The Mexican women's national soccer team lost by a 30-0 margin in the only three games it played against the United States in the 1990s. Adopting an unusual variation of the if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them approach, a Mexican American soccer dad two years ago hatched an idea: inviting American soccer stars with ties to Mexico to play for the Mexican national team.
The dad, a San Diego businessman named Karlo Pedrin, telephoned dozens of U.S. universities seeking talented Mexican American players. Pedrin's work spawned a quick and comprehensive turnover of the Mexican national team. By last fall, Mexico's roster included players with un-Mexican names such as Laurie Hill, a three-time all-American from California-Santa Barbara who has become Mexico's biggest star. The team featured starters with homes in the United States, and little or no ability to speak Spanish.
And there was something else extraordinary about them.
They won games.
The Mexican women's team, which long had been unsuccessful and unsupported by the Mexican federation, in December became the last of 16 teams to qualify for the 1999 Women's World Cup, which will be played from June 19 to July 10 at eight venues across the United States, including Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. (Mexico will begin first-round play against Brazil on June 19 in the second game of a doubleheader at Giants Stadium in which the United States will play Denmark and for which more than 65,000 tickets have been sold.)
In December, the Mexican team had seven recruits from U.S. colleges. Mexico defeated Argentina in a two-game playoff after finishing second to Canada in the North/Central American and Caribbean region final last fall. (The United States received an automatic place in the field because it is the host nation.) Mexico, however, had taken a rough path to the World Cup. Before the qualifying tournament, in which Mexico won three matches and lost two, it lost three straight games in the U.S. Women's Cup to the United States, Brazil and Russia.
"Obviously, if we could, we would play for the U.S. national team," said Monica Gerardo, Notre Dame's all-time leading goal scorer who eagerly responded to a call from Pedrin. "All of us have realized that's not going to happen. All of us are Mexican. We have been raised with that as part of our background. . . . The national program [in Mexico] is very new. It's obviously a lot different than the U.S. women's program, just because we are 20 years behind them."
As the Mexican team juggled its new additions and improved its performance, it also managed to turn a couple of long-held notions about soccer inside out. Most important to the team, the Mexican soccer federation lately has shown an unprecedented willingness to support the women's program -- with the caveat, players say, that the support likely will dry up should the Mexican team flop in this summer's World Cup.
"Mexico is a male-dominated society . . . and culture, and we're trying to change that," Hill said. "The Mexican federation has been a little timid in backing us 100 percent for fear of embarrassment" in the World Cup.
And in another change, the United States has become an exporter of soccer talent rather than an importer. The U.S. men's national team often has used foreign players to strengthen its roster. Just weeks before last year's World Cup, Frenchman David Regis received his U.S. citizenship and joined the team as a starting defender. U.S. Soccer Federation officials found Thomas Dooley, the son of a U.S. serviceman, playing professionally in his native Germany in 1992 -- and he started for the American team in the 1994 and '98 World Cups. Ernie Stewart came from a similar background in the Netherlands, where he still plays professionally.
Not so for the U.S. women's national team, which is considered the team of the decade in women's soccer and whose growth is credited to Title IX, the 1972 federal law prohibiting sexual discrimination in athletic programs at educational institutions that receive federal funds. In Mexico, there is no equivalent law to ensure equality among men's and women's athletic programs. Mexicans love soccer, but many remain uncomfortable with the idea of women playing what is considered an aggressive, macho sport. Even Mexican women who play soccer regularly on club teams generally do so only a couple of days a week.
Leonardo Cuellar, coach of the men's soccer team at Cal State-Los Angeles, began coaching the Mexican women's team last December, just before the two-game playoff against Argentina. When Mexico won both games to earn its first Women's World Cup berth, many Mexicans responded with disbelief.
"We took the whole country by surprise," Cuellar, formerly a member of the Mexican men's national team, said during a telephone interview from the team's training headquarters in Mexico City. "But more than anybody else, we probably took by surprise the [Mexican soccer] federation.
"I think the potential is here. Unfortunately, we live in a country where you have to get results before a program is in place. This group is under a lot of pressure to perform well in order for this to continue."
Cuellar said he conducted tryouts among 300 Mexican women from around the country before selecting an 18-player roster that included eight Mexican Americans for a three-month training camp that began in March. He said the best Mexican talent surfaced in the 14- to 16-year-old age range. He called such players "raw diamonds," young women with more athletic ability than refined skills.
The biggest find has been 15-year-old Monica Vergara of Mexico City, who likely will start in the midfield.
"We're dealing with players that have never been trained before -- except for the Americans," Cuellar said. "At times, it's been very frustrating. At times, it's like a soccer camp. We have to teach all of the basics from the beginning."
Pedrin, the soccer dad responsible for the resurgence in the Mexican women's program, is a restaurateur in Tijuana and administrator for the Mexican team. When Pedrin conceived the idea of Mexican American imports in 1997, he apparently hoped that his then-15-year-old daughter, Tawnie, a soccer player on a club team in San Diego, would be one of them. Her name, however, did not appear on the camp roster. Pedrin could not be reached to comment.
In Mexico City, the candidates for the Mexican World Cup team sleep three or six to a dormitory room and train twice daily. The final roster could include nine players with American ties: Gerardo, Hill, former Santa Clara University captain Lisa Nanez, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo forward Gina Oceguera, former California-Berkeley star Andrea Rodebaugh, University of Southern California defender Susie Mora, San Diego State goalkeeper Linnea Quinones, University of the Pacific goalkeeper Ivette Valdez and Pacific midfielder Dana Vasquez.
Spanish is the team's designated language, but translations often are requested. Nanez speaks almost no Spanish. Several others speak very little. Players say there has been tolerance on both sides of the language barrier, with jokes substituted for ridicule or impatience.
"I expect an honest team, with great character to fight for the colors of the country," Cuellar said. "That's all I ask. With a little luck, and a break here or there, we might be a surprise.
"But we have to be realistic. . . . We told the women, it's like we have to climb this mountain, like we have to pave the road. They have to do all kinds of things. They are spading the road so someone else can come behind."
1999 Women's World Cup
June 19 to July 10
Mexico's first-round schedule
June 19, vs. Brazil in East Rutherford, N.J.
June 24, vs. Germany in Portland, Ore.
June 27, vs. Italy in Foxboro, Mass.
CAPTION: Monica Vergara, 15, is home-grown talent, but some teammates are Mexican Americans recruited for the Mexican national team.
CAPTION: Andrea Rodebaugh, left, is captain of Mexican team, and Laurie Hill is its star player. Rodebaugh went to California-Berkeley, Hill to Cal-Santa Barbara.