Three things from USMNT’s Gold Cup final loss to Mexico

Andy Edwards
NBC Sports

Gregg Berhalter’s first tournament, the 2019 Gold Cup, as U.S. men’s national team head coach is in the books.

Sure, Sunday’s final defeat to Mexico stings — as does any defeat to El Tri — but the 2022 World Cup is still more than 36 months away. With that in mind, what did we learn about the USMNT on Sunday and throughout this tournament?

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Baptism by fire for so many players

The intensity, the speed, the rash challenges, the constant antics. These are the things that have come to best explain the U.S.-Mexico rivalry, and they were all on full display from the opening whistle on Sunday.

The likes of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, seasoned veterans of the last decade, weren’t at all bothered and have learned to embrace the extracurriculars. Surprisingly, many of the first-timers adapted quickly and found their footing without any major causes for concern, even in the game’s opening minutes.

Right back Reggie Cannon (21 years old with five caps) was arguably the best American player in the first half (non-Christian Pulisic division); Weston McKennie took it upon himself to play the role of enforcer on multiple occasions; Paul Arriola was his usual steady self and shied away from no dirty elbow.

No one backed down, no one played timidly, no one took the bait and harmed the team. As far as intense, high-stakes games go, this was a surprisingly mature performance.

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Berhalter got his subs wrong

Locked in a 0-0 game, Berhalter made the following substitutions early in the second half:

While bringing Zardes on for Altidore doesn’t look great on paper, he’s the only center forward Berhalter could realistically call upon off the bench. Not to mention, Altidore wasn’t having the best game of his career, even if you take out of his inexcusable miss in the 8th minute. The whole thing is… whatever.

The idea behind bringing Roldan on for Morris — with Tyler Boyd taking up space on the bench — is indecipherable. Did he want an extra body in central midfield to create more possession and slow the game down? Was it all about pushing Pulisic out to the wing? Can anyone make any sense of this?

Alternatively, Djordje Mihailovic, an actual no. 10.

Down a goal in a cup final, with fewer than 10 minutes remaining, Berhalter did the following:

I’m sorry, he did what?

The left back came off, which is a totally normal move when you’re down a goal and throwing all caution to the wind… to be replaced by another left back.

I don’t even need to launch into a tirade to explain why this is insane.

Alternatively, bring Boyd on and overload one wing, or give Pulisic a totally free role to drift anywhere and everywhere. Heck, bring Jonathan Lewis into a game that was entirely too stretched for anyone’s liking and let him run at defenders one on one. Simply put, there were a number of different ways Berhalter could have gone with his final sub, and what he did might have actually been the worst possible option.

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A positive tournament for the USMNT

Let’s end on a happy note, why don’t we?

The USMNT looked completely lost at sea when they began this tournament three weeks ago. By the time the quarterfinals and semifinals rolled around, that was no longer the case — and, against much tougher competition. It’s clear that Berhalter was able to make a lot of progress in a short period of time, and that should be held up as a hugely promising sign going forward.

We can bicker over whether or not “the system” or “the player pool” should dictate how the team plays on a given day, but when he has a full complement of players healthy and available for selection (e.g., Tyler Adams, John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and Josh Sargent), they actually match up quite well.

The issue, as always, is that the player pool is still the player pool. Even when Adams and Sargent come back into the team later this year, the USMNT will still be thin in those positions, but at least they’ll have a quality starter to build upon, right?

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