“Today is going to, I think, go down as one of the classic, odd US-Mexico games.”
That was Gregg Berhalter’s turn of phrase for what transpired at Empower Field at Mile High on Sunday, as two old rivals added to their storied history with an instant classic in the championship final of a brand-new tournament. The US men’s national team outlasted El Tri in a five-goal, 120-plus (plus-plus-plus, really) minute marathon that seemed to cram a pandemic year’s worth of deferred drama into one night.
Costly errors. Timely goals. Formation changes. Bruising fouls, simmering ill will and repeated physical confrontations. Controversial officiating decisions, with a healthy sprinkling of video review. Mexico manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino ejected for mischievously throwing his arm around the shoulder of referee John Pitti as he examined the VAR screen. Angry El Tri fans repeatedly hurling cups, bottles and other debris down at US players, one piece of trash hitting Gio Reyna in the head and requiring medical treatment.
This one had it all. And in the end this new-look USMNT got a priceless baptism by fire ahead of their march into World Cup qualifying in a few months.
“You think about a final, giving up a goal in the second minute of the game. And then the way we came back, got level at halftime, then go down again, then come back again late in the game. And then overtime was just a complete, complete mess, to be honest,” noted Berhalter wryly. “With everything that was going on in the game, the guys still stayed cool, still were able to focus.”
The United States’ goal scorers were familiar faces, young stars shining at elite European clubs, expected to seize the spotlight for their country as well: Gio Reyna tapped in the first equalizer. Weston McKennie elevated to head home a corner kick for the second leveler. And Christian Pulisic clinched the win with an emphatically-dispatched penalty kick in the 114th minute.
“You need your big players to step up,” noted Berhalter. “We're a young side and we need to learn how to win.”
All their work might have gone for naught, though, if not for a completely unexpected figure stepping up out of nowhere to join them in hero status.
Having left his native Colorado at age 18 to pursue his career in Europe, Ethan Horvath hasn’t gotten to play close to home very much lately. So he was happy just to have any chance to ply his trade in Denver this week, even if, as the USMNT’s second-string goalkeeper, he seemed unlikely to take the pitch.
“It's kind of surreal to be back home in Denver. When I found out that the games were going to be here, I was very happy, because it's been like three, four years since I've been home,” said Horvath, who noted with a smile he’d requested 21 tickets for friends and family for this weekend’s matches.
That all changed when starter Zack Steffen limped off with a knee problem in the 69th minute. On a moment’s notice, Horvath stepped into the match and saved the day, making four saves, the most vital of which was a stunning last-gasp parry of Andres Guardado’s late PK to preserve the USMNT’s win.
“We gave him the game ball, because for a ‘keeper to come in a game like that – it's already high rolling, going 100 miles per hour – to come in a game and make the big save and secure the win, was big time,” said McKennie of Horvath. “Big, big time. And it plays with your head a little bit when it takes long for the ref to decide whether it’s a PK or not. And he didn't lose his head, and he went with his gut, his instinct and his training, and he stepped up to the role and executed the way that we hoped he would and he expects from himself.”
It’s a cathartic achievement for Horvath, who saw limited minutes at Club Brugge behind Simon Mignolet during the COVID-complicated grind of last season and is now out of contract this month.
“To make the impact that he made was remarkable. Really proud of Ethan,” said Berhalter. “It's been a tough season for him. And to come have a performance like that in his hometown, it’s stuff that storybooks write about.”
As is so often the case, his achievement was a production of both inspiration and preparation. USMNT goalkeepers coach Aron Hyde – who also led the process of designing the restart routines that led to Reyna and McKennie’s goals – was credited for briefing Horvath about Guardado’s tendencies in the chaotic moments before the spot kick.
“This morning we spent a good 30, 40 minutes on watching penalties just in case it went to a penalty shootout,” revealed Horvath. “So we watched from the guys who will start the game, from the bench guys, so if it was me, Zack or Dave [David Ochoa] in goal, any one of us were prepared to step in goal and take a penalty. … it's down to us doing our homework.”
Said Berhalter: “Like most finals, set pieces can make a difference.”
Nations League is a brand-new arrival on the Concacaf landscape, and not exactly a universally-embraced concept – not yet, at least. But it’s priceless for Berhalter and his squad, not only as the first trophy of his USMNT tenure, but a thrilling and well-earned breakthrough for a highly talented but still-unproven team on the cusp of a World Cup quest.
“Everybody's included,” said midfielder Sebastian Lletget. “Doesn't matter if you're on the bench, if you're starting consistently, everybody feels like they play a part. … It shows in big moments, when you need guys. And so that's the culture that we have really grown into these past three years since Gregg has taken over.
“It's just a huge step for this group. I think it just gives us more belief that we can really move forward and we can play with the big teams.”