In a short amount of time, Liga MX Femenil has gone from a modest league to one that has produced record crowds, countless golazos that inevitably led to a Puskas Award nomination in 2021 and social media reach that is among the best across the globe.
Prior to Barcelona's crowd of 91,553 at Camp Nou in a Champions League win over Real Madrid last month, and Atletico Madrid's 60,739 in a match vs. Barcelona in 2019, Monterrey's attendance of 51,211 at the Estadio BBVA in a 2018 game had been the previous record for a women's club soccer match.
Liga MX Femenil has also served as a catalyst for the country's ambitions of reaching the 2023 Women's World Cup and opened the doors to a new generation of players, especially those with roots on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. And while it has experienced its own set of growing pains and challenges, Liga MX Femenil has made huge strides both on and off the pitch.
"It's just so creative," said Monterrey forward Christina Burkenroad about Liga MX Femenil's style of play. "There's so much confidence when people have the ball at their feet."
Once a league that only allowed Mexican-born players, Liga MX Femenil opened the doors to dual-nationals like Burkenroad in the summer of 2019, one year before she arrived to Monterrey in 2020. The 28-year-old Mexican-American, who previously played in the National Women's Soccer League and in Europe, has credited the league's technical proficiency with helping her be "more comfortable with the ball."
More known for technicality than physicality, Liga MX Femenil matches regularly provide endless flashes of inventive brilliance -- many of which arrive from some of the league's youngest players.
In a playoff game last December, Burkenroad was able to watch one of these noteworthy moments first-hand from 18-year-old teammate Aylin Avilez, who provided a highlight-reel assist for Burkenroad's goal in a 2-1 win for Rayadas.
With Avilez and other up-and-comers playing alongside Burkenroad, Monterrey would later go on to secure the 2021 Apertura title last season.
"It's a super cool thing that so many young players are already at the professional leveI," said Burkenroad. "By the time they're 26, 27, oh my god, they're going to be amazing."
Arrivals from abroad have raised profile
Since its inception, there has been focus from the league on prioritizing the development of the next generation of talent. When it started in 2017, Liga MX Femenil regulations stated that each team could only utilize two players over the age of 23 in their rosters. That rule has since been dropped, but in its place, teams must now provide a minimum amount of minutes for U20 players per season.
The league further adapted last summer when it allowed two non-Mexican roster spots per squad. In January, that led to arguably the league's biggest international addition when Mia Fishel joined Tigres UANL.
A U.S. youth national team forward, Fishel has carved her own unique path in Liga MX Femenil. Initially selected by the Orlando Pride as the No. 5 pick in the NWSL draft last December, the 20-year-old from UCLA shocked many in the American soccer world when she decided to instead move to Mexico.
"I need to be in control of my career...with the draft, I only knew that I was going to Orlando Pride probably two minutes before I got called. So that whole situation was very stressful and I think very unnecessary for a new player. I think I deserve better than that," Fishel told ESPN.
Offers from other clubs were on the table, but it was Tigres in Mexico who "took it very seriously" through their presentation, along with constant contact with the club's front office.
Fishel was initially told by others that the league is "not gonna be competitive, or, it's not gonna push you" but at her first practice with Tigres she immediately noticed that "it emulated a full national team training."
For the promising young American, Tigres "checked all the boxes" -- they laid out why she should be at the club, acknowledged her talents and then highlighted how she could challenge herself.
"If more players are going to be recognized, like Tigres recognized me, [the] players are going to come here," Fishel said.
Fellow Tigres player Uchenna Kanu, who signed with the club last December, told ESPN that she "didn't know anything about Tigres" or much about Liga MX Femenil before joining in the winter, but was also immediately impressed as soon as she arrived.
"It's competitive," said Kanu, a Nigeria international who previously played in Sweden with Linköpings FC. "Their approach to the game is just amazing."
"It's not just a pushover league ... it's a league that's actually growing, the players are developing and becoming better," said the 24-year-old.
This surprise by players from outside of the league is something that Burkenroad noted. One of her "favorite things is watching other foreigners come to this league and just [seeing] their minds being blown."
Itzel Gonzalez, on loan at Sevilla from Tijuana, applauded the league's move to bring in names from abroad and highlighted the influence it's had on more than just Liga MX Femenil.
"Since international players are allowed to play in our league, I think that made the league take a huge step forward in terms of the physicality, in terms of tactical play," said Gonzalez, who is also a keeper for Mexico's national team.
Through new additions like Fishel, Kanu and several others across the country, there have been more nuances, providing subtle changes to tactics and creating more variety in approaches for clubs across Mexico.
"I see different teams adopting different styles of play, I think that's really interesting to see how that's going to develop," Gonzalez said. "Having teams with stronger identities. The type of players that we have as a country are influencing the style of play in different teams and also obviously at the national team level."
Salaries, investment 'still a long way to go'
Monterrey and crosstown rivals Tigres are at the center of Liga MX Femenil's growth, having won a combined six of the league's first eight titles. And while the two clubs embody Liga MX Femenil's improved status, the 18-team league still has experienced challenges.
The level of play on the pitch, access to training facilities and stadiums, more games being televised, travel accommodations -- all have improved. However, there's much more that could be done, especially with salaries. And while the clubs are under the financial and organizational umbrella of the men's Liga MX teams, Liga MX Femenil professionals are paid far less than their male counterparts who can reportedly make up to millions of dollars per year.
In 2021, Club America's Janelly Farias told The Guardian that some Liga MX Femenil players were only being paid $100-$200 per month. Mexican outlet El Economista reported last year that monthly player wages can range from 7,000 pesos (≈ $340) to 150,000 pesos (≈ $7,450). A source for ESPN confirmed that around $300 to $7,000 per month is the usual range for most in the league, but that "very few players get over $5,000."
