What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, we’re often told.
This was most definitely not the case at Allegiant Stadium on Thursday night, as Christian Pulisic donned his hero’s cape once again to lead the US men’s national team to a 3-0 trouncing of their bitter rivals Mexico to book their spot in Sunday’s Concacaf Nations League final – and neither the scoreline nor the dominant performance were the biggest story of the evening.
Pulisic, El Tri’s chief tormentor for much of the unbeaten run the Yanks have now extended to six matches, bagged a brace on either side of halftime, this time truly fulfilling the “Captain America” sobriquet by donning the armband vacated by Tyler Adams’ injury absence. Paralyzed by an increasingly toxic relationship with their supporters and the awkward generational transition happening in their player pool, Mexico once again were simply unable to match the pace and intensity of the reigning CNL champs.
“I can speak all day about Christian,” gushed interim coach B.J. Callaghan postgame. “The level of maturity that he has, the leadership that he displays, it’s not always the most vocal, maybe it's not always the most public, but when you see him step on the field tonight and put in that level of performance, and set the standard for our group, you can only have a ton of respect for him.
“It's why he wore the captain armband tonight, because that's the type of performance he expects out of itself, and that’s the type of performance that we have come to expect from him.”
Berhalter: Back soon?
But what really won the night was the surreal interweaving of live television, real-time reporting and rancorous on-field antagonism as news broke during the run of play – first from The Athletic and later confirmed by multiple media outlets – that Gregg Berhalter is set to be restored to the USMNT’s head coaching post after more than half a year in limbo, with an official announcement expected on Friday.
As fans and pundits absorbed this head-turning development, flooding social media with the full gamut of reactions to a coach who has polarized opinions around the program, the game itself devolved into farce. Mexico’s flaring frustrations led them to foul the US with escalating violence and bile, with large numbers of their fans in the stands regressing to loud renditions of the homophobic chant that has gotten their team in so much trouble with FIFA and Concacaf in recent years.
The simmering anger sparked into an outright melee when César Montes petulantly hacked Folarin Balogun to the turf after the USMNT debutant tracked back to dispossess him of the ball.
Salvadoran referee Iván Barton red-carded Montes, then brandished the same color to Weston McKennie as Balogun’s new teammates rushed to his defense. Control of the proceedings was long gone, though, and Barton later had to send off Sergiño Dest and Gerardo Arteaga as well. The match finished with nine yellow cards, four ejections and 17 fouls committed on each side, a nasty spiral of misbehavior that will inevitably hurt the United States more, because they’re now without two key starters for Sunday’s final vs. Canada, who dispatched Panama with ease in Thursday’s early game.
“In no way am I embarrassed,” Callaghan declared afterwards.
“These are rivalry games, these are derby games, things like this happen across the world,” he said. “We have a strong culture in our team and what happens is, it comes from a good place. They care about each other so much in that locker room that they're standing up for each other. Sometimes does it have an issue where we take a red card? Yeah, but when you know where it comes from, you can accept it. And it’s a learning lesson for us all.”
Performance vs. discourse
Like kittens watching a tennis match, the audience could only snap its collective head back and forth as the discourse processed so much happening at once.
U.S. Soccer and new sporting director Matt Crocker evidently spent six-plus months and significant sums of money and effort to interview somewhere around 10 candidates for USMNT head coach, only to decide that the old coach would be the new one again. Even after the soap-opera drama that erupted around Berhalter, Gio Reyna and his parents during and after the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
Then word of that decision made its way into the public domain DURING the team’s biggest game of the year to date.
“We're taking away from the performance that these boys had tonight. That we should be what we're talking about: beating Mexico 3-0,” declared USMNT legend Clint Dempsey, who described himself as “confused” by the federation’s decision on CBS’s postgame show. “It's great to get the news, but I still feel like it ruined the night in terms of, we're not talking about the performance of these players. It was a big victory and good to see.”
It surely wasn’t anyone’s ideal way of learning who would steer the program towards the massive opportunity of the 2026 World Cup on home soil. But if the rival that once towered over the North American region can be dispatched this easily with an interim coach at the helm, perhaps the identity of the coach matters less than the superlative young talent of the USMNT’s burgeoning player pool.
Have Mexico really become this much of an afterthought?
“The performance from our side speaks for itself; we couldn't be more happy with the performance,” said Callaghan. “But at the same time, we also understand that we need to turn the page and already start the recovery and preparation process to play vs. Canada.
“We don't look at ourselves as the kings of Concacaf,” he later added. “We're constantly trying to improve and grow as a team, to compete against the highest levels of international football. And for us, this is just a continuation of putting good performances together, learning from those performances and continuing to try and grow and grow and grow as we continue now to look towards the 2026 World Cup.”