CHICAGO — It’s easy to boil down an entire tournament to its final. A win, and it’s a roaring success. A loss, and all the work that was done to make it to the final stage is negated.
The United States men’s national team could have viewed it simply as a success to be in this game, but head coach Gregg Berhalter was unwilling to do so this week.
“I’ve said all along we want to win this tournament,” he said of the Gold Cup on Friday.
Sunday night, following a 1-0 loss to Mexico in the final, he conceded that in terms of results, he and his team had come up short of what they had hoped for.
“I think that when you talk about a step the team needs to take, we’re close but we weren’t there tonight,” Berhalter said.
Close enough to make it to the final, but not to win it.
The fact that they made it to this point at all can be attributed to the growth of this squad over the last month, having come a long way from a 3-0 loss to Venezuela in Cincinnati on June 9 to be facing — and seriously challenging — Mexico in Chicago less than a month later.
“I think we made good progress,” said Michael Bradley reflecting on the summer the USMNT has had. “Any time you get an extended period of time together you [want to] use it in the best way possible and I thought we did that.”
The most obvious place for improvement heading into the Gold Cup was an understanding of Berhalter’s complex tactics, a difficult system to master in the limited exposure of periodic national team camps. While progress certainly has been made, they’re still trying to iron out the bumps.
“As we continue to grow and mature as a team, one of the things we’ll always need to work on is the balance of using the speed and direct attacking ability of guys like Christian [Pulisic], Jozy [Altidore], Jordan Morris, Paul Arriola,” Bradley said. “We want to take advantage of that but we also want to, in other moments, know how to slow things down.”
The US looked caught between those two minds Sunday night, as long balls from Zack Steffen failed to spark offensive opportunities and Mexico’s pressing stifled attempts to play out from the back.
Though a difficult night, they were still here. And being here was the first goal all along.
“When we started in camp, we put up a date saying July 7 and I told the guys ‘listen, this when we’re going to play to,” said Berhalter. “This is what we’re gonna go through together.”
Now they’ve gone through it, through a tournament of increasingly positive performances punctuated by a let down against their biggest rival on the biggest stage. There are plenty of positives, but in the moment of defeat they’re hard to see.
“In the moment it’s difficult to talk about that because there’s the raw disappointment of losing a final,” Bradley said.