Following Sunday's instant classic between the United States and Mexico in the Nations League final, there's still plenty to break down from the USMNT's 3-2 win over El Tri.
Did the USMNT live up to the potential promised by its young stars like Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie? Is Mexico still considered the best team in CONCACAF despite the heartbreaking loss? And while Gregg Berhalter won his first trophy as USMNT manager, Gerardo "Tata" Martino may start to feel the pressure that comes with being in charge of Mexico.
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ESPN's Jeff Carlisle and Eric Gomez look back at the epic match in Denver, while assessing both the state of both teams with CONCACAF Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying looming ahead.
Jump to: Lessons learned | Impact on coaches | Gold Cup, World Cup projections | State of the rivalry
What did we learn about both teams (the good, the bad and the ugly)?
Carlisle: The biggest takeaway from the CNL triumph is that the increase in talent the U.S. has brought through in the past 18 months is beginning to translate into results, all while getting a taste of what competitive fixtures in CONCACAF will be like.
Sure, players like John Brooks and Pulisic are well-versed in the kind of gamesmanship and shenanigans that go on in CONCACAF, be it subpar field conditions, crazy weather or provocations of any kind. But these past two games were a baptism of sorts for some of the younger elements in the squad like Giovanni Reyna, Josh Sargent and Sergino Dest. And while some individuals coped better than others -- you can count Reyna among those who really impressed -- the U.S. did enough collectively to get two victories, including a massive confidence-booster against rivals Mexico.
Even better is that players like McKennie, Brooks and Pulisic have started to take on more of a leadership role, stepping up in big moments. McKennie took the U.S. team on his back in the Mexico game, and Pulisic, while quiet overall, delivered in a clutch moment with his penalty. These are all vital developments for this side.
Much is made about the continued barren spell in front of goal for Sargent. The good news is that the U.S. is scoring goals without him, but he has to break out at some point. How much patience will U.S. manager Berhalter have on this front?
Outside of Brooks, the defense remains very much a work in progress. Berhalter used a four-man backline against Honduras, and then a three-man setup (or five-man, depending on how you look at) at the start against Mexico before returning to four at the back later. Weaknesses were exposed in both systems. Against Honduras, the U.S. looked vulnerable in transition. Against Mexico, the U.S. struggled at times to build out of the back -- including a giveaway by Mark McKenzie that led to Jesus Corona's opener -- and was vulnerable on balls over the top. The system clearly asked too much of Tim Ream, who was repeatedly isolated in one-on-one situations against Mexico and struggled.
And what of Dest? The move to a three-back system was supposed to free the Barcelona man up to get more into the attack; not only did he fall short in that regard, he gave Ream little help defensively.
It leaves Berhalter with a conundrum of sorts, one that might be solved if Tyler Adams can stay healthy. The team's defensive shape solidified when he came onto the field against Mexico, providing help out wide when needed. But getting Dest back on track, and finding a defensive system that can work even if Adams isn't available, is his biggest task at the moment.
Gomez: Mexico's night in Denver started about as well as it could possibly script it: Corona barreled through the left side of the pitch, leaving American defenders behind, and after losing the ball, he got it back after an errant pass from McKenzie left him one-on-one against keeper Zack Steffen. Corona's goal set the tone for most of the first half: El Tri took advantage of a high defensive line by lofting long balls to its wingers, often setting up chances against backpedaling opponents.
As subsequent attacks from Mexico in the first half showed, El Tri's strength on offense comes from its speedy wingers who can stretch out the field, creating opportunities either by the strength of their own ability or by forcing mistakes from overwhelmed defenders. However, after the United States shored up its defensive alignment in the second half to better prepare for wide attacks, Mexico's cracks began to show.
Without Raul Jimenez to shoulder the load up front, Gerardo Martino and Olympic team manager Jaime Lozano have a shallow pool of center-forwards to choose from this summer. In the Nations League final four, Mexico got by mostly through flashes of brilliance from individual performers. It's hard to fathom seeing this team even making the final if not for goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. On Sunday, Ochoa, Corona and second-half sub Diego Lainez undoubtedly kept the team afloat in key stretches.
Moving forward, Martino's focus needs to be on two key issues. Mexico gave up two goals off corner kicks against the United States, and nearly every other dead ball posed a threat. In previous years, under Juan Carlos Osorio, special attention was focused on this part of the game and became less of an issue. In addition, while Martino can't do much about the player pool to shore up his team's areas of need, his confidence in clearly out-of-form players such as Uriel Antuna, Luis "Chaka" Rodriguez and Alan Pulido needs to come to an end.
