Gerardo “Tata” Martino and Gregg Berhalter sought to set the tone ahead of Sunday’s Gold Cup final (8:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, TUDN) between Mexico and the US men’s national team – and in doing so traded a veiled barb or two – during Saturday’s pregame press conferences ahead of the big game in Las Vegas.
Berhalter opened proceedings by urging the officiating crew to more closely police the behavior of Mexican players during the angry confrontations that have flared up in their last few meetings, as well as in El Tri’s dramatic semifinal win over Canada.
“We want it to be a physical game, we want it to be a tough, contested game, same way as Mexico. But we also want it to be fair,” said the coach. “The referees’ role in this game is to manage the game in a fair way. I've seen numerous times when the players from Mexico have grabbed players' neck, facial areas. That has no place in the game.
“I didn't think the referee did a good job of managing that at all,” he said of Thursday’s semifinal in Houston, overseen by Jamaican referee Daneion Parchment. “They need to get ahead of that, there can't be any hands to the neck or to the face.
“My only concern was, when there are these melees, when there are these confrontations between the two teams, that players keep their hands off of each other,” he later added. “I don't like seeing hands on our players’ necks, and we’re not going to stand for that, and the referee has to get control of that.”
Asked about Berhalter’s remarks when it was his turn to address the media shortly afterward, Martino turned the tables, alluding to the USMNT boss testily getting in the face of the fourth official when celebrating his team’s game-winning goal in the other semi.
“Obviously the referee in the match will do his best,” said the Argentine. “And also I don't think that the referee of the US vs. Qatar match was able to do a good job either, especially with the reaction of the US coach towards the fourth official on the US goal.”
Berhalter and Martino have matched coaching wits many times now, first in Atlanta United-Columbus Crew meetings in MLS and now as the leaders of the Mexican and US men’s national teams. (For those wondering, Tata’s Five Stripes were dominant overall, but Berhalter snatched a stunning upset triumph in their only MLS Cup Playoffs showdown.).
As they’ve repeatedly emphasized over the years, the two share mutual respect – and increasingly, a hardening edge of uncompromising competitiveness as the stakes of their battles rise. Sunday marks their second high-profile title bout of the summer following the epic Concacaf Nations League championship clash, a heart-pounding 3-2 classic decided by Christian Pulisic’s extra-time penalty kick. They also met in the 2019 Gold Cup final, where a Jonathan dos Santos strike edged El Tri past the Yanks.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for Tata Martino, I think he's a great coach, great experience, and if I had half the career he's had as a coach, I'd be happy,” said Berhalter on Saturday. “Really successful coach, and has coached all over the world in some top clubs and countries. So for us it's about how can we hurt them, how can we adapt to what they're doing, and when they change, how do we adapt with it?”
Having also taken part in several massive US-Mexico tussles as a player, including the memorable 2-0 USMNT win in the 2002 World Cup Round of 16, Berhalter knows the pressurized atmosphere well and pointed to intensity and focus, particularly on set pieces and periods of opposition pressure, as the most crucial ingredients for success.
“All of those games are very difficult games. To me they come down to mentality,” Berhalter said. “Just understanding what type of game it’s going to be. If our guys can understand that and have the proper mentality, we have an opportunity to win the game. And if we don't, it's going to be a difficult game.”