MONTERREY, Mexico -- Soaring high above, the emblematic mountains that surround and define northern Mexico's largest city might not be as lofty as the ambitions of local club side Tigres Femenil.
Playing at the Estadio Universitario, often referred to as El Volcan (The Volcano), Tigres are the current and undisputed powerhouse in Mexican women's soccer. In Liga MX Femenil's short history that just celebrated its five-year anniversary last week, Tigres have loomed large over every other team in the competition with four league titles.
Tigres intend to get that fifth championship soon. After emerging empty-handed in the last two seasons, the task of bringing another trophy to the club has landed on the shoulders of new manager Carmelina Moscato, who has become enamored with the breathtaking natural surroundings of Monterrey.
"I've lived all around the world, [but] this has to be one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen in my life," said Moscato, Tigres' first foreign and female coach, in an interview with ESPN shortly after the start of the 2022 Apertura. "What a beautiful culture, beautiful people. I've felt super welcome from the beginning."
Announced as the manager for Tigres in early June, Moscato is a 38-year-old former Canada international that has experience on the pitch and in the front office of clubs and soccer organizations in North America and beyond. After a playing career that has taken her through three Women's World Cups and three continents, Moscato has held jobs that have ranged from assistant coach, coach, business strategist, technical director and commissioner.
An opportunity in Liga MX Femenil emerged out of the blue when she was recently in Denmark coaching FC Nordsjælland. She meant to stay another year abroad through 2023 but was persuaded by the "magnitude of the project" that Tigres ownership sold to her and the conversations that were "more and more positive" as she continued to explore it.
She packed her bags and was then adjusting to not only a unique undertaking as the leader of Mexico's most successful women's team, but also an entirely different type of pace and energy in Monterrey.
"The driving is a bit chaotic," laughed Moscato about her local commute. "But that's an adaptation."
It's up for debate whether maneuvering through the city, or through Liga MX Femenil, will be more challenging.
Even though Tigres and crosstown rivals Rayadas tend to dominate most seasons -- they've met in five of the nine finals -- other clubs have also rapidly developed and brought more parity to the tournament. Teams across the league, which are under the financial umbrella of their affiliated men's Liga MX clubs, have boosted their rosters thanks to domestic talent improving and foreign spots opening up from two to four players per squad. Last season's final between Chivas and Pachuca, the first Liga MX Femenil championship series without either Monterrey teams since the league's debut season in 2017, also seemed to usher in a new era in the top flight.
Despite the disadvantage that Moscato had through a shortened preseason with a limited roster, results from Tigres' first two matches of the current Apertura continued to highlight more possible changes in the usual Liga MX Femenil narrative. Tigres suffered a 1-0 loss to Atlas in Week 1, and in Week 2, they went scoreless once again in a 0-0 draw with Cruz Azul.
And yet it didn't take too much time for Moscato to eventually bounce back and clinch her first win. In true Tigres Femenil fashion, they earned a multi-goal victory through a 4-0 thrashing of Queretaro. They followed that with wins over Necaxa and Club America. With several players back and available from international duty after the conclusion of the CONCACAF W tournament in July, Moscato has now been able to utilize her strongest XI of the season that was more stable in defense and resolute in attack.
"It's very easy to concede to the pressure and try to play a style of play where you just have to get the job done...which is not my philosophy," Moscato told ESPN.
"My goal is to make sure that the product on the pitch looks like the modern game, looks like an exciting, organized, connected performance. Where no matter what the results are, we can all look at ourselves in the mirror and say we are performing well. That is my job."
The intensity of her new gig, which rivals that of the summer heat in Monterrey often exceed 100 degrees, won't get any easier as the season progresses. There's a double-edged sword with the success and popularity of Tigres, leading to tens of thousands treating Moscato and her players like rockstars, but also being just as quick to find criticism online and in the stands when things aren't working.
In order to ensure things go smoothly on the pitch, Moscato wants to make Tigres more organized and structured, while also making them entertaining to watch. She wants her players to be assertive with winning the ball back and threatening going forward in the attack, while also finding enough chemistry through shared minutes for her squad. Tigres' coach knows it'll be demanding to be able to balance it all out with the stacked roster in front of her that includes 10 players with recent Mexico national team experience, as well as Nigeria international Uchenna Kanu and U.S. youth international Mia Fishel. The club's flourishing homegrown players shouldn't be overlooked either.
As Moscato puts it: "We need a rotation and a healthy one."
"That for me is a huge challenge from a player management perspective."
What helps is Moscato's confidence and determination as a manager, at just her 38 years of age. Self-described as an "emotionally intelligent coach," she prides herself on being able to connect with those around her.
"I know that players need to be supported...every player wants to grow and get better and be treated well." Tactically, Moscato sees herself as "very visual, very analytical" with a strength "in video analysis and then executing that on the pitch."
Liga MX Femenil a regional 'blueprint'
For the coach, it's not just about bringing these skills over and thriving with Tigres, but also prospering in a league that she believes in -- a feeling she's held before arriving this summer. Starting in 2019 through her work with Canadian Soccer Business as a Manager of Women's Professional Football Development, Moscato researched other competitions and took note of what was happening in Mexico.
"I believe it [Liga MX Femenil] to be a blueprint for the region, especially in Canada, where my roots are and where I spent a lot of time in strategic development there," said Moscato.
With a focus on domestic talent, Liga MX Femenil has been gradual with steps that went from only allowing Mexican-born players, to then slowly opening up to dual-nationals and foreign signings. Requiring a minimum amount of minutes for youth options has also continued to be a central theme. Initially only approving two players over the age of 23 in rosters, Liga MX Femenil regulations eventually dropped that rule, and in its place, clubs have provided a minimum minutes for Under-20 players each season.
"It's by Mexicans for Mexicans and I find that to be such a powerful product. You can see the benefit of that now in the fanbase growing, the product on the field, the level of play, the industry that it has created," noted Tigres' coach.
Improvements must still be made though, especially financially. As reported earlier this year, a source for ESPN confirmed that the usual range for player salaries is around $300 to $7,000 per month and that "very few players get over $5,000." Tigres and other more prominent clubs reportedly give better compensation, but the same can't be said for other lower-performing teams in the league that don't seem to be making the same type of investment. Meanwhile in the NWSL, there's a minimum annual salary of $35,000, with star players being able to earn $250,000+.
Nonetheless, this is all part of the growth of the league that had yet to debut when Moscato first began her coaching career. Thanks to Liga MX Femenil, countless female players have become household names in Mexico and North America in a short amount of time. Skillful and talented athletes are being produced and showcased week in and week out through youth academies associated with the clubs. Popularity in Mexico is increasing with TV ratings that hit their best-ever numbers for Liga MX Femenil last season, including seven separate matchdays when week totals surpasses two million viewers.
Teams and businesses from outside of Mexico are also taking notice. In August, Club America will take part in The Women's Cup exhibition tournament that is hosted by the NWSL's Racing Louisville, and over in Los Angeles, Tigres will face Angel City FC in the first of two scheduled friendlies after announcing a partnership in May.
With Tigres at the forefront of Liga MX Femenil, Moscato now has a thrilling opportunity to extend the young legacy that both the league and her team are creating. In the near future, she'll also hope to continue a dynasty for her club through another championship -- which is something that Moscato didn't shy away from when asked about her own ambitions.
"The biggest thing that comes to mind is the obvious, clear and intense desire to win a fifth championship.That's the narrative around the team, as it should be," stated Tigres' coach.
"Around our environment, standards are very, very high."
Aspirations that are perhaps even higher as those mountains that surround her.