USMNT, Mexico meet within the Gold Cup remaining with excessive expectations for numerous causes
LAS VEGAS – When the US men’s national team and Mexico meet in the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup final on Sunday, it will be the second time in 56 days that the long-standing rivals will face each other for a continental title. Yet the two games couldn’t be more different in terms of relative stakes.
On June 6th, the teams faced each other in the opening final of the CONCACAF Nations League, and it was the US that desperately needed a win as there was no victory in manager Gregg Berhalter’s tenure to confirm that the team was back in an upward trend.
It took a statement, not only to instill confidence in the coach’s methods, but also to convey something tangible to this generation of players with their undeniable talent. And regardless of the wild succession of events that took place during the game, the collective group strengthened, absorbed the pressure – and a bottle or two on the head – to eventually get away with a 3-2 win on overtime.
As for Mexico, while the defeat was tough – they always do it against the US – there was a belief that Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s men had played well enough to win after leading twice and had a chance of 3: 3 for Ethan Horvath to save Andres Guardado’s penalty. As it was, El Tri would come back another day to fight.
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So what has changed until Sunday’s encounter at the Allegiant Stadium? In a word: expectations.
The US entered this tournament with a purposely young, inexperienced squad, with a fundamental reason to give alleged first-team regulars – Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Giovanni Reyna and others – calm about what is expected to come the season for the club and country .
But it also needed to get a better picture of how effective aspiring members of the player pool can be at the international level. This is especially important as triple fixture windows line the horizon for World Cup qualifying, which begins in September and will test the depth.
As expected, this left the US in a bit of a mystery. Berhalter said from the start that the goal was to win the tournament, regardless of the squad structure. And yet there were times when the team’s youth were challenged as an explanation for shaky performances.
Gregg Berhalter has already looked after a final win against Mexico. Can he repeat the trick in the Gold Cup? Getty
A 1-0 group stage win over Canada, which had a slight lead in experience but also put up some new faces in the absence of stars like Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, was seen as a case in point, but it wasn’t like that before especially the young players who abandoned the US that day, but veterans who did not advance.
In Thursday’s semi-final win, Qatar looked better in the first half but couldn’t find a way past the formidable Matt Turner in goal, allowing the Americans to recover late in the game and seal the win with an important goal from Gyasi Zardes .
That this US squad made it to the finals speaks well of their ability to adapt, grow and achieve results. While injuries to defenseman Walker Zimmerman, midfielder Paul Arriola and defenseman Reggie Cannon have limited options, they also gave Berhalter data points on players like Shaq Moore, Miles Robinson, James Sands and Matthew Hoppe.
Given these developments, the US appears to be playing house money on Sunday, although Berhalter denied it in his pre-game press conference. His goals were largely achieved and little is to be expected against the pre-tournament favorites. But Berhalter wants his side to be greedy and finish the job.
“We’re not done yet, and that was the message to the team,” said the US coach after the semi-finals. “It’s nice to get to the final, but we want to win the final. Our # 1 goal is to win the Gold Cup. We said that before the Gold Cup and we will say it again.”
For Mexico, on the other hand, the stakes couldn’t be more different. This is a game that dares not lose, even if it almost fails to win; Beating a losing US team to win the 12th Gold Cup title would prove little, even if players like Raul Jimenez and Hirving Lozano are absent.
But in the event of a defeat, the pressure would increase and doubts about the World Cup qualification would arise. Would that be enough to cost Martino his job?
In the past, this impulse certainly existed sometimes, but the tenure of his predecessor, Juan Carlos Osorio, is instructive. The Mexican Football Association held on to him after beating Chile 7-0 in the quarter-finals of the 2016 Copa America Centenario, and that patience and focus on stability were rewarded with World Cup qualification and a famous win over defending champions Germany in Russia.
This Mexican team has found a way to get results even when the actual game sometimes falls short of its high standards. Jonathan dos Santos rallied after his father passed away and one should expect his experience lead to show in the field as a whole, but especially in a midfield led by Hector Herrera.
Berhalter noted how bad his team was with only 42.7% in duels against Qatar, while the duels successes were even worse with 30%. If that happens again, players like Rogelio Funes Mori should take advantage of it and make it a long night for such a good defensive line.
But the nature of this longstanding rivalry makes another dramatic chapter inevitable. Given the mental strength the US has shown over the past few weeks, as well as the fact that Mexico has to win the game, another exciting encounter can be expected.