No matter that the US men's national team made the Gold Cup final, there are still questions. No matter that they often played flowing, enjoyable soccer – including and especially in the first half against Mexico – there are still questions. No matter that they had young players step up all over the field, no matter that they only gave up two goals throughout the tournament while scoring 15, no matter that they smashed a pair of teams (Trinidad & Tobago and Jamaica) that really needed smashing, and a dose of reading from the book of "Turnabout is Fair Play," there are still questions.
No matter that The System™ mostly worked, and a lot of what Gregg Berhalter's been trying to do was vindicated by mostly linear progress (the Curacao game excepted), there are still questions. Here are a few:
- Can Tyler Adams manage the game from defensive midfield in the same way that Michael Bradley so often did?
- Is there any other No. 9 in the US pool who can do the hold-up play that made Jozy Altidore irreplaceable?
- Is there any upgrade available at left back?
- Can The System™ be more effective with Paxton Pomykal at central midfield and Christian Pulisic at left wing rather than Pulisic in central midfield and Paul Arriola at left wing?
- Will Weston McKennie continue to improve at central midfield – i.e., will Schalke actually play him there this coming season?
- Will we see a return to the hybrid RB/DM of the first four games of the Berhalter era, or continue with the more common overlapping right back we saw in this tournament?
These are all important questions, and there are at least a half-dozen others that need to be asked as well. But they're questions that come from within the context of a team that's both discovered and embraced an identity, and whose next 12 months have to be about leaning into it. They've asked and answered the "who are we?" question – it's an answer I mostly like a lot, by the way – and now it's about "how do we make who we are better?"
That's the long view, and it's a good one. Now a few thoughts from the game itself:
• Things spun out of control in the second half of the game after a first 45 in which the US had, I would argue, the better of play (and unquestionably had the better ideas). Tata Martino made two decisive moves, flipping Rodolfo Pizarro to the right side and pushing both fullbacks much higher than they'd gotten in the first half.
Pizarro, who's arguably been the best player in the last two editions of the Concacaf Champions League, was both an attacking menace and a defensive improvement, as he neutralized US left back Tim Ream as a distribution hub. Ream's ability to pick passes in the first half was often the path forward for the US, and in the second half it no longer existed. It changed the game, and tilted it decisively in Mexico's favor.
Meanwhile the pushed-up fullbacks further cut off the US ability to play from the back. There were no open avenues.
• Central midfield tracking has worried me throughout the tournament, and central midfield tracking is what led to the game's only goal:
This is on McKennie. This is what it looks like when a talented player just switches off, when he lacks the awareness necessary to make match-winning plays. That's been the knock on McKennie at Schalke, and it was the knock on him throughout the tournament.
I'm, nonetheless, mostly encouraged by his overall performance. He found more of the game as the tournament went on and generally was more awake to danger match by match. He had the best one of his career against Jamaica in the semifinals, and he did some good things against Mexico in before that frustrating, naive final hour.
And that's the lesson: It's so often a game of moments. Mexican veteran Jonathan Dos Santos has the reps to understand that, while 20-year-old McKennie doesn't.
• The other big, game-defining moments came in the first 10 minutes of the game when first Pulisic and then Altidore missed chances they should've finished. The expected goals total for the game said as much:
Here's the truth: If, at the start of the month, you'd offered me a 1-0 loss in the final with the US playing well but Mexico just being a bit more ruthless and clinical in the final third, I'd have taken it. I think most fans would've as well.
Offer me that on top of the fact that the US really did seem to look like they knew what they were doing in the build-up and became progressively better at executing it, and I can't complain too much.
I know most feel differently. I don't.
• I'm going to borrow a line from my buddy Tutul Rahman, who you should follow on Twitter: The biggest thing is if Berhalter learns from this. Specifically the next six months have to be pushing the player pool and getting less cute with tactical changes.
He has a system that works and now he has to improve it by aggressively integrating younger players, and moving Pulisic to his natural wing spot, and figuring out how to vary the defensive shape a little bit out of the 4-2-2-2 and into more of a 4-1-4-1 or 4-2-3-1 that adds numbers to central midfield. Sometimes it really is that simple — just a numbers game.
Mexico won it tonight. Tata did a good job, and Jona seized the moment. Mexico, despite struggling against Martinique, Costa Rica, Haiti and the US, are once again the kings of Concacaf. They were the better team in the biggest moments, and when you do that over the course of an entire month, at the end of it you get to lift a trophy.
It's a good lesson for this young US group — coach included — to learn.