It took some 117 minutes to separate the USMNT from Mexico in an emotional, frenetic and often sloppy affair whose entertainment value nonetheless lived up to the lofty bar set by its Sin City setting. But a Miles Robinson set-piece header made the difference in front of a rowdy crowd at Allegiant Stadium in Paradise, Nevada, giving Gregg Berhalter the best possible gift on his 48th birthday.
That makes two victories for the US in two showcase finals in two months against El Tri, following on from the similarly epic Concacaf Nations League title match and contrasting the back-to-back wins Mexico strung together in the summer of 2019. It’s hard to imagine a more effective way to spice things up ahead of the World Cup qualifying gauntlet that kicks off... **checks notes** one month from now.
Here are my three takeaways – and they apply to the USMNT’s entire tournament run just as well as the final itself.
Berhalter picked a young and fairly inexperienced squad for the Gold Cup, and asked it to learn and grow on the fly. They made mistakes, yes, and there were bouts of inconsistency and imprecision. But as most every coach on earth will tell you, effort is non-negotiable, and over time this group grew comfortable working, fighting and enduring together, and it made them more difficult to beat with each passing match.
They pressed the opposition for long stretches, often in hot conditions and/or on short rest. They tracked back and defended, sometimes desperately, to post one clean sheet after another. After scoring early and hanging on – at times for dear life – against Haiti and Canada in the group stage, the USMNT won all three of their knockout matches with late goals: Matthew Hoppe in the 83rd minute vs. Jamaica, Gyasi Zardes in the 86th minute vs. Qatar and Robinson’s extra-time header.
This isn’t just the “rise and grind” kind of grind we’re talking about; there was also a slow, steady, sandpaper-like process of abrasion being inflicted on the opposition. Mexico bossed possession, by a lot (63.5% to 36.5%), and completed passes at a higher rate. Their expected goals number eclipsed the USMNT’s over the 90-plus minutes of regulation time. They won 11 corner kicks.
“We just kind of ride the waves, the ebbs and flows of the game. And we needed to stay focused, and we did that,” said Turner postgame. “And it didn't take 90, it took 120 minutes, but we were able to get the job done tonight.”
The Gold Cup typically unfolds like a mountain climb for the USMNT. They are occasionally tested but rarely troubled in the group stage, then face a sequence of more and more difficult opponents with smaller and smaller margins for error as they advance through the knockout bracket. The subtext here: The performances in games like the 6-1 trouncing of Martinique – and the analysis we compile on them – pale in comparison to a meaningful match like Sunday’s.
So as enjoyable as it was to watch the likes of Robinson, James Sands and Sam Vines thrive from the jump in their introductions to the senior international level in those early games, they were subjected to challenges of another magnitude against Mexico. It wasn’t all smooth sailing by any means: Sands, for example, got worked over by Rogelio Funes Mori more than once in the first half, leaving Turner and Robinson to bail him out.
“When I look back on it, I'm most proud for the team, for the guys. We were together for a month, and we just saw them growing, saw the team growing, saw individuals growing and improving. We saw the team chemistry growing,” Berhalter said postgame.
“Before the final today, there was a feeling inside of me that I just wanted it so bad for them, that they can taste this and they could win a trophy together. So really proud of the group, really proud of their resiliency. And when you look at the game today, we did not stop. It was relentless from us, and that was a mark of a good team.”
Proactive possession play is a hallmark of Berhalter’s philosophical approach to the sport. Since taking this job at the end of 2018, he’s uttered variations on the phrase “attacking-based team that creates scoring opportunities by disorganizing the opponent” more times than I’d care to try to count.
But some of the best attacking moments of his USMNT’s four matches vs. Mexico have arisen through direct play and transition moments, and at some point he embraced a pragmatic understanding of that. This team has shown phases of crisp ball circulation, passing patterns and positional play this month, but has at other times looked dull and ineffective in that mode.
So after they weathered El Tri’s early storm, they did their best to mix things up, occasionally relieving pressure by sending long balls down the channels and into the corners for Zardes – who was incredibly selfless and hard-working in chasing them down again and again, no matter how hopeless.
With Funes Mori and his teammates unable to cash in on the good looks they carved out in the first half, US confidence grew as the scoreline stayed at 0-0 -- and eventually the spaces opened up that allowed Berhalter’s side to do more with the ball. The fresh legs of five second-half subs helped, too, with the USMNT looking like a major beneficiary of the continuing pandemic-era relaxation of substitution rules.
“Normally, the team should have managed the [opponent] like the first 20 minutes of today's game,” said Mexico boss Tata Martino. “But when these situations can't be converted, we always have the risk. The United States pressured us a little bit in the game, but we know that any play, long ball or restart, they can damage us, they could cause us some trouble, and that's what happened today.”