Finally, as the game neared its close, the Mexican players were obviously affected by the mounting pressure, committing silly fouls and becoming embroiled in scrums with the Americans even before Pulisic scored the defining penalty kick. In recent years, El Tri seemed unburdened with playing the United States on the Americans' home soil, grabbing key wins in the process. Sunday night, the ghosts of the dos a cero era seemed to roam among them.
What does this mean for Berhalter and Martino?
Carlisle: Let's just state up front that even if the U.S. had lost that game, Berhalter wasn't going to get fired, nor should he have been. You don't hire a coach, have him manage the team through all the difficulties created by the coronavirus pandemic, and then fire him three months before World Cup qualifying because of ... some tactical quibbles?
Up to Sunday's match, he'd gotten the results that were expected. The win over Mexico now cements his position and gives him the signature win that his tenure needed in order to generate some momentum for the program. And while players have their own motivations for playing for the national team, it's obvious that on Sunday this team went to the mat to get this win. That speaks well of the environment Berhalter has created, along with how well his message is getting through.
That doesn't mean some of Berhalter's decisions can't be questioned. The reliance on Ream at the expense of Matt Miazga is a head-scratcher. You have to wonder how many more opportunities Sargent is going to get, and Pulisic needs to get on the ball more. But the team is growing, and Berhalter deserves some credit for that.
Now he has the luxury to experiment at the Gold Cup. World Cup qualifying then beckons, which will be the ultimate judge of his tenure.
Gomez: Early on in the Nations League final, it seemed as if Martino was dispensing a tactical masterclass to an overwhelmed Berhalter. Within the game's first 30 minutes, Mexico was a VAR replay away from a 2-0 advantage. As we all know, however, the match was flipped on its head moments later when Reyna turned an American corner kick into an equalizer.
From there, Mexico's aforementioned tactical advantage dwindled slowly, as Martino was increasingly unable to rely on his speedy wingers to wreak havoc on his opponent as the game wore on. Though Berhalter's use of substitutions can be rightfully critiqued on the winning side, Martino was equally baffling in his player selection and in-game formation rearrangements.
El Tri seemed lost at times when it was not able to count on the likes of Corona, Lozano and Lainez to create instant offense. When Henry Martin subbed in for Corona (who was on a time limit due to a pre-existing injury), the Argentine manager's gambit to balance his offense failed. As they did against Costa Rica a few days before, Mexico was far less dangerous up front with a true center-forward than without. Borrowing a page from Los Ticos, Berhalter dared El Tri to attack his team through the middle by stymieing the wingers -- it worked.
On defense, against talented players with line breaking speed, it was borderline irresponsible to keep 33-year-old Hector Moreno in for exactly 100 minutes. Though Hector Herrera was gassed and in constant danger of picking up a red card when extra time rolled around, bringing in 34-year-old Andres Guardado to fill the role was a questionable move. Even with his fresh legs, Pulisic and McKennie tore into the Real Betis midfielder at will.
Yes, some of these poor decisions can be chalked up to Mexico's looming generational switch and the aforementioned lack of depth, but Martino's decision-making will be increasingly under the microscope from now on.
How does this project for the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying?
Carlisle: The roster that Berhalter takes to the Gold Cup is bound to be completely different than the one that contested the Nations League. He wants and needs his Europe-based players to get a rest after long club seasons. The clubs will be grateful for his judicious use of those stars as well. Instead, Berhalter will go with a group derived mostly from MLS. That should help him get some answers as to who will comprise his depth pieces, and he even might uncover a player or two -- Daryl Dike, perhaps? -- who can become steady contributors.
World Cup qualifying is easily the biggest priority, and that is when the viewing public will next see the players who were on show Sunday night. While the CNL has no direct impact on that competition, the confidence boost gained from that competition should set the U.S. up well when qualifying commences in September with a triple-fixture window. Part of the reason the U.S. scheduled a pair of friendlies around the CNL was to mimic the cadence of such a window, and Berhalter is no doubt already gleaning data from the current camp.
