Yuliana Adriano started playing soccer at age 7 at her parent's ranch in Esmeralda, a village with 2,000 inhabitants in the northern Mexican state of Durango. She dreamed of playing professionally one day, but understood that would be unlikely since there was no professional women's league in Mexico.
After leaving home to receive a better education and play for a school team, Adriano was called up to Durango's state all star team, although they only trained and played together sporadically. And yet Adriano continued to improve. By the time she became a teenager, Adriano was a bonafide talent. And coincidentally, at that exact same time, the Mexican soccer federation announced the formation of the Liga MX Femenil, a 16-team league that kicks off on July 29. Adriano, 14, was signed by the league and assigned to the Santos Laguna team.
"We're going to put a lot of effort in so that they make the women's league equal to the men's one," Adriano said with a smile. "I'd love for us to have the same wages and all the things that they have. We're going to show them that being men doesn't make them better than us."
This is the first women's competition in Mexico to mirror the men's Liga MX, with each season split between Apertura and Clausura tournaments. The only structural difference is that the clubs will be divided into two eight-team groups, with the top two from each group going through to the playoff semifinals. The first final will take place in December.
There are still many hurdles for the league to overcome—particularly with regard to wages, broadcast rights and sponsorship—but the hope is that the league will help raise the level of the women's national team and create opportunities for girls like Adriano to fulfill their potential.
Hailed by Liga MX president Enrique Bonilla as the "missing piece" for Mexican soccer, the new league is the result of a series of efforts to improve women's soccer infrastructure.
In 2015, the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) launched a national amateur league comprised of 4,500 girls playing at under-13 and under-16 level for 240 teams across 10 different states. In April 2016, at a forum on gender equality in soccer organized by FIFA and UN Women, FMF bosses recognized the importance of involving Liga MX clubs in the creation of a formal, high-level women's league to improve the women's national team.
The league was announced last December after discussions between club owners and FMF and Liga MX officials, who met again in May to define the structure of the tournament. The teams will mostly feature women from the under-23 age group, with two overage players allowed in each lineup. Every club must also give at least 720 minutes of game time to girls from the under-17 category over the course of the season.
"We're making a commitment to Mexican women. We believe in the talent of our players," Bonillo said in a statement. "It's no secret that every weekend millions of girls go out onto the pitches near their homes to develop their passion for this sport. This is why it was necessary to create a Liga MX for them."
Mexico takes great pride in beating the United States in soccer but its women's team, currently 26th in FIFA's world rankings, is a long way behind the 2015 World Cup winners up north. Mexico's team is heavily reliant on US-based players as a result of the lack of infrastructure for women's soccer in Mexico. Bonillo promised the league would drive "exponential development in the women's national team" while also raising the level of coaches, physiotherapists and referees in the women's game.
Pamela del Olmo, a contributor to the Women's World Football Show podcast, told VICE Sports that "Mexico has achieved very good results in the Under-17 and Under-20 World Cups in recent years but they've always lacked that extra step to go up a level. I think this league will be an important step for the players, because many of them will now train everyday instead of just at certain times of year."
However, del Olmo warned that there's a lot more work to be done. "For me it's illogical that they're launching a women's league but they've gone 18 months without appointing a permanent coach for the women's national team," she said. "Mexico has only played one friendly in the last year, while the US have played at least 10 games in that time. There's no point having a league if they don't take the national team seriously."
To prepare for the new season, 12 clubs took part in the four-day Copa MX Femenil in Toluca in May. Eleven minutes into Santos' second fixture against Cruz Azul, Adriano cut inside from the edge of the penalty area and curled a right-footed strike into the top corner of the goal. It was the first goal in the history of Santos' women's team, who went on to win the game 3-0.
"It was really cool to be the first person to score, especially at my age," Adriano told VICE Sports after a recent training session in the arid northern city of Torreón where Santos are based. "Back at the ranch everyone was congratulating my dad and he was really proud of me."
Thanks to the exposure created by the nascent women's league, Adriano has set her sights on representing her country.
"The national team scouts are watching her now," said Armando Pedroza, the head coach of Santos' women's team. "Her mentality enables her to take on older girls. She's not scared to face up to defenders who are much bigger and she can use her intelligence to get past them."
While women's soccer is hugely popular in the United States it has never extended beyond amateur level in Mexico, meaning it has been hard for talented players to gain professional experience. FIFA estimates that two million women play football in Mexico yet only 11,000 are affiliated with the FMF.
