Fans flock to a fledgling women's pro soccer league in Mexico

Read the Spanish-language version of this story here.

MEXICO CITY -- Layla García playfully pulled the sleeves of her Monarcas Morelia club jacket and then placed her microphone effortlessly through her chest and out the zipper. At 12 years old she is no stranger to media interviews and much less being underestimated.

"I like to be pressured so that I work harder, because I know I can give my best and a little more,” she said reassuringly. “I don't think there's any difference."

García isn't the only young football prodigy in the newly created Liga MX Femenil, the latest women's soccer foray in Mexico, this time with the backing of the men's first-division clubs. There are four other 14-year-old girls and two who just turned 15, and they are getting minutes in the 16-club league.

No matter the age, García and the other youngsters relished the challenge with confidence in their abilities, and they made the teams after competing in various tryout stages.

"I might have been intimidated at first, but only for a few seconds,” she said. “When you think of it, it's not like if you were going to be carrying [other players], you're only going to play soccer, so I think there's not much of a difference."

Despite having to assign Layla special routines, Monarcas coach Verónica Hernández explained that rather than being an obstacle, the club will benefit from the younger players.

"It's very interesting to have players that young, because they'll grow with others that have much more experience, and that will allow you to have a higher quality team,” Hernández said. “You can slowly integrate them so they can gain that experience, but without carrying the weight of being totally responsible."

One of the goals of the women’s league, announced last December, was to find and nurture players that could eventually be considered for the different levels of the Mexican national team.

As such, two rules were put in place for the 16 clubs in Liga MX Femenil, namely that players must have been born in Mexico and only four players over 24 years of age are permitted per club, with only two available per match. This resulted in the league's average age of just over 20 years.

Hernández attributes social media as creating the hype around the clubs, thus attracting fans, despite most players not having professional experience. Some clubs have streamed matches on Facebook, reaching more fans.

"Because of the players' young ages, social media is something they are very skillful at. They practically teach you what you can find, and as a phenomenon, it has enormous reach and allows the league to gain more popularity," Hernández said.

Shortly before the league kicked off on July 28, only one club, Tijuana’s Xolos, had signed on to allow their women's team to play in the first-division club’s stadium. On the inaugural weekend though, the Pachuca and Monarcas women's teams played in the first-club stadiums, and 6,170 attended Monarcas' debut match against Veracruz in Morelia.

A week later, four more clubs opened their stadium doors to a first-ever women's league game, and Monterrey’s Tigres set the pace with a crowd of 8,000 fans in attendance.

Halfway through the season, a league attendance mark was set when 25,000 fans watched the Leon-Chivas match in Leon. However, two clubs, Chivas and Pumas, still haven't staged women’s matches in their main stadiums.

Despite initial success with attendance, players are cautious as the league is only in its infancy. And while players may be fulfilling a childhood dream, they realize that playing professional soccer won't necessarily be a long-term career.

Dalia Molina, a 17-year-old forward for Monarcas, followed in her father's footsteps after he played for a Mexican-league third-division team. Like her father though, Molina wants to be an orthodontist.

"I know soccer won't last forever, I need to have Plan B because you don't know when it will end,” she said. “Soccer is my dream, it always has been, but if having a degree will help, I'd like to have both."

Out of four area colleges, Molina selected the one that offered certain flexibility regarding absences and a class schedule that allowed her to get to practice.

Liga MX Femenil clubs train in the afternoons to permit their players to attend school or hold jobs. Some, like Pachuca, even grant scholarships and offer housing.

"Besides being able to practice, they have the possibility of obtaining a college degree, which sooner or later, whether they're still players or not, they'll be able to use," said Eva Espejo, one of five women selected to manage in one of the 16 clubs in in the league.

Espejo’s club, Pachuca, won the preseason women's cup tournament over the summer, a tuneup prior to the start of league play. After winning the cup, Pachuca beat three rivals in a U.S. tournament. Club president Jesús Martínez revealed a plan to build training facilities for the women’s team.

The preparation paid off for Pachuca, as the team got off to a fast start this season, winning the first four matches 3-0, 2-0, 3-0 and 9-1.

"Some clubs have created extraordinary strategies -- they have supported their players from the start -- but others didn't even have a complete team when the league started or only think of the league as something costly, rather than as something beneficial," Espejo said.

Espejo indicated that Pachuca has forced other clubs to take the competition more seriously, but despite their example, she said the league can't be considered professional level just yet.

"I think we'll see the results of a professional league with time,” she said. "Today we act and play and do everything like professionals, but with the age limit, there's still some ambivalence between a professional league and developing one."

Despite promoting new talent, the age limit caps most players' careers in the league up to 23 years of age, which in turn eliminates the pressure of higher wages.

Pachuca forward Mónica Ocampo, a Mexico national team and former Sky Blue FC player in the National Women’s Soccer League in the U.S., agreed that the first step was already taken.

"People now see women's soccer as something normal [in Mexico],” Ocampo said. “When I started playing, I did it with boys, and I was even insulted by their own parents and the rival team. It's changed a lot now. We see many girls playing, the league is now a reality, and that will change our expectations little by little."

In the second half of the Liga MX Femenil season, coach Espejo is optimistic despite the obstacles ahead.

"It's like warm water for the heart when you think of a league that many described as being dead when it began."