Despite recent USMNT turbulence, Mexico rivalry still retains its luster

CHICAGO - The US men’s national team is well aware of the turbulence of the last two years. 

A failed World Cup qualifying campaign. Twelve meandering games played under an interim head coach. The entrance of Gregg Berhalter, and with him an entirely new tactical system.

And now, a run through the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup where, more than ever before, the focus has been on the qualitative aspects of the US performances, rather than the quantitative results.

Amid all that, there might be a notion among some that Sunday’s Gold Cup final, against archrival Mexico, has lost some of the luster such occasions used to have.

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“When you play for the national team, there's no better game than playing against Mexico,” said US midfield veteran Michael Bradley on Friday. “I couldn't care less to spend two seconds thinking about what it means in any bigger context. We're two days away from USA-Mexico in the Gold Cup final, that's good enough for me.”

It’s an occasion made in some ways more special by its surprising rarity.

While the US or Mexico have won all but one Gold Cup title, this is only the sixth meeting in the final between the teams, and the first since 2011. In that last championship game at the Rose Bowl, El Tri erased an early 2-0 deficit to prevail 4-2.

And some perhaps doubted whether the US could do their part to reach this sixth occasion after friendly tuneup losses to Jamaica and Venezuela.

Three weeks and five wins later, including a 3-1 semifinal win over Jamaica on Wednesday in Nashville, has brought the US just one game away.

All the while, Berhalter has insisted the expectations for the tournament inside the US camp have remained the same, and more about tangible results than some might think.

“I’ve said all along that we want to win this tournament,” Berhalter said as his entire response to yet another question about what would define tournament success.

That’s not to say the road that led here hasn't included some important evolution.

This is the USA’s first extended camp with both domestic and Euro-based players since Berhalter assumed the role and brought in an entirely new tactical system that asked some players to operate in unusual roles.

And it's a time when an old US guard — represented by Bradley, Jozy Altidore and a couple of others — has worked to meld with a much less experienced majority of the squad. Berhalter’s passing of the captain’s armband has been one purposeful way he’s tried to foster that learning process. He’s also tried to stand back and let it unfold organically.

“We're tapping into different forms of leadership,” Berhalter said. “The whole idea of this tournament was to pick the right group of players and have enough leaders to propel the group forward."