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Column: How Mexico scored a 'historic' Gold Cup win over U.S. women

Mexico midfielder Mayra Pelayo-Bernal, right, celebrates her goal with defender Karen Luna during a CONCACAF Gold Cup women's soccer tournament match against the United States, Monday, Feb. 26, 2024, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

For years the dominant U.S. women’s soccer team has been warning anyone who would listen that the rest of the world was catching up.

On Monday, the Americans finally were caught, with Mexico pushing the four-time world champions all over the field in a 2-0 win that was more historic than it was surprising.

“Over the last five years or so you’ve just seen it,” striker Alex Morgan said. “Ten years ago, 15 years ago was way different with the scorelines than it is today. Teams are continuing to improve and evolve and can compete at the highest level.

“From the bottom to the top, there’s just not that much of a gap anymore.”

Whatever gap remained closed with a thud in a CONCACAF W Gold Cup group-play game at Dignity Health Sports Park, with Mexico outhustling, outrunning, outshooting and completely outplaying a U.S. team that clearly has lost its swagger.

Read more: U.S. women's soccer loses to Mexico for first time in nearly 14 years in Gold Cup shocker

“Mexico was a better team,” Morgan said. “Mexico just beat us all around with their aggression, with getting to the first and second balls, with executing set pieces, throws-ins, restarts. Whatever it was, they did that very well.”

And as a result, the Americans lost for the first time in 56 games in California, for the first time in 22 games anywhere and for just the second time to Mexico.

It had been 16 months since the U.S. gave up two goals in a game and 23 years since it lost to a CONCACAF opponent at home.

All that is gone now.

“It’s a historic victory,” midfielder Jacqueline Ovalle, whose goal in the 38th minute put Mexico ahead to stay, said in Spanish. “I think this is the start of a new era. Women’s football in Mexico is growing little by little. We’re making giant strides. We’re competing with the best players in the world.”

The seeds for Monday’s win, Mexico’s first over the U.S. since 2010, were planted in the summer of 2022 when its soccer federation fired women’s coach Monica Vergara after a disastrous performance in qualifying for the 2023 Women's World Cup and 2024 Olympics. A month later Pedro López, who helped build Spain’s world championship roster while coaching four junior national teams there, was named Vergara’s replacement.

Mexico hasn’t lost since.

“The obvious thing is the change in leadership,” forward Diana Ordóñez said “We’re not afraid. We went into this game to win. What happened was no surprise. Mexican football has changed a lot.”

Read more: Analysis: With Mexico soccer in a dire state, its president searches for a miracle comeback

Coming into the tournament, López hinted that his team was ready for big things, calling Mexico a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

"Clearly that wolf was seen today," he said afterward.

For the U.S., meanwhile, the result set off alarm bells.  Whether it’s because the U.S. is declining or the rest of the world is advancing, the fact is the Americans, after reaching the finals of the first five Olympic tournaments, have just one bronze medal to show for their two most recent trips. And last summer they exited the World Cup in the round of 16, their worst performance ever.

On Monday, the U.S. was dominated in the midfield and mounted little in the way of offense, testing Esthefanny Barreras — the first Mexican keeper to shut out the U.S. — just once. And the longer the U.S. chased the game, the more its poise turned to panic.

The first score came after a free kick, with Karla Nieto lobbing a ball forward for Ovalle. The Mexico attacker surprised U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn and took her attempted clearance off her chest, then raced into the penalty area to send a soft, left-footed chip over goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and under the crossbar.

Mayra Pelayo, who came on in the 81st minute, put the game out of reach in stoppage time, driving a right-footed shot from distance over Naeher into the upper right corner of the goal.

The victory was something of an inside job. Eleven of the 15 players Mexico used were either born in the U.S. or played there, including Ordóñez, who was born in Riverside; Pelayo, a Florida native; and Barreras, who is from Phoenix.

Ordóñez and Pelayo both were called up to U.S. age-group national teams but chose to leave and play for Mexico at the senior level.

“Beating the U.S. for the first time on their turf is a special feeling,” Ordóñez said, switching to English. “Since I was a kid I played for the United States. Then I changed shirts and now I represent Mexico. To beat the United States is something unforgettable.”

Mexico, which recruits heavily in the U.S., has proved wildly successful at coaxing dual nationals to play for a senior team that has improved dramatically from the days when its roster was filled with dual nationals who spoke no Spanish and didn’t know the words to the national anthem.

Mexico also has benefited from the investment made in its domestic league. The team it brought to the W Gold Cup featured 20 players from the Liga MX Femenil and just three from the NWSL. Compare that to the roster Mexico used in Olympic qualifying in 2016, the year before the Liga MX began play. That team featured seven players from American colleges, five who had no team affiliation and one who played for an amateur youth club in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Women’s football in Mexico is growing,” said midfielder María Sánchez, another dual national who was born in Idaho and has played professionally in both the U.S. and Mexico. “We have a league. We have more players in leagues like the NWSL. We can compete against the best in the world like the United States.”

Mexico (2-0-1) still has a long way to go to win the Gold Cup, although Monday’s victory means it won its group, giving it a better seed in the field for this weekend’s quarterfinals, while the U.S. (2-1-0) advanced as the group runner-up. The pairings for the knockout rounds will be determined when group play in the 12-team tournament concludes Wednesday.

Read more: U.S. shuts out Argentina to advance in CONCACAF W Gold Cup play

Mexico, López promised, won’t be resting on its laurels regardless of who it faces next.

“If we lose in the quarterfinals, then the beautiful win of today is useless,” he said. "We go down in history as the team that only beat the United States one day."

Maybe. But they also could go down in history as the team that proved the U.S. is no longer invincible.

“It just shows how far the game is coming and there’s no easy games anymore,” U.S. interim coach Twila Kilgore said. “If we don’t take care of business and we don’t execute, this is to be expected.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.