We’ve missed the intensity of a big USMNT match. Finally, we got one of them on Sunday in the CONCACAF Nations League final, a bonkers 3-2 extra time win over Mexico.
The game showcased something close to a peak US side in a competitive game, and the result was the US’s first non-friendly win over Mexico since 2018.
USMNT vs Mexico match talking points
If you missed it, a lot happened. Mexico scored within the first two minutes and had the edge early until Giovanni Reyna equalized in the 27th-minute.
It was a back-and-forth, attacking game throughout. With about ten minutes left in regular time, Mexico coach Tata Martino inserted Diego Lainez to attack left back Tim Ream, which paid off immediately as Lainez scored to take the lead.
Things didn’t look great for the US. But not long after Lainez cooked Ream, Weston McKennie headed home a corner and tied the game. All sorts of controversy and fracas ensued in second half stoppage time. Mexico fans dumped debris on the field, injuring Reyna and hitting both teams’ players. The game had to be paused to try to stop Mexico’s supporters from chanting homophobic slurs.
Extra time didn’t shut those lunatics up, but it did send them home unhappy. Christian Pulisic, after a quiet 110 minutes, drew a penalty and converted it in emphatic fashion to take the lead. The long VAR review that resulted in the penalty saw Martino sent off with a red card.
A few minutes later, another VAR review sent Mexico to the spot as McKennie was called for a handball in the box. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen had left with a non-contact knee injury in the second half, so the US had to trust backup Ethan Horvath. He produced an amazing save on Andres Guardado and the US lifted an immensely satisfying trophy.
Berhalter’s tactics eventually pay off
Grinding out these past two Nations League games is a great sign for a very young national team. They didn’t inspire a huge amount of confidence in a sluggish 1-0 win over bunkering Honduras in the Nations League semifinal, but they kept pushing against Mexico and managed enough to beat an experienced team.
Gregg Berhalter put out an interesting 3-4-2-1 formation at the start, a flexible look with unbalanced flanks. Ream started as a cross between a left back and a center back, providing cover as Sergino Dest defended the space behind Pulisic. On the opposite side, DeAndre Yedlin played wingback and overlapped frequently with Reyna. The two-man center midfield of McKennie and Kellyn Acosta served to take away Mexico’s central channels. The pressure was on Mexico’s wide attackers to produce, and until Lainez entered, they didn’t have quite enough.
The downside of Berhalter’s initial formation was Pulisic’s lack of production. It’s hard to fault the tactics for Pulisic struggling, but there’s no doubt that Berhalter’s switch to a four-at-the-back in the second half coincided with a more productive Pulisic. The 4-2-3-1 look placed Pulisic in between true wingers and let him dictate from the center. He looked better dribbling through central areas with wide players spreading the field.
The tactical switch later in the game initially resulted in Lainez going right at Ream, which was clearly an unfavorable matchup for the US. Berhalter responded by bringing on Tyler Adams to patrol central midfield while keeping Acosta on to corral Lainez. The ball-winning and defense that adjustment provided freed the attackers to get out in transition, which at that point in the game was more important than anything.
How will the USMNT handle World Cup qualifity?
It’s not yet clear how the US will line up when World Cup qualifying kicks off in the fall. John Brooks, who was excellent, will be one of the first names on the team sheet at center back, while the spot next to him should be an open competition after Aaron Long went down for the year and Mark McKenzie was less than superb against Mexico. Walker Zimmerman is the first name that comes to mind as a potential starter next to Brooks, and it’s likely that Chris Richards will get a look too.
They’ll need better games out of Dest. Given that he’s 20 and already starting games next to Lionel Messi, he’ll be just fine.
The forward spot is the other obvious question mark — Josh Sargent went goalless again and missed a sitter in the second half on a rebound from a McKennie shot. Sargent still feels like the starter, but a clear star at that spot has not emerged. On the other hand, Acosta’s impressive 120-minute performance gives the US another quality option in midfield. Horvath’s heroics also inspire confidence that he can fill in if Steffen is out.
Ultimately, this USMNT team looked together and dedicated, a unit that wants to win. This should be the group playing the big games for years to come, and if this game is any indication, more big wins should follow.