Physical game vs. Mexico proves a double-edged sword for the United States

CHICAGO – Christian Pulisic being fouled by opposing defenders, Jozy Alitdore being sat on after being fouled, Weston McKennie being grabbed by the throat for removing the player on Altidore’s back.

In many matches, such instances might be viewed as worthy of immediate punishment.

But they were a normal part of the script Sunday night, as such things often are when the US play Mexico.

“It was definitely physical but it’s USA-Mexico,” said defender Aaron Long, who spent most of the night tussling with Mexico striker Raul Jimenez. “We knew it was gonna be like that.”

Gregg Berhalter said after Sunday night’s 1-0 loss in the Gold Cup Final at Soldier Field in Chicago that he thought his squad had handled the Mexican tactics well, particularly in the first half, as the Americans sought to exploit the weaknesses left by El Tri’s over-aggressiveness.

“I think we actually did a very good job early on in the game of demonstrating our physicality and how we pushed them,” Berhalter said. “We felt like we had an advantage on them with speed, with quickness.”

But with that speed and quickness comes tiring, and thus less resistance to Mexico’s jostling and fouling. Berhalter pointed to his team’s repeated attempts to play long balls in behind the Mexican defense for the likes of Paul Arriola and Pulisic to chase, as the energy spent in those charges forward proved costly.

“As we continually tried to have quick attacks it will cost energy in the end,” he said. “[Mexico] stayed calm, their experience really helped.”

Experience that shows the way Mexico approaches playing the United States, particularly in the Gold Cup where they are now 5-2 all-time, tends to work.

While early on the Americans did create chances, most notably a miss from ten yards out by Altidore, control shifted to the Mexicans as the match wore on. It was increasingly apparent the US had missed their window, which Mexico ensured never reopened.

“Obviously you have to make more chances,” Altidore said of his reaction to the early missed opportunities. “I thought in the second half it got away from us…we never got ahold of it again.”

The USMNT is still going through some growing pains under Berhalter, looking to rebuild the reputation of the national team program while integrating both new players and new tactics. Tonight, those pains were a bit more literal than usual.

“I think the guys will learn a lot from this game,” Berhalter said. “For us, the whole month was ‘guys, we need to make progress this month,’ and when I look back on it I think we did. This experience will help us moving forward.”

It will be another two years before the US has the opportunity to play in a match like Sunday night. When next they find themselves on the big stage, they’ll know what to expect and be ready for it.

“I think big games have crazy atmospheres and it’s a good thing,” Long said. “You want it to be like that.”