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July 6, 2019

Gold Cup Final Preview: USMNT vs Mexico

Peter Nolan July 6, 2019

Who: USA vs Mexico
When: Sunday @ 9:00 pm ET
Where: Soldier Field, Chicago, IL
Line: Mexico +120 | Draw +205 | USA +225

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The following tweet from Xavier Sol la Lande is making the rounds.

If it is to be believed then we shouldn’t expect much of a battle when the USMNT face Mexico Sunday night at Soldier Field in Chicago in the Gold Cup Final.

Is Mexico really that far ahead of the US?

It is an interesting tweet though, because other than Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, not too many American fans are likely to go to the mat to advocate for the U.S players as superior to their Mexican counterparts.

The tweet and its thesis that the Mexican players are universally more talented than the Americans is interesting because the two national teams have had oddly similar Gold Cups. One difference is that Mexico’s coach Tata Martino, late of Atlanta United, has brought what many considered a “B” team, minus the likes of Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez, Carlos Vela, Hector Herrera, and others.

But back to the similarities. Both sides eased through group play with perfect 3-0-0 records. They easily advancing to the knockout rounds, as pre-ordained by the Gold Cup schedule makers.

And while Mexico hammered Cuba 7-0 and the U.S slammed Guyana 4-0 and T&T 6-0, there were tenser moments as well.

For the Americans, a 1-0 victory over Panama was mostly excused because Panama has given the Americans trouble in the past and coach Gregg Berhalter ran out an entirely new starting 11 vs. the Canaleros.

Mexico wasn’t overly impressive in a 3-1 win over Canada but this was the year Canada was supposed to fulfill all that promise, wasn’t it? More concerning for El Tri was a narrow 3-2 win over Martinique.

The U.S. had that moment in the quarterfinals, struggling to a 1-0 victory over Curacao, while Mexico battled Costa Rica to a 1-1 draw before prevailing on penalty kicks in a battle of equals.

Berhalter insisted that all was well in his team’s narrow escape versus the tiny constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Curacao, but he wisely made several lineup changes for the semifinal match with Jamaica.

Mexico’s semifinal versus Haiti proved to be a surprising nailbiter as they struggled to a 1-0 victory over Haiti, a longtime struggler that appears to be on the rise.

So, two teams that have failed to live up to expectations against some weaker opponents, while providing some moments of excitement and still managing to survive to the meet in the final as expected.

Another interesting tidbit is that the seven times winner, Mexico and the six times winner, the USA, do not meet regularly in the final, this will be the first time since 2011 that the two CONCACAF powers have met in the Championship match of the semi-annual event.

No, but seriously, are Mexican national players that much better than the US?

So, are the Mexican players all > better than their American counterparts and does it matter in a team sport?

Well, not really, and not really.

Pulisic and McKennie are getting stronger as the Gold Cup goes on and seem to be on the verge of taking over this team and claiming it as their own. In some cases, it is too close to call or maybe worry about, like in goal where Ochoa is in good form but so is Zack Steffen (and the younger American has a huge upside).

But, again, soccer, football, futbol, however you refer to it, is a team sport and these two teams seem fairly evenly matched as we head to Sunday night’s showdown.

Mexico plays primarily in a 4-3-3, likes to control possession and will give the U.S. trouble in the midfield. Andres Guardado, always tough on the Americans, Jonatha Dos Santos, and Jesus Gallardo will cause problems. That trio will need to be battled to a standstill or better by Michael Bradley, Weston McKennie, and Christian Pulisic.

And Berhalter’s defense will need to be on its toes to blunt the Mexico frontline. Led by Wolverhampton target man Raul Jiminez, who has five goals in this tournament, speedy L.A. Galaxy winger Uriel Antuna, who has four, and Rodolfo Pizzaro, this is a formidable front three.

Berhalter’s selections are critical

Berhalter has some decisions to make after his team impressed in the semifinal against Jamaica. Does he stay with Reggie Cannon and Matt Miazga over Nick Lima and Walker Zimmerman?

Cannon provides an element of speed that Lima doesn’t, but Lima has been a Berhalter guy from the beginning. Miazga was beaten for Jamaica’s goal but had a strong game otherwise. Zimmerman was a rare bright spot for the U.S. against Curacao.

The defensive calls are close ones. Berhalter will also have to choose between Tyler Boyd and Jordan Morris at right-wing, essentially another jump ball. The coach’s other big decision, however, should be no decision at all.

To lead the attack it has to be Jozy Altidore over Gyasi Zardes. Against Jamaica, Altidore played a strong first 56’ before being replaced by Zardes. Once in, Zardes promptly missed a sitter before turning the ball over, leading to Jamaica’s goal, the only goal the U.S. has surrendered at this Gold Cup.

So, yeah, start Altidore.

The US has little margin for error in this game. Berhalter’s must nail his selections.

The USWNT Winning the World Cup Is Inevitable; Approach Sunday’s Final Accordingly

Avatar July 6, 2019

The head start is gone; the rest of the world has caught up.

