There was a moment. A few of them, actually.
Early on in the Gold Cup final between Mexico and the United States on Sunday, Christian Pulisic chased Edson Alvarez down to the sideline, the forward in hot pursuit, and scythed his marker down well after the ball was gone. Pulisic hopped up and scampered off and referee William Arrieta, who would somehow give out no yellow cards at all on a chippy night, let him get away with it. The tone was set.
Later on in the half, Hector Moreno knocked Jozy Altidore down and then planted both his knees in the American forward’s back. Weston McKennie, captain for the day in just his 14th cap as head coach Gregg Berhalter has rotated the armband, rushed over and lifted the veteran defender off his teammate. Then he got in a scuffle with Andres Guardado, who put his hand around McKennie’s neck a mere foot away from Arrieta, who inexplicably let this plain-as-day red card infraction slide.
But to dwell on that misses a larger point. The two young dynamos, Pulisic and McKennie, both 20 years old, born just three weeks apart and developed in Germany with arch rivals Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, respectively, have taken obvious leadership roles on this team.
And they also had some of the Americans better chances.
Pulisic had a fifth-minute 1-v-1 with Mexico goalkeeper Memo Ochoa, who parried his effort.
And Pulisic later attempted a cheeky chip that didn’t quite catch out Ochoa, who would be named the goalkeeper of the tournament after the game.
McKennie, for his part, dispatched a rocket volley after Jordan Morris’s header was cleared off the line, only for it to be blocked on its way in.
Still, neither Pulisic nor McKennie was to blame for the 1-0 loss to El Tri, which captured its eighth Gold Cup trophy, unseating the USA after its 2017 title.
In fact, they were two of the American silver linings in this tournament.
The promise of both players was a well-established thing, of course. Pulisic, in fact, has been the team’s best player more or less since he became a regular in the fall of 2016, days before his 18th birthday. His rise with the USA has run in parallel with his emergence at Dortmund, before earning a transfer to Premier League juggernauts Chelsea this summer. McKennie’s rise has been a tad slower, for both club and country, but his potential is equally undeniable.
They play in positions where the USA has historically been lacking. Pulisic is a true “10,” an attacking playmaker who darts about and makes things happen. McKennie is an “8” or a box-to-box midfielder, or whatever you want to call it, shuttling between his own defense and that of the opposition. Both types have been in desperately short supply in the national team’s history.
And what stood out at this Gold Cup is that for the obvious distance Berhalter’s rebuilding team still has to cover until it lives up to its considerable potential, Pulisic and McKennie embraced their central roles – both physically and in leadership.
It was moments like the above that heralded a more assertive Pulisic, now fully fledged and formed and conscious of his status as the golden boy, the arrived star and the last best hope for future glory.
“You look at Christian Pulisic, his contribution to the team this tournament was fantastic,” said Berhalter. “Both sides of the ball, off the field, on the field.”
McKennie, likewise, allowed the fire that’s always burned within him but was covered up for fear of offending to light up the field.
“You think about a player that’s relentless, on both sides of the ball, offensively, defensively,” Berhalter said of McKennie. “We’re able to see his progress, his maturity in this month period. As he started maturing and as he started to realize what level he can play at and what importance he can play to this team, I think we saw especially in the latter phases of this tournament.”
For young players to fly into challenges and scuffles like that against a daunting rival like Mexico, a team that’s also refashioning itself but that is evidently much further along, is a promising sign. It suggests a comfort within Berhalter’s setup that should translate to other prodigies like midfielder Tyler Adams and striker Josh Sargent, whenever they rejoin the fold. (Adams was injured and Sargent cut, respectively.)
When young players are put in a position to take charge and succeed in a program that desperately needs them to, you’re doing something right.
Henry Bushnell contributed reporting.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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