The two giants have won 17 editions of the region’s championship event all-time; no one else has won more than three (that’s Costa Rica in a distant third). El Tri and the Yanks have faced off in six of the tournament's 15 finals – and four of the past seven – in its modern incarnation dating back to 1991, and only one of those 15 finals has featured neither of the two nations.
But pundits are shading a clear advantage to Mexico in this year’s tournament. That’s chiefly driven by manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino having picked a mostly full-strength roster, compared to his US counterpart Gregg Berhalter giving several of his European-based stars like Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic a break ahead of the intense World Cup qualifying schedule that awaits in the coming months.
The USMNT maintain there is zero deviation from their program’s usual expectations for this event.
“That's the objective from day one,” declared Berhalter in Saturday night’s press conference ahead of his team’s opening match vs. Haiti at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City Sunday (8:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, TUDN). “We're focused on competing to win this trophy. On August 1 we want to be playing in the final and that night we want to be winning.
“We know it's a difficult task, we know there's some good teams in this tournament and we don't want to disrespect any of the teams in the tournament. But for us it's about taking it game by game, putting in everything we’ve got into that game and then moving on to the next one. We think we have a really talented group, it's a young group, for sure. But there's some talent here.”
The USMNT don’t seem to mind being labeled as underdogs.
“In truth, I think it’s good,” winger Paul Arriola said in a Spanish-language response to a question about the matter. “For me it’s better that people say that we are not favorites. For us I think there’s not much much pressure in this case, if not we are not the favorites. But I can say that every person in this camp here with us thinks that we have to win it.
“That’s why we are here: to win the Gold Cup, to get revenge against Mexico for the last Gold Cup.”
Martino led El Tri to a narrow 1-0 win over the US in the 2019 final, a second-half winner from LA Galaxy midfielder Jona dos Santos the difference in a tight affair at Chicago’s Soldier Field. Returning to the final remains the baseline for this year’s USMNT, a predominantly MLS-based squad with less international experience than the side that won Concacaf Nations League last month, but ample hunger to prove itself both collectively and individually.
“There's an expectation of this program when we step out onto the field at the Gold Cup,” the New England Revolution’s Matt Turner, who looks likely to be the starter in goal, said on Friday. “We expect to make it to the final, reach the final and challenge for the trophy. So I think that expectation has been crystal clear from the higher-ups like Gregg, and that's what this group is working towards.”
Berhalter dismissed the suggestion that Mexico elevated the importance of the Gold Cup in the wake of their dramatic 3-2 CNL extra-time loss to the USMNT on June 6.
“All these coaches have a plan. So Tata, there's no chance that he reacted to a loss in the Nations League and said, ‘Hold on, we need to get this group together,’” said Berhalter. “They have a plan of how they want to develop their squad for World Cup qualifying, and so do we. Our plan involves using a different roster in this tournament, and that's fine. We see this as a great opportunity for very good players to compete for a Gold Cup title.”
That starts with dispatching Haiti, a mercurial, but talented side the US sound wary of in their opener.
“Haiti is an interesting team,” said Berhalter. “They have good attacking players, physical attacking players who are really dangerous inside the penalty box on crosses. They're not afraid to have direct play, get the ball to the big striker, move off of him. It will be a challenge; athletic team, athletic in the back, athletic in midfield.”
The Group B draw – combined with the expanded Gold Cup format in which only the top two finishers in each group advance to the knockout phases – gives the Yanks less margin for error than many past editions. Group-stage opponents El Salvador and Canada are also expected to pose some difficult questions for the hosts.
“It's no secret, it's a little bit more of a challenging group than some of the other ones,” said Turner, espousing the traditional ‘one game at a time’ mantra. “Haiti’s a team that took Mexico to extratime in the last Gold Cup. So yeah, it's going to be intense, but I think everybody here is up for the challenge.”