"In the past, the only places girls could play were their school teams," Pedroza added. "Now these tournaments will help them to find opportunities in the United States or Europe. The talent was always here but there's never been a platform for them to showcase their abilities."
The Copa MX showed that some teams are in better shape than others. Santos crashed out in the group stage while Pachuca hammered Tijuana 9-1 in the final.
"The cup was a good parameter for us to measure our prospects," Pedroza said after taking his squad through a training session in punishing 95 degree heat. "Time is against us. We still have a lot of work to do. We're still trying out new girls and we'll continue putting together a competitive squad until registration closes."
Building the team has been a painstaking process. Most clubs have recruited players through tryouts and Santos' sessions drew 1,500 enthusiastic young women over three days. They were gradually filtered down to the current group of 34, plus a few latecomers who are now on trial. The majority are from the Torreón area, but Santos have also brought in girls from the 33 youth academies they run across Mexico, including a few from the border region and major cities like Guadalajara and Mexico City.
Given Torreón's proximity to the United States, Santos are also on the lookout for talent from across the border. "We're aware of the talent in the United States but the Mexican Football Federation rules don't allow us to bring in foreigners," Pedroza said. "We can bring in Mexican-Americans though. So if there's a girl born over there to Mexican parents we could bring her into the group."
The gulf between the standard of women's soccer in both countries presents an advantage for Tijuana's Xolas, who not only have closer access to Mexican-American talent, but have also participated in the US Women's Premier Soccer League since 2015.
In comparison, Pedroza noted that Santos and most other clubs are "starting from zero". They are also working with limited resources. Pedroza and his assistant Michel Camacho are the only coaches to have been assigned to Santos' women's team.
To address their inexperience, Santos have recruited 27-year-old goalkeeper Diana Sánchez, a former Mexico international who traveled to Germany for the U-20 World Cup in 2010 and used to play for Chivas in the national amateur league.
"Those of us who are older have to be more responsible on and off the pitch," Sánchez said. "We have to share our experience with the younger girls and we have to shelter them through good and bad in order for us to all grow together as a team."
Pedroza, 57, has coached Santos' youth teams for 10 years. This is the first time he's taken charge of a women's team but he said there are few differences in how they train or play.
"They're disciplined, focused and intense, they have the desire. They're no different to men in this respect." The only difference, he noted, is that "men are more likely to be theatrical [when fouled]. If the girls take a knock they get straight back up and carry on."
From what he's seen, Pedroza is convinced that Mexico can become a world power in women's soccer. "Mexico certainly has potential," he said. "When this league becomes better known we'll surely get a lot more girls coming through."
Despite the excitement it has generated, Liga MX Femenil has a long way to go before it merits comparison with professional competitions like the US' National Women's Soccer League or Germany's Frauen-Bundesliga.
Juan José Kochen, Liga MX's director of communications, told VICE Sports that women's games will only be broadcast online and they still haven't decided how many fixtures will be shown. He also revealed that the league has not established any system for the transfer of players between teams.
Initially, it will only be a semi-professional league, Kochen admitted, with most clubs supporting their players with educational grants instead of paying wages. Liga MX will cover some of the operational costs, but the clubs are responsible for funding their teams.
"The idea is for the project to mature little by little," Kochen said.
Laura Irarragorri, the ambassador for Santos' women's team, said the club is not in a position to offer players formal wages but will sponsor their studies at local schools and colleges.
"We've not yet got a deal to televise the games and this makes it difficult to get sponsorship. We're working on that," Irarragorri told VICE Sports. "It would be great if we could have a lot of sponsors and have the games televised. That way we could give them a better salary."
Del Olmo, the women's soccer expert, said the project will fail unless the FMF secures television and sponsorship deals.
"They have to give this league a chance to succeed. It'll come up against the machismo that prevails in Mexico, and the idea that a women's league won't work. So it's really important for this project to prosper in its first year," she affirmed. "There's no point having the league if it's not broadcast by Mexican TV networks. If it's hidden and under-promoted then it won't attract sponsors and it won't grow and the clubs won't benefit from it."
Aside from the financial aspect, a television deal would also have a major social impact, del Olmo added. "It's really important that they show the games on TV because people will watch it and young girls will think it's normal to see women playing," she said. "That would help us to change the mentality in Mexico."
Girls like Adriano hope to be the harbingers of that change.
"I don't think age or gender matters because we're all the same," said Adriano, who measures just 4-foot-7 but has regularly outperformed much older girls. "We all have two arms, two legs and two eyes."
The end goal for Adriano is full gender equality in Mexican soccer.