The development system is just too inefficient.

Jill Ellis will finally get exposed.

The lingering obsession with pace, power and fitness will eventually sink the United States.

That signature American arrogance will be their undoing.

People in and around women’s soccer in the U.S. have been hearing, and saying, things like this for the better part of two decades. They’ve been saying it the past month too. There’s at least a kernel of truth in many of these sayings.

After wallowing in misogyny and institutional sexism for decades, many of the sport’s traditional hotbeds are finally waking up to the women’s game.

The American youth club soccer landscape is indeed a chaotic, cash-driven crab barrel that caters to the white and wealthy, where marginalized groups are overlooked and under-represented and culture and craftsmanship take a back seat to crass consumerist scorekeeping. College ball is a pretty hot mess, too.

Talent trumps everything

As steady as Jill Ellis’ hand has been on the helm this summer and as bought-in as her team appears, her cumulative track record remains open to examination. She still serves up several head-scratching decisions a year and she’ll always be associated with the 2016 Olympic faceplant, one of the biggest fiascoes in USWNT history. Even when she’s flawless, the fearsome riches of quality at her disposal inevitably obscure efforts to divine just what share of the credit she truly deserves.

Her charismatic, supremely talented players have built a strong case in their pursuit of gender equity from the U.S. Soccer Federation. Nonetheless, they work full-time in the most advanced and lavishly-supported women’s national team program on the planet. Occasionally, they come off sounding tone-deaf about that and their place in the wider world of WoSo.

So yes, there are complicated and imperfect aspects to the USWNT as the defending world champs approach the summit again this weekend. Their sport is evolving quickly and there are absolutely no guarantees that what has worked up to now will continue to work into the future.

And in all likelihood, all that won’t matter when they face the Netherlands in Lyon, France in the final of the 2019 Women’s World Cup on Sunday.

An imperfect system that’s still too big to fail

“We win any way possible and it is the DNA of this team to win no matter what,” U.S. center back Abby Dahlkemper told reporters earlier this week.

The USWNT are a machine. They’re a thoroughbred competitive powerhouse a quarter-century in the making that has in recent years managed to refresh itself without losing hold of the established magic that’s been passed down from generation to generation. The depth of the player pool is the envy of the world. Each roster is a shark’s mouth of gleaming, razor-sharp teeth with endless rows of replacements waiting to push forward to fill any gap.

The program sits atop an enormous, cutthroat soccer pyramid founded on the sheer overwhelming numerical superiority of some 2 million registered players from youth to adult across the richest nation on the planet.

It’s prominently failed to value and mobilize the country’s Hispanic, immigrant and blue-collar populations. This has allowed a tradition of direct, often brutally physical play to take root and shortsightedly severed the elite tiers of youth play from the dominant U.S. cultural paradigm of high-school sports. And American women’s soccer can still call on an incredible depth and array of resources – human, infrastructure and beyond.

Dozens of thousands of youth clubs and coaches dot the map and competitive leagues abound. There are about 600 NCAA Division I and II collegiate women’s soccer programs, offering thousands of athletic scholarships and hundreds of quasi-professional, highly-competitive training environments. And there are many more schools at the NAIA and D3 levels. (Even if many of the governing body’s outdated rules and regulations are an active hindrance to nurturing new generations of modern footballers.)

It’s run on a shoestring and troubling threadbare in important ways. But the federation-affiliated professional league, NWSL, is the most fiercely competitive top flight in the world. It’s about to get it’s time to shine too, with a newly minted ESPN TV contract. The league is cauldron of demanding soccer and dedicated pros where even poverty-line contracts are keenly pursued and USWNTers past, present and future vie for the attention of Ellis and her staff.

And on those rare occasions when the senior squad fail to perform –- like against Sweden in Brasilia three years ago — or the infamous 4-0 WWC semifinal loss to Brazil in Hangzhou, China in 2007 — or the epic 2011 final loss to Japan –- their adversaries still must get everything right to defeat them. The margins for error are so big on one side, and so tiny on the other.

“We step on the field every time and we know we’re going to get the [opponent’s] best game and we have to play to our very best,” veteran defender Kelley O’Hara said this week. “I don’t think we ever underestimate anything. I think that’s what what people project onto us.”

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Culture, we are often told, eats strategy for breakfast. And as often as Ellis, April Heinrichs, Sunil Gulati, the mandarins of the NCAA and USSF boardrooms, various figures in various youth organizations and other powers that be may have goofed up on strategic stuff over the years, the cumulative size, history and momentum of women’s soccer’s place in the United States endures.

The intoxicating allure of the beautiful game is that any team can win on any given day, and that should cheer both the marked underdogs in orange and the neutral viewers on Sunday. What’s just as liable to chill their hearts, however, is the a sprawling, star-spangled stack of institutional advantages piled atop the opposite side of the ledger.

And those are probably not going to fade away any time soon.

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