Complete debacle against Mexico is good for USWNT in the long run

As bad as the U.S. women’s historic loss to Mexico was, it’s a good thing for the long run.

Not for the USWNT. This was a complete debacle, whether you’re measuring it by the numbers or the play on the field.

Only the second loss ever to Mexico, and first on U.S. soil. The first loss at home to any Concacaf team in 80 matches, a streak that, at 23-plus years, was older than some of the USWNT players.

The same sloppiness and struggles to finish that led to the USWNT losing in the Round of 16 at last year’s World Cup, its earliest exit ever at a major international tournament. The same inability to play wide or establish dominance in the midfield. The same disjointedness that now marks what was once the world’s most ruthless team.

So no, there is nothing good about this loss for the USWNT. At least not in the short term, and definitely not with the Paris Olympics five months away and no obvious answers at the ready.

But the days of the USWNT running roughshod over the rest of the world are long gone. To stay at the top of the game, to be in position to win the World Cup and the Olympics, the U.S. women need to be tested on a consistent basis.

And for far too long, Concacaf didn’t cut it.

More: USWNT falls to Mexico in stunning upset at Concacaf W Gold Cup

The region's next two biggest teams, Mexico and Canada, were a significant step below the Americans in both quality and confidence, and there was an even sharper drop off from there. Oh, the U.S. women could talk about rivalry games, getting every opponent’s best effort and being able to learn something from each outing. But the reality is, those games were largely gimmes.

If the USWNT wanted a true measure of itself, it needed to do it in friendlies against Brazil, Japan or the European powerhouses. Or in tournaments like the Algarve Cup. Which is fine — except those opportunities are in shorter and shorter supply.

Europe has enough quality teams, and tournaments featuring them, that it no longer needs to travel to the United States for games. The upcoming SheBelieves Cup in April will be the fourth consecutive one without a strong European team. Since England and Spain played in that 2020 edition, Germany is the only European powerhouse that has played games in the United States, and those were at the end of 2022.

The Americans aren't getting games in Europe, either. Only five since winning the World Cup in France in 2019, and none last year.

The United States still gets heavy doses of Australia, Brazil and Japan, but only one of those teams — Japan, at No. 8 — is currently ranked in the top 10. Europe, meanwhile, has the world’s No. 1 team in Spain, as well as the teams ranked third through seventh.

As the quality of the game continues to improve and as the world’s best teams get more and more technical, national team training camps and games against familiar or lesser opponents aren’t enough to keep the USWNT sharp.

Which brings us back to Concacaf.

Canada has made great strides over the last decade. It was the bronze medalist at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics before winning gold in Tokyo — after beating the USWNT in the semifinals for their first victory over the Americans in 20 years, no less. Though Canada’s federation has been a dumpster fire and all-time international scoring leader Christine Sinclair retired, locking Bev Priestman up means Canada should at least be competitive for the foreseeable future.

Mexico was in such shambles just 18 months ago that it failed to score a single goal or win a game at the Concacaf championship in 2022. A tournament it hosted, mind you. After its performance, Mexico dropped 10 spots in the world rankings, to No. 36, a program low.

But the hiring of Pedro Lopez three months later, in September 2022, as well as the growth of Mexico’s domestic league, has invigorated La Tri. They are unbeaten in their last 22 games, and have some impressive young players, including Lizbeth Ovalle, the 24-year-old who scored the opening goal in Monday night’s 2-0 win, and Karen Luna, who made her Mexico debut in this tournament.

The win over the USWNT was no fluke, either. Mexico was clearly the better team and it dictated the tempo of the game. It made the Americans uncomfortable with its physicality and aggressiveness, poaching bad passes and shutting down lanes. It stayed focus when it got the lead, continuing to push for an insurance goal that finally came in the dying seconds of the game.

“There are no easy games anymore,” interim USWNT coach Twila Kilgore said. “And if we don’t take care of business and we don’t execute, this is to be expected.”

It might have been fun to watch the Americans roll over their regional opponents in the past, but it did them few favors. If the USWNT wants to be the world's best team again, it has to continually challenge itself.

And that has to begin in its own backyard.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on social media @nrarmour.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USWNT will benefit from stiffer Concacaf competition, Mexico debacle