International Fixtures

US 3-2 Mexico: What We Learned From The USMNT’s CONCACAF Nations League Triumph

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After a gritty, back-and-forth 140+ minutes, the USMNT came away with its first trophy since 2017 and its biggest victory in a decade. No, the CONCACAF Nations League is not the most prestigious of competitions, but this victory showed US fans, the whole of CONCACAF, and the entire world that this generation of young American stars have arrived, and they’re here to stay. But what did we learn from this tournament?

Questions In Defense and Attack

5-3-2? 3-4-3? 4-3-3? The US hasn’t found its true identity–largely because our players are still growing–and that’s OK. As more players grow to be national team quality, our options will diversify. For now, we don’t quite have the quality to fit our best players into a cohesive system, which has magnified woes in both defence and attack.

Does Sergi├▒o Dest belong on the left or right? Either way, he likely needs to be played as a wing-back due to subpar defensive abilities, leaving us with a 3 centre back system. John Brooks is the best of the bunch, but the quality drops after that. Tim Ream was poor against Mexico, getting beat time and time again including for Diego Lainez’ 79th-minute go-ahead goal. Mark Mckenzie was promising against Honduras, but Mexico’s quick press gave him troubles as he gifted Mexico numerous chances, including Corona’s opening goal in the 2nd minute.

Presumed starter Aaron Long missed out due to injury, but he often has trouble playing from the back. 21-year-old Chris Richards has the ability as a ball-playing centre back, but he’s inexperienced and missed out on the roster due to injury. Does Tyler Adams slot in at centre back like he did late in the win over Mexico? The defensive issues were clear in both the semifinal and final, and if the USMNT wants to compete for anything big, they have to be solved.

The defence isn’t the only area with question marks. Despite racking up 3 against Mexico, this team does lack goals. It took an 89th-minute diving header from Jordan Pefok to squeak past Honduras 1-0. The opener against Mexico came off of a corner, with Giovanni Reyna smashing home the rebound after Weston Mckennie’s initial header hit the post. Mckennie deservedly got his goal off of another corner in the 82nd minute. Pulisic rounded off the scoring with a penalty.

DENVER, CO – JUNE 06: United States midfielder Weston McKennie (8) battles for a header in action during the CONCACAF Nations League finals between Mexico and the United States on June 06, 2021, at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver, CO. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

2 corners and a penalty kick made up the goals. They all count the same, but creating from open play is a must against higher quality opposition. Sargent had some nice moments, but he was quiet for much of his time on the pitch. Pefok did will to knock down long balls forward for Pulisic to gather but was quiet outside of that. Reyna had some wonderful flashes but they didn’t connect. With Pulisic being held quiet from open play, the creativity wasn’t there for the US. We may still be in search of the number 9 for the future–AND THAT IS OK! This team is just beginning to come together.

Built for CONCACAF

We always knew he was built for this. Think back to July 2019, when a 20-year-old Weston Mckennie played in the Gold Cup final vs. Mexico. Just after halftime, he was choked out by Andres Guardado, an older and far more experienced midfielder for the Mexican side. Mckennie didn’t back down for a second.

The energetic Texas native did it again last night, standing up for his teammates as the shoving matches piled up throughout the night. He’s got that fight in him, something every team needs, and something we’ve lacked since Clint Dempsey was doing it. As much as Pulisic deserves it, you’d have a difficult time telling anyone Weston Mckennie isn’t at least equally deserving of wearing the captain’s armband.

Mckennie won seemingly every header on corner kicks, testing Mexico goalkeeper Memo Ochoa 3 or 4 times before finally converting to level the score in the 82nd minute. When everyone’s legs were gone, he seemed to kick into overdrive as he broke up the play constantly in extra time. His passion is visible for every minute of every game, and having a captain like that does nothing but inspire teammates to do the same. Nobody is built for the scrappy nature of CONCACAF quite like Weston Mckennie is.

Breakout tournaments

Everybody knew the talent Gio Reyna possessed. He showed plenty of flashes with Borussia Dortmund this season but he had his struggles. He came into this tournament at 18 years old with a clear starting position, and boy did he deliver.

While he didn’t get on the scoresheet against Honduras, he came ever so close after dancing around 2 defenders inside the box. He got his goal against Mexico, smashing home the rebound from Weston Mckennie’s header. His incredible dribbling was on display in both matches, and he came close to notching an assist on multiple occasions. With incredible maturity for his age, Gio put the world on notice with two very solid performances and looks set to explode for Dortmund next season.

On the contrary, Ethan Horvath’s career seemed to be stalling, conceding 6 times in just 4 appearances with Belgian side Club Brugge this season. With Zack Steffen in Porto for the Champions League Final, Horvath put on a clinic in the friendly against Switzerland, bailing out poor defending from the US time and time again. Steffen arrived and immediately took his place between the sticks for Honduras and Mexico. What happened next can only be described as fate calling.

When Zack Steffen went down injured with around 25 minutes remaining in the match, Horvath’s number was called. Just over 10 minutes later, Diego Lainez beat him at his near post. Horvath didn’t get rattled. He made some enormous saves down the stretch, including denying Chucky Lozano in the 90th minute with the score level. We all know what happened next.

Faced with impossible odds, Horvath pulled out the save of his life, denying Andr├ęs Guardado from the penalty spot in the 122′. It’s been a long time since the USMNT has had serious competition at the goalkeeper spot. Horvath may have played himself into consideration for the starting job. Horvath’s incredible performances against Switzerland and Mexico have surely given him a chance to fight for the #1 spot.

Resilience and Character

Conceding 65 seconds into a final is rough. Gifting the opposition the goal hurts morale that much more. To add insult to injury, the US thought they were down 2-0 just over 20 minutes into the final until VAR rightfully ruled out Mexico’s 2nd goal for offsides.

It would’ve been easy for heads to drop and to get absolutely smashed. After years of underperforming, missing out on the World Cup, and being constantly bested by Mexico, it was hard to see a way back mentally for this group. On top of that, Mexico’s starting XI average out at over 4 years older than that of the United States. But the young guns didn’t quit. They believed.

Under 2 minutes after nearly going 2-0 down, the US found its equalizer. 3 minutes after conceding a go-ahead goal in the 79′, they came right back with an answer. When Mexico seemed to have all the momentum, the scrappy young core of the US Men’s National Team stole it back. We hadn’t seen this type of resilience and belief in a side in years. Every one of those young stars showed a mentality that should give this country unparalleled hope for the future.

Christian Pulisic didn’t have a great night. He turned it over, took lots of poor touches, and misplaced passes throughout the match. Yet when he won that penalty in the 2nd half of extra time, he didn’t hesitate. It was his, he was taking it, and he was smashing it into the top corner. With all the pressure of the world on his back, he delivered to bring silverware home for his country.

That mentality is more important than any amount of talent you can have. We knew this group was special in terms of talent, but the mentality they showed is something far more special. This is a group of winners, and they’re nowhere close to finished.

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