Jun 5, 2021
U.S. soccer correspondent
- Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC.
It has been almost two years since CONCACAF giants United States and Mexico met in a competitive fixture, when El Tri triumphed 1-0 in the Gold Cup final, but they renew their rivalry on Sunday in the CONCACAF Nations League final.
The U.S. has integrated a slew of Europe-based stars, but its eternal rivals remain strong despite the absence of some key names. With a trophy on the line, Jeff Carlisle (U.S.) and Eric Gomez (Mexico) assess the evolution of both teams over the past two years and predict who comes out on top in Denver.
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What’s changed since the U.S. and Mexico’s last competitive meeting?
Carlisle: Go back to the U.S. lineup against Mexico in the Gold Cup final and only three starters — goalkeeper Zack Steffen, midfielder Weston McKennie and forward Christian Pulisic — are likely to reprise their roles on Sunday. As for the other eight? Their absences are down to the usual triumvirate of form, health or Father Time.
The losses to injury of defender Aaron Long and winger Jordan Morris are heavy setbacks, while it is possible we have seen the last of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore in national team uniform. Matt Miazga remains in the mix, though he appears to be second choice, behind Mark McKenzie and John Brooks.
A new generation also has come to the fore over the past two years. Sergino Dest and Gio Reyna are surefire starters, while Josh Sargent is the preferred option up front. Yunus Musah, Brenden Aaronson, Antonee Robinson and Thursday’s semifinal hero Jordan Siebatcheu also are knocking on the door of the starting XI.
For all the personnel turnover, however, familiar concerns remain. Tyler Adams would be a lock at the No. 6 position, but the midfielder has been unavailable due to injury for the bulk of coach Gregg Berhalter’s tenure and, the coach said on Saturday, will be a game-time decision to start against Mexico. Jackson Yueill and, to a lesser extent, Kellyn Acosta have filled in, but neither player is as well-rounded as Adams.
The forward position is also up in the air. Sargent has generally done the hard yards but failed to score goals, while Altidore is in limbo with club side Toronto FC and has yet to convince Berhalter he can be the go-to guy. Siebatcheu and Daryl Dike, meanwhile, are among those trying to force their way into the reckoning.
The pedigree of club, for which U.S. performers’ play, has boosted the hopes of fans that this generation can have success. Being part of a team expected to contend for silverware is becoming more of the norm than the exception and the just concluded season saw 10 players claim a total of 13 trophies, capped by Pulisic’s triumph with Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League.
But with increased excitement comes increased expectation, and there is almost a demand that the Americans not only win but win well. A series of good results in the past 18 months — albeit usually in friendlies against experimental sides — fed into that, but a competitive fixture like Thursday’s semifinal struggle against Honduras is a reminder that CONCACAF remains no walk in the park.
Gomez: Although 14 of the players involved at Soldier Field two years ago are available for selection on Sunday, two absentees are among the most important in Mexico’s player pool. Jonathan dos Santos, who scored the winner in 2019, dropped out of the Nations League finals with a leg injury, while Raul Jimenez has not played any soccer since suffering a fractured skull while playing for Wolves in November.
Dos Santos has been vital when paired with Hector Herrera in the center of midfield and is especially valued for his ability to organize attacks and retreat to a defensive position in transition. In Thursday’s semifinal against Costa Rica, that cover was sorely missed, with 34-year-old Andres Guardado exposed on the counter.
The U.S. will surely attempt to exploit the same weakness, with players like Reyna and Sargent in the middle and with Pulisic cutting in off the wing. Mexico coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino attempted to limit the damage on Thursday by placing Edson Alvarez between Hector Moreno and Nestor Araujo on defense, and the reinforced backline did cut down on Costa Rica’s attacking power, but at a cost.
The knock-on effect of the adjustment was its limit upon Mexico’s ability to start attacks through the middle of the field, with reliance increasing on Gerardo Arteaga and Uriel Antuna on the wings. And compounding that issue is the inability to replace its most lethal forward, Jimenez.
Without his presence, El Tri opponents have come to understand their sole focus should be Hirving Lozano. Costa Rica physically harassed the Napoli winger, correctly gambling that center-forwards Henry Martin and Alan Pulido would not beat them. Martino’s attempt to redirect the game’s flow through the center — by subbing out a wide player like Diego Lainez in favor of Luis Romo — had little impact.
Though the U.S. struggled at times with a speedy forward like Alberth Elis against Honduras, Lozano will not sneak up on them. Thus, the challenge for Martino will be to construct a lineup that replicates the production of missing stars and minimizes the impact of his opponent’s young, electrifying talent. Judging by what we saw against Costa Rica, it might not be an easy task.
Given the familiarity the players have with each other, it would seem that Martino and Berhalter — both of whom also were on the sidelines for the 2019 Gold Cup final — will be unable to keep any secrets from each other.
What does the Nations League final mean for each team?
Carlisle: Given the upcoming international calendar — this summer’s Gold Cup is set to feature less than full-strength sides — the Nations League amounts to the latest chance for the U.S. to reassert itself in the rivalry with Mexico.
Sure, there has been the odd friendly victory in recent years, but you have to go back to a Sep. 10, 2013, World Cup qualifier to find the last time that the U.S. prevailed over El Tri in a competitive match. Since then, Mexico’s record in such encounters is 3-0-1, while the failure of the U.S. to qualify for the 2018 World Cup only adds to the sense of distance between the two sides.
The new faces on the U.S. side are supposed to close that gap, and given that 10 players featured on clubs playing in the group stage of last season’s Champions League, the step up in competition bodes well. But a supposed “golden generation” needs trophies, especially at the expense of its biggest rivals. Moreover, any manager needs signature wins to create momentum, especially with World Cup qualifying to start in September. Sunday’s contest provides an opportunity on both counts.
Gomez: Fabled Mexican manager Ignacio Trelles famously stated that rivalry matches “should be played with a cool head and hot feet,” and that summarizes the feeling of a nation whose identity and pride is so entrenched with its national team: It is thus simply unacceptable for Mexico to lose any meaningful match to the United States.
While recent years have seen the U.S. enjoy a golden age of player development at some of the biggest clubs in Europe, Martino’s desire to see Mexican players do the same has been mostly stifled, with several choosing bigger contracts in Liga MX or MLS instead of heading across the Atlantic.
Nevertheless, El Tri has mostly dealt with its rival’s increasing profile and if, as it did two years ago, Mexico continues to hold the upper hand, it will be business as usual. If not, though, a not insignificant portion of fans will likely turn into Chicken Little and demand change, putting a previously unseen amount of pressure on Martino, who has aced all of his prior challenges.
Carlisle: U.S. 0-1 Mexico
The U.S. will have more of the ball than is usual against Mexico, but El Tri will be a bit more clinical in front of goal and get the breakthrough it needs through Lozano.
Gomez: U.S. 1-1 Mexico (Mexico wins 5-4 on penalties)
Despite the obsessions of Martino and Berhalter with cancelling out each other’s biggest star, Lozano and Pulisic will score. Then, though, wily veteran goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa repeats his semifinal heroics by stopping the deciding spot kick.