Times appear to be changing in the Mexican women's game, with the announcement last week that Leo Cuellar will no longer be the head coach of the national team after an 18-year spell in charge.
A former men's national team player, Cuellar ruled the women's side of the game as coach and became its symbol and focal point. But the Mexican federation decided to part ways with Cuellar following the failure to reach this summer's Rio de Janeiro Olympics and disastrous 2015 World Cup campaign, sparking much talk about what will follow for Mexico's women's national team.
To break it down, we chatted at length with former national team captain Monica Gonzalez, who has lived in Mexico City for the last 10 years and remains as passionate as ever about El Tri and women's soccer in Mexico.
The Texas native and ESPN analyst opines on the legacy Cuellar leaves, what comes next, the role of U.S.-born players in El Tri and just how much potential the women's game in Mexico has. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Q&A with Gonzalez
Q: Was it the right time for Cuellar to go?
A: Yes. Short answer! I don't think I've been really shy about saying it's time for change. To see the men changing every other second and we're kind of looking over saying, "What about us?" More than anything, it is a statement by the federation to say we are going to start demanding more of ourselves; we're going to make a new sort of investment. It's not about getting the right coach anymore; it's about the whole structure.
Q: What will Cuellar's legacy be?
A: The biggest thing that he did was having cameras on him. He had so much responsibility. He's not a business guy. He started out coaching one team and now we have five. All the administrative work he was doing himself. So as far as his legacy goes, I hope the public remembers him in a nice way. ...
Deep down, I think Leo was sort of content. I don't think he truly believed we could be great or be greater, or that we were going to beat the United States. I want someone in front of our national team who is going to be ambitious or intriguing, like the Costa Rican coach (Amelia Valverde). They beat us now. Before the World Cup she didn't have a salary.
Q: There has been plenty of speculation about the vacant position, with names like Randy Waldrum, Fatima Leyva, Fabiola Vargas, Iris Mora, Roberto Medina, Andrea Rodebaugh, Tony Gustavsson, Valverde and yourself mentioned by fans. Thoughts?
A: I think you can probably throw in Monica Gerardo. I don't know if she is interested, I should call her. I can confirm for you that Andrea Rodebaugh is interested, I can confirm to you that Iris Mora is. I'm not really interested. I can't see myself being the responsible one. I was the one who was late to training every day!
Q: Is there an ideal candidate out of the ones mentioned?
A: I don't know who would be best. I think a few people should sit down. No one has really had a 360-degree view of the women's national team over all these years apart from Leo and I don't think it's a good idea for him to choose. I think it might be good (to have) someone from outside to come in who knows about professional women athletes and how they are supposed to train.
As for me, I'm good at ESPN and flying back and forth (between Mexico and the U.S. to cover games), but this is something I gave 12 years of my life to for the love of the game. If there is some way I could become involved on the business side (of the national team) or helping out with some of the girls and events in the community or promotion, I'm all over that.
Q: Headlines were made when Charlyn Corral and Kenti Robles were left out of Olympic qualifying. Is the first job of the new coach to get them back on board?
A: I don't think that's going to be a problem at all. I think Charlyn made a mistake talking about a coach to a camera when you are still on the team when you have a Pan-Am tournament in three weeks. (Editor's note: Corral openly suggested that Cuellar's cycle had come to an end.) So, I thought it was pretty dumb of Charlyn. Hopefully she learned her lesson. She's not a superstar. She needs to learn how to become a team player, but that's part of what needs to be changed with the team as well.
Q: What is the potential for the Mexican women's team on the field?
A: I wouldn't have joined the team to begin with if I didn't think there was the potential to win a World Cup. That was half my life ago! And I think we in 26th now; we got up to 22. That's sort of the barometer I use long term-wise. There is a lot of talent and you have plenty of resources. You have everything you need. You just have to put it all together and change the mindset of the people a little bit.
Q: And off the field?
A: If you have people in Mexico that are willing to think a little bit outside the box and not just think as soccer people about the women's game, what we can bring to Latin America, if marketing and publicity and promotion and success on the field all come together, is something that the men will never ever be able to provide: social impact. With all of the problems politically that are going on in Mexico and Latin America, I think people are starting to realize the connection between providing sport for young people and what it ends up providing for those communities. Developing the women's game is important to me because we can empower women. So, for me, it has become something way bigger than just soccer. (Editor's note: Gonzalez runs her own soccer academy to promote the game.)
Q: We've seen other Latin American nations like Costa Rica and Colombia produce national teams that seem to have their own identity and style. Would you agree that Mexico has failed to create a playing identity?
A: I think that is a wonderful point. That brings me to one of my biggest complaints about our team which is how focused they still are about bringing in Americans. I never got the final count, but the amount of tryouts the team had in the United States versus in Mexico ... You shouldn't be having more tryouts for a national team in another country than in your own. That reflects our style and that's created our style because mostly we have a back line that are American-born that are taller and bigger and can't speak Spanish and then faster ones up front, and I think the cultural difference, the language barrier ...
Sometimes when the starting line-up is more American-born than not there are problems, and I just think you have to grow the sport first in your own country. If you can do that, I think we'll start to take on our own style of play. Part of what Memo Cantu (the Mexican federation's general secretary) and the federation need to decide on their own is what do we want to stand for? How do we want to play? From there we can decide who the coach is.
Q: Do you think the federation heads to the United States to scout because it is simply easier?
A: I think it's easier to walk over to your neighbor's ranch and pick his corn than have to grow your own. It is something the federation has started to do with putting in place the league this year, so many things are looking up. I wrote Memo Cantu and told him I feel he's sitting on a pile of gold with the women's team. That's how I feel and I've felt like this for a long time.