With these numbers in mind, one can be left wondering if a new addition like Fishel is the sign of things to come or simply a flash in the pan for Liga MX Femenil. Most importantly, it also shows the necessary changes that must be made with fairly compensating those on the lower end of the financial spectrum in Mexican women's soccer.
"The investment in every single team could be helped," Burkenroad said. "There's a lot of girls that are living off below minimum wage, and that's just not okay."
Finding the right balance for rosters is also significant. When the league first started, a contentious debate emerged regarding Liga MX Femenil only allowing Mexican-born players. For Mexican-American striker Renae Cuellar, it was painful to know that she wasn't able to take part in the league despite the fact that she played for Mexico's national team.
"I remember when it was announced and I was obviously not happy that I couldn't play in it," said Cuellar, who finished second in Liga MX Femenil's goalscoring race last season with Club Tijuana. "Being able to represent my country but not play in it."
When Burkenroad, Cuellar and other dual-nationals were able to join the league in 2019, they laid down the framework for a player like Fishel to become involved in Liga MX Femenil. Roster rules will likely continue to change, but it will undoubtedly be challenging to find a right balance that can support those who want to participate in the competition's future.
"I think if they can allow more international players to come to this league and bring those different perspectives of their play to any team that they come on, I think that will help grow the league and grow each team as well," Fishel said.
Financial and roster questions aside, the league must also seek to avoid the controversy it found itself in earlier this year with Club America manager Craig Harrington, who was given a three-match ban in January after allegations of improper language in a game against Monterrey. The incident raised eyebrows due to Harrington, who is back on the bench for America, having been fired as coach of NWSL side Utah Royals in Nov. 2020 following allegations two months earlier of inappropriate comments of a sexual nature to staff.
Farias, who was captain for Club America in that match against Monterrey, released a statement three days after the incident, saying: "what happened a few days ago is an unequivocal sign that we still have a long way to go to bring women's soccer to the place that it deserves. Disrespect has no place in our sport or in any aspect of our daily lives."
Monterrey manager Eva Espejo was also critical of Harrington's actions following the game, calling them "unacceptable."
Last year, the NWSL was rocked by multiple allegations of abusive behavior from coaches toward players, including The Athletic's report that ex-Portland Thorns manager Paul Riley was able to coach elsewhere in the NWSL despite two players' formal complaints that he sexually coerced them. Eventually five male coaches were ousted last year -- at the time, half the league's teams -- and it spurred multiple ongoing investigations into inappropriate behavior endured by players across the league. Coupled with the Harrington episode, these incidents offer specific lessons from which Liga MX Femenil can learn from when it comes to accountability, hiring practices, and player safety.
'Responsibilty' for Mexico's World Cup hopes
It might have gone under the radar, but there was a watershed moment for Mexico's women's national team last November.
After coming off consecutive friendly victories over Colombia and Argentina, El Tri Femenil continued their progress with a stunning 2-1 win and a 0-0 draw with Canada, a team that had just won gold at the Summer Olympics.
Gonzalez, along with a number of Liga MX Femenil players, comprised the core of the roster in those games against Canada.
"I think it goes hand in hand ... the most important thing is the fact that us players have the continuity and the opportunity to keep improving on a daily basis," Gonzalez said about the impact of Liga MX Femenil for the national team.
After failing to qualify for the 2019 Women's World Cup, Mexico is eyeing a spot in the 2023 edition. And should El Tri Feminil reach the tournament co-hosted in Australia and New Zealand, the domestic league will be a big reason why.
Prior to the Liga MX Femenil's founding, it wasn't out of the ordinary to see some national team players train on their own. But strides have been made thanks to the regularity of a homegrown league.
Under manager Monica Vergara, Mexico is on the right track to reach both the 2023 Women's World Cup and the 2024 Olympics. Should the team book a spot at those tourneys, it will do so via this summer's CONCACAF W Championship -- which will be hosted in the city of Monterrey.
On whether there is a sense within the national team to reach that next level, Gonzalez was blunt: "Not only a sense, but a responsibility."
'For future generations'
This ability to take Mexican women's soccer to another level was made possible by veterans like Cuellar, who are now leaders for a new generation of talent within Liga MX Femenil.
"It's in my country, it's with the country that I represent in the international stage," Cuellar said about the league. "When I play, I feel that passion, I feel that other side of my culture through the blood that runs through my veins."
Since scoring the first goal in NWSL history in 2013, the 31-year-old's pace has yet to slow down after moving to Europe and then to Club Tijuana. Following her arrival to Liga MX Femenil in 2019, Cuellar has already amassed a total of 55 goals.
Now that Liga MX Femenil exists, she's able to not only take part in a "deep-rooted connection that I have to my culture," but also highlight the value of being able to be involved in a league that wasn't around when Cuellar first became a professional.
"Thankfully it's better for the next generation and the next generation and that's why we've been playing all these years," Cuellar said. "It's for the future generations."
And while attendance numbers dipped across Liga MX Femenil in general due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the fandom remains the same in its continual growth.
"When I got here my social media following went up 20,000 people in a matter of months," Burkenroad said. "For women's soccer players, you have to think of yourself as a brand off the field too. It's not like we're making millions on the field. How can we market ourselves with sponsors, with social media, with our following? This league honestly, really, really helps with that."
Fishel has already seen this social media impact with Tigres. After joining the club, the young American has also seen tens of thousands of new followers online.
"It does kind of feel like I'm a celebrity because everywhere I go, there's fans coming up to me," said Fishel, who is often seen taking photos or signing autographs with Tigres fans. "It just makes me want to work harder and inspire more people."