Mexico Turns Tide, Wins Gold Cup Title Again vs. Wasteful USMNT

Brian Straus
Sports Illustrated

CHICAGO — A U.S. men's national team that started this Concacaf Gold Cup tournament as an unknown quantity ended it as respectable silver medalists, losing to Mexico in Sunday’s final at sold-out Soldier Field in Chicago, 1-0.

The USA played well enough to match El Tri for most of the evening, but the difference in quality in front of goal was the determining factor–as it frequently has been when these teams meet. Considering where the U.S. was just a few months ago, it was a good month. But that’s the long view. On the day, defeat by a Mexican side missing several big-name players will be tough to swallow. The Americans had their chances.

Here are three thoughts from the final:

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Dos Santos ends Mexican frustration, American hopes

It was yet another chance of the U.S. to take the lead, and for some reason, this miss seemed to turn the tide. It was the 51st minute of an even, gripping game. Christian Pulisic hit a corner kick, and Jordan Morris rose unchallenged and headed the ball toward what looked like a vacant goal. Except it wasn’t. Veteran Andrés Guardado was on the line to head it clear, and from then on, El Tri was close to dominant.

The Americans were suddenly on the back foot, unable to consistently find Pulisic or connect on the longer, diagonal passes that were effective earlier on the night. The pressure intensified, and USA coach Gregg Berhalter made two subs in an attempt to change the dynamic, bringing Cristian Roldan and Gyasi Zardes on for Morris and Jozy Altidore, respectively, but the desired impact wasn't achieved. Mexico nearly took the lead in the 63rd, but goalkeeper Zack Steffen denied Raúl Jiménez, who scuffed his chance from close range. That chance, like most of El Tri’s offense on Sunday was created by Rodolfo Pizarro, the Monterrey forward who was on the ball constantly and always a threat on the dribble.

Pizarro, who appeared to suffer a gruesome injury just before halftime but returned for the second 45 with his elbow wrapped, was the catalyst on the trophy-winning play. His dribbling drew the attention of the U.S. defense, and his pass into the penalty area was quickly back-heeled by Jiménez to the LA Galaxy’s Jonathan dos Santos. Steffen had no chance on the Mexican hero’s curling shot, which grazed the underside of the crossbar before breaking American hearts.

Based on the 20-minute run of play preceding the goal, it was deserved. The U.S. had no answer for Pizarro, and as the second half wore on, it seemed one of his teammates inevitably would convert a chance.

The goal lifted Mexico to its eighth Gold Cup title, its 11th Concacaf championship, and a 5-1 record against the USA in the tournament’s title game.

Dylan Buell/Getty Images
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

USA rues its missed chances

Guardado’s clearance and the subsequent shift in momentum wouldn’t have felt so earth-shattering if the USA had a multi-goal lead. Oh, what could’ve been. For the first hour, even though it didn’t dominate the ball, the Americans created the better scoring chances by far. Unfortunately for Berhalter and his players, none were finished.

It was reminiscent of the early stages of the quarterfinal against Curaçao, against whom the wasteful USA earned a reprieve. It had no such luck here. Pulisic had the first best look in the fifth minute, as he dribbled around Carlos Salcedo, only to see charging goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa snuff it out. Three minutes later, Altidore won a beautiful long ball from left back Tim Ream and beat Héctor Moreno. With Ochoa at his mercy, Altidore pushed his open look wide right.

An alert Paul Arriola, who had a good game on the American right, snuck in front of Ochoa to win the ball in the 31st minute, but he couldn’t turn and find the net from a right-sided angle. And in the 43rd, Pulisic nearly chipped Ochoa, but he had his chance caught.

During a final, frantic attempt to pull level, Roldan fired a close-range shot that was blocked by Moreno. By then, however, it seemed the USA’s fate was sealed. In a game like this, with high stakes and high intensity, you’ve got to finish the chances.

Michael Bradley was prescient when speaking before the final. “Any big game, there’s a combination of tactics, of emotion, of on the day, who has more guys that play well, who executes better,” he said. “In the big important moments in the match, who’s able to make plays that count in front of both goals.”

At Soldier Field, it was El Tri.

Matthew Ashton/AMA/Getty Images
Matthew Ashton/AMA/Getty Images

A tough game, but some positives overall for USA

In time, despite Sunday’s disappointment, this tournament should be considered a relative success for the USA. This was a program that was dysfunctional, then disappointed, then somewhat moribund for so long, its very identity was in question.

This month, it started to look like a team again. Berhalter has his squad playing with some tactical and positional consistency, with clear ideas that he and the players try to articulate. There’s been an effort to pass the leadership torch (Weston McKennie captained the team in the final), and an effort to make decisions about where the best and most promising players belong on the field (most notably, Pulisic’s deployment as a hybrid No. 10).

A couple significant players still need to be integrated (especially Tyler Adams), and there are obvious needs and issues of depth at certain positions (outside back, striker). Berhalter has been on the job only six months, and there remains a lot of work to do. But a 5-1-0 Gold Cup record, only two goals conceded, offensive contributions from several players, an excellent performance in the semifinal win over Jamaica and regrets after a solid showing on Sunday represent something to build on. It may not warrant a parade, but after a fallow couple of years, it’s something.

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