DENVER – The US men’s national team made it into the final of the CONCACAF Nations League on Sunday against Mexico as a team with great potential but little experience. But in an exciting competition that lasted almost three hours, this young US team grew in front of the collective eyes of those present and prevailed 3-2 after extra time and won the first edition of the trophy.
It was a game in which the US tackled countless twists and turns, rallied twice, converted a punchy penalty from Christian Pulisic in overtime and then survived a penalty kick, with substitute keeper Ethan Horvath brilliantly saving from Andres Guardado.
There was also the usual poison that accompanies this rivalry. Pulisic and his teammates were showered with debris after his penalty conversion (and Giovanni Reyna was hit in the face with an object). There were tough challenges, more than a few scuffle – including a hand around midfielder Weston McKennie’s neck – and even fans invading the field.
– USA-Mexico overshadowed by anti-gay chants, thrown objects
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And in the end, the US prevailed El Tri in a competition for the first time in eight years. And while the game with a trophy at stake had added significance, the actual price seemed almost secondary to the events that played out throughout the evening.
“It’s really important for this group,” said US manager Gregg Berhalter of the win. “We’re a young team and we have to learn how to win. These games are very difficult and for us it was about having a game plan and running the game plan, but then it’s also about fighting in the spirit.”
The future will determine how much this win will shake up the US team. World Cup qualification begins in just three months, and qualification remains by far the most important prize for this team. To some extent, the U.S. men’s program still hurts that it failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. But this win means a lot to the players as it gives a massive boost in confidence that his potential will translate into results in big moments. There is also Berhalter the kind of Signature Win that builds belief in his methods.
At least this is a game these US players will remember for the rest of their lives, especially given the wild swings in the dynamics. And none more than Horvath, who fought for playing time at Club Brugge this season and was used as a replacement for Zack Steffen. However, when Steffen was pushed off the pitch with a knee injury in the 69th minute, Horvath stepped in and played a series of groundbreaking games to the delight of the more than 20 friends and family who attended to see the Colorado native.
“Just to think of how difficult it is for goalkeepers to get into the game at this stage of the game and then have the impact he made was remarkable,” said Berhalter. “It’s been a tough season for him and having an accomplishment like this in his hometown was, you know, it’s a subject picture books write about.”
The topic of conversation in the run-up to the kick-off was Berhalter’s decision for a three-way chain, presumably to relieve Sergino Dest of his defensive tasks and to go into the attack more strongly.
But before the US could even adjust to a rhythm, disaster struck when an overly casual pass from defender Mark McKenzie was picked up by Jesus Corona, allowing him to advance on goal and shoot his shot past Steffen. The game was just 63 seconds old.
The US struggled to settle in in the minutes that followed, unable to connect passports and looking suspicious on the defense, especially as Tim Ream often stayed in isolation to defend Uriel Antuna one-on-one.
But a critical sequence around the 27th minute showed that as much as the US worked both individually and as a team at times, the US displayed an almost endless reservoir of determination and the ability to learn on the fly. In a moment, Hector Moreno nodded Hector Herrera’s flank home, only for VAR to come to the aid of the US team and refuse the balance. Then they equalized in a flash when Reyna cleaned up a rebound after McKennie’s header hit the post. In between, Reyna was everywhere, came into the attack, but also contributed to the defensive. McKennie began to assert himself across the field, and John Brooks did an immense effort in stabilizing the US defense.
There were still warning signs, however. Pulisic was ineffective for most of the night. The back line was wobbly. Dest, believed to be a key component in the collapse of the Mexican defense in the United States, looked completely upset and unsure what to do or where to be.
In the second half, the USA played with more composure and at eye level, even if it wasn’t quite in full swing. McKennie forced a trio of saves from Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa when he was able to break free again and again in set pieces.
Yet it was a substitution for Mexico coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino – the introduction of attacker Diego Lainez – that almost turned the tide. The Mexican team had attacked Ream tirelessly throughout the game, and Lainez’s recklessness and fresh legs gave him a distinct advantage. It paid off in the 79th minute when Lainez came inside and fired a shot that defeated Horvath.
At the time, it seemed like Mexico just had to end the game, but McKennie was undisputed and eventually defeated Ochoa with his header from Reyna’s corner that was just sneaking in.
The regional heavyweights continued to land Heumacher, and Horvath had to do his best in the 90th minute to defeat Lozano. And if the first 90 minutes provided drama, the extension went beyond the red line. Pulisic won a 109th-minute penalty after being knocked down by Mexico defender Carlos Salcedo, who required a five-minute VAR review, and saw Martino also red carded for laying hands on the referee. Brooks couldn’t bear to watch him look at his own gate. Missing out on seeing Pulisic convert a cold-blooded penalty kick, he celebrated by taking off his shirt and silencing the crowd, after which debris was pelted at the US players. Reyna appeared to be struck by a projectile in the head, although Berhalter said he thought the attacker “will be fine”.
Of course there was also a dose of drama. McKenzie was awarded for handling Luis Romo’s shot into the box, which required another lengthy VAR review. Guardado stepped up to take the penalty kick and although his shot was not placed, he had a lot of power and forced a spectacular save from Horvath. The goalkeeper said he, Steffen and David Ochoa spent 30-40 minutes with goalkeeping coach David Hyde studying the opponent’s tendencies.
“It’s up to us to do our homework,” said Horvath.
Then the US cunningly skipped the clock, even though more projectiles rained down on it. At the final whistle, the players fell to the ground and soon celebrated with the US fans behind Horvath’s goal.
The tournament was a complete success for the USA. Yes, the team has proven its inexperience in handling big events. But it also revealed an adaptability and mental strength, even in the face of incidents like one in the second half when Hector Herrera snapped McKennie.
“I don’t know what it is, but they seem to be gripping my neck,” McKennie said. “It’s a rivalry that has been going on for generations and will continue. This time we just got the upper hand and hopefully it will stay that way.”
The younger generation is growing up.