Included in the September window is an away game with Honduras, always a tricky encounter. The match at Honduras counts as a frontier that this group of U.S. players has yet to navigate, that being an away date in Central America. Recall that in the group stage of the CNL, the U.S. fell to Canada 2-0 in Toronto in an environment that, while not friendly, is far from the most inhospitable it will find in the region.
The U.S. is riding a wave of momentum heading into World Cup qualifying. A poor result anywhere would put a stop to that, something Berhalter will be mindful of going forward.
Gomez: The next few months have the potential to saddle Mexico fans with plenty of disappointment, celebration, or a combination of both. Losing to the United States in any official capacity is unacceptable for El Tri, which means the team will now look to the Gold Cup to make up for missing out on the inaugural Nations League crown.
However, Mexico will also field a team at the Olympics in Tokyo. Given the difficulty that stems from negotiating with European clubs to allow their players to participate (as it overlaps with the start of their season), it seems more likely El Tri will draw on Liga MX or MLS players to fill in the roster gaps, including the three overage players each country is allowed to bring. We've already mentioned the player pool limitations Martino has had to deal with for the senior team; those are only compounded when it comes to filling two full-strength sides.
Mexican fans and media have lofty expectations for their Olympic squad since the 2012 team won gold against a heavily favored Brazilian side in London, and this group is no exception. Even with El Tri's talent on display, getting past hosts Japan and medal favorites France in the group will be no easy task. This sets up a scenario where if Mexico fails to win the Gold Cup and say, does not make the quarterfinals in Tokyo, the program will roll into September's World Cup qualifiers under abundant pressure.
A quick look at newspapers and TV show pundits after the loss to the United States makes it clear: Martino's extended honeymoon period with Mexico is over, and it can only get worse as time goes on. Thus, it's critical for Mexico to have a good summer after this initial letdown at the Nations League.
Where does the rivalry go from here?
Carlisle: The rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico has suffered of late on two fronts. One is the fact that prior to Sunday night, Mexico had won the games that mattered in recent years. You had to go back to 2013 in a World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, to find the last time the U.S. won a game with something more than pride on the line.
Another was the frequency with which the two teams had been meeting. Yes, the COVID-19 pandemic put that on hold to a degree, but prior to 2020, you had to go back to 2010 -- a World Cup year -- to find the last time the two teams did not square off in a given calendar year. Rather than being special occasions, these encounters were becoming commonplace, diluting the rivalry's passion. Yes, the friendly games are money-spinners for both federations, but a "less is more" approach might help to maintain the intensity.
The improvement of the U.S. squad will also play a part in ratcheting up the rivalry. It used to be a novelty to have a U.S. player taking part in the UEFA Champions League. Last year, 10 players alone were on Champions League rosters for the group stage, which was followed on by 13 players claiming 10 trophies over the course of the club season. That kind of experience will certainly help close the gap with Mexico, which has the stronger domestic league compared to the U.S.
Gomez: The United States had not beaten Mexico in an official match since 2013. It had not won a final against El Tri since 2007. Despite a few blood-pumping moments in some of the friendlies (Miazga vs. Lainez, anyone?), Mexico could claim a near-absolute dominance of its biggest rival in recent years. Factor in other big wins at other age groups on the men's side, such as the win keeping the U.S. out of the Olympic Games last spring, and deeming the rivalry as one-sided was apropos.
But Sunday's intensity, aided by CONCACAF's absolute incompetence (featuring horrible refereeing, a trophy that might or might not be made out of foam, and oh yeah, the VAR tent inexplicably placed between benches) yielded a game for the ages. This rivalry needs more of what made the Nations League final great. Frankly, it's primed to do so given the Americans' budding generation of stars coupled with Mexico's willingness to couple its talent with top-tier coaches in recent years. It's hard to argue against anyone predicting each game featuring these two teams will be fun in the near future. If both teams make it to the Gold Cup final, we're looking at four direct matchups -- counting World Cup qualifiers -- in the next nine months.
Frankly, what does nothing to intensify the rivalry or make it better is some of the fan behavior observed in Denver. Authorities need to crack down on fans continuing to yell anti-gay slurs at games, and they most certainly need to figure out a way to protect players from those who launch projectiles from the stands, like the ones that could have injured Reyna and Martin. The half-hearted campaigns from the Mexican federation and the weak, almost laughable, enforcement of CONCACAF's three-step protocol have done little to curb misbehavior.
These types of unfortunate actions fall under the purview of both federations and should lead them to come together in an effort to stop them once and for all.