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Absent from NWSL in 2015, Mexico ‘starts from zero’

Noticeably absent from the National Women’s Soccer League this season have been players from one of the league’s three founding federations – Mexico.

The decrease in Mexico players in the NWSL has been drastic. Only four players on the payroll of Federación Mexicana de Fútbol Asociación entered the NWSL season as subsidized players. That number was half of the announced eight subsidized Mexico players for the 2014 season. Initial league plans in 2013 called for the allocation of 16 Mexico players, but not all of them stayed with their teams.

None of the four players allocated by Mexico this season – Monica Ocampo (Sky Blue), Veronica Perez (Washington), Arianna Romero (Washington) and Bianca Sierra (Boston) – played a minute in the NWSL in 2015. Mexico held several pre-World Cup training camps which interfered with the NWSL season before playing at the tournament in the first half of June – exiting in the group stage – and the Pan Am Games through late July, taking the bronze medal there.

That left only about a month of regular-season play for NWSL teams, many of whom had established squads in the heat of a playoff race. That made it tough to incorporate new players.

“After the World Cup, nobody in particular requested any of the players,” Mexico coach Leo Cuellar told The Equalizer this week.

A Breakers spokesman said the team intended to bring Sierra into the team after the World Cup, but circumstances changed. The Spirit did not have comment. Cuellar said that Ocampo was the most sought-after of the four players, but for Sky Blue FC, that would mean bringing her into the team for only a few games given her decision to play in the Pan Am Games.

Cuellar is empathetic to what he calls a “special situation” of missing players for such an extended period of time.

“The clubs are not at fault,” he said. “I think we need to challenge our players to be on the level [of the NWSL].”

According to Cuellar, he and NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush spoke on a conference call prior to the season, when Cuellar stated that players would be needed for the World Cup and possibly the Pan Am Games, as well. Plush was not available for comment. Plush told reporters last week that Mexico “is certainly interested in being with us long-term.”

Mexico’s continued participation in supporting players in the NWSL has been the biggest question mark among the three founding federations over the past three years. In 2013, Cuellar voiced his displeasure with the lack of playing time for Mexico players with their NWSL teams, and in 2014 he said that Mexico would only pay for players in which teams were interested.

For Cuellar, the most important thing is that his national team players are getting regular minutes, and he puts it on them to improve enough to force their way into lineups.

“We were very clear to our players that we will support them in any league,” he said. “If the US league is the one, we will be happy.”

He continued: “I think it is going to depend on the quality of our players. If the player is committed to develop and improve and develop and challenge themselves, there are possibilities.”

On average, Mexico players participating in NWSL received $3,000 per month over approximately six months, Cuellar said.

In the short-term, Mexico is left with a team which is once again largely dormant just a few months ahead of qualifying for a major tournament. Cuellar says that only two players from his 23-player World Cup roster signed professional contracts after the World Cup, both in the relatively unglamorous Spanish league: Charlyn Corral with Levante and Kenti Robles at Atletico Madrid.

Most of the rest of Cuellar’s squad relies on irregular training camps with the team, for now. Olympic qualifying will take place in February, and with only two spots on the line and Mexico struggling to finish third in a field sans Canada at last year’s World Cup qualifying, it is difficult to see El Tri finding success next year and making it to the Rio 2016 Olympics.

“Constantly we have to start from zero again and that’s a big issue,” Cuellar said. “We have Olympic qualifying in a few months and we don’t have players active. It’s a big disadvantage.”

New youth amateur leagues begin in Mexico this month, but there still is not a professional league or even a highly-organized amateur league.

As for Cuellar, he says the media reports of his intent to step down from his position are merely rumors, and that nothing has been decided. Decio de Maria was just installed as new FMF president. Cuellar has been in charge of Mexico’s national team since 1998. After failing to get out of the group stage at the 2015 World Cup, Corral called for change.

But for now, Cuellar remains in charge.

“Right now we have a new president in our federation and we have new people in charge of our national teams,” he said. “When things get settled, we will sit down and we will discuss what is best for the program.”

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