EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- In the lead-up to the United States vs. Mexico friendly Friday night at MetLife Stadium, the rhetoric from both sides was the same.
"I think right now, Mexico is slightly ahead of us, having beaten us in the last game and having performed well over the last few years," U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said.
"I think that as a general panorama, our players are competing in leagues that are better than the players in the United States national team and I also think that the Mexican league is above MLS, which means it's very probable that [Berhalter] is right and that from his position he sees the Mexican national team as a little bit better than the U.S. in a general context," El Tri boss Geraldo "Tata" Martino offered.
And it was true. Heading into the friendly, the U.S. had won only one of the past five matches against its opponent, which had reasserted its CONCACAF dominance with a 1-0 victory in July's Gold Cup final. While nothing that occurred during the 90-minute friendly at the Meadowlands was going to alter that narrative, the question was how much of the gap the Stars and Stripes had closed?
The answer: not as much as the American fanbase hoped.
The Mexico squad -- bolstered by the additions of Diego Reyes, Hector Herrera, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez, and Jesus "Tecatito" Corona who didn't appear in the Gold Cup -- dominated for long stretches, winning 3-0.
"As you can see, we still have a lot to work on," U.S. midfielder Christian Pulisic said after the match. "Things just never really went our way."
The biggest indication of the gap came on Mexico's first goal in the 21st minute. After an extensive period of possession that saw the visitors work the ball easily around the field, Corona nutmegged defender Sergino Dest -- who was making his USMNT debut -- then sent in a cross that Hernandez headed past Zack Steffen. It was a brilliant goal, the type of coordinated team tally that any coach would love.
Could the Americans score a goal like that? Maybe, eventually. The way Mexico's side-to-side movement unbalanced the U.S. bears a similarity with how Berhalter wants his team to play. The Americans aren't, however, there. The shape is improving, yet the ideas, passes, and vision come too slowly. Too often the U.S. players were forced to pass back to Steffen when trying to break Mexico's pressure.
"We kind of panicked, and those are things we have to adjust to in the heat of the situation because obviously Mexico is a very pressure-oriented team," right back Reggie Cannon said. "That's something we have to learn to work around. It's not easy task to play out of the back."
The breakouts were too slow, passes a yard or two off, runs mistimed, decisions slow. The mental part of the game isn't fast enough, either.
But, of course, this was a friendly. A meaningless game where the score wasn't as important as the progress. To hear Berhalter tell it, Friday night was a step in the right direction.
"Our focus was to keep trying to focus on making progress as group," Berhalter said in a postmatch news conference. "Being brave with the ball. Looking for holes. There were times when it was good. And times when it wasn't good."
On balance, there were more times when it wasn't good. Which isn't to say that it was never good. For the Americans, there's hope. There's always hope.
Part of the hope, as always, stems from the U.S. youth movement. For better or -- mostly against Mexico -- worse, regime change is on, with Berhalter trotting out a starting roster with an average age of 24 years, 150 days. Unlike the past, where the excitement was pinned on potential, these young Americans are already an accomplished bunch. Pulisic is showing well in the Premier League. The abilities of Weston McKennie and Steffen continue to develop in the Bundesliga, as does Joshua Sargent who joined as a second-half substitute. Dest, 18, is getting looks at Ajax. Cannon is getting better at FC Dallas.
While none had his best game against Mexico -- Pulisic, fouled a game-high four times, grew especially frustrated -- each showed something. In the 12th minute, Pulisic took on four defenders, dribbling into space then releasing a pass to a teammate. Minutes later, Dest ripped a curling shot from 25 yards that forced Jonathan Orozco to make the first decent save of the match. After the half, the entire team competed better and harder (at least until the subs came on, the flow of the game broke down, and Mexico piled on two more). Sargent drew a penalty kick off a great feed from Sebastian Lletget (and then had his subsequent attempt stuffed by Orozco).
These were the highlights. They were few and far between. It turned into a long evening against a superior opponent. But the U.S. didn't give up on what it was trying to do.
"That's actually the big point that people are failing to grasp: You can't abandon the concepts when things get hard because that way we won't improve," Cannon said. "In two years, we're going to be in the same spot. When things get tough like that, when you come in against a Mexico team that is pressing the heck out of you, you have to learn how to play out. Unfortunately, that's going to come with mistakes."
On the night, there were mistakes. Pick an adjective: Disorienting. Difficult. Discouraging.
And yet: "Of course there are frustrations when you lose 3-0," Pulisic said. "There's always frustrations. But we have a style of play that we are setting out that we're still trying to execute, and obviously today we didn't pull it off at all times, but in the mix of things there were a few good moments."
Berhalter agreed. "The build-up is continuing to be a process, and I think today we showed improvement," he said.
Before Friday night, Mexico was the best team in CONCACAF. After Friday, it still is better in every phase of the game. The U.S. remain in the rearview mirror. But fortunes can change. Objects can be closer than they appear.