most impressive moments of skill and bravery. This was not the U.S. crashing out in the round of 16 to Sweden last August, where they dominated the match and put 11 shots on goal and were unlucky not to advance; this was a well-deserved 2-0 loss, where Mexico engineered the best five or so chances of the game and played more decisive, creative soccer.

Pelayo only played the final 15 minutes of the match, but her contributions tell the story as neatly as anyone’s. When she was subbed on in the 81st minute, with Mexico up 1-0, manager Pedro López told her, “Be bold.” That she was, first battering the crossbar in the 85th from long distance, then receiving a gorgeous long-ball from Karen Luna, cooking Midge Purce, and scoring a beautiful goal to slam the door shut in stoppage time.

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Though this specific new low is noteworthy for the USWNT, it is merely the latest in an undeniable pattern of progressively lower lows. It is both a USWNT-specific phenomenon as well as a global one. Alex Morgan was right when she said after the game, “Not only CONCACAF, the whole world is continuing to raise their level.” The USWNT of Morgan’s early days—the team that could roll over anyone with pure talent and athleticism, one whose depth was so great that Ali Krieger could say the U.S. had the “best and second-best” teams in the world and have a case—is gone. More accurately, the era in which that team was able to dominate without critical self-examination is gone, as the women’s game has drastically improved to the point that the U.S. has to now carry itself like a normal national team, not a globe-bestriding colossus whose success or failure is in their hands alone.

Current Chelsea boss and future USWNT manager Emma Hayes, who Gets It, is watching this tournament closely (interim manager Twila Kilgore is overseeing this Vlatkoball rerun in the meantime) before she takes over in May. Even though the Mexico defeat didn’t knock the U.S. out of the Gold Cup—a competition the team should still be favorites to win—losing in a way the Americans haven’t lost in 24 years should give Hayes a broader mandate to make larger-order changes. Because that’s what the team needs. This is not a neatly circumscribed failure, one that can be addressed with an isolated change or two. Hayes will have to reshape the way the team plays, seriously reconsider how much to play extremely experienced players and who to mercilessly cut out of the team, and bring the program into a new, more competitive era with the mindset not of conquerors, but feisty contenders.

The Olympics are six months away. As daunting as it will be to enter the tournament as something like an underdog, I’m excited for Hayes’s first tournament in charge. The stakes are high, the need for change is clear, and hopefully this week’s loss will give her the latitude to drag the program into the new era. There is a serious amount of young talent in the pipeline and on this current roster; Naomi Girma, who inexplicably didn’t play against Mexico, is still God’s honest truth, Olivia Moultrie’s got some sauce, and Jaedyn Shaw has four goals in as many months with the USWNT. If the World Cup wasn’t a strong enough sign that the U.S. will have to adapt or die, let Monday’s loss serve as another one. They might not win gold this summer, but they have no choice but to accept their mortality, which is a thrilling opportunity to build something even better.

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