USMNT beats Mexico for 3rd straight Nations League title on Tyler Adams' rocket, Gio Reyna's clincher

United States midfielder Tyler Adams (4) celebrates his goal with forward Christian Pulisic during the first half of a CONCACAF Nations League final soccer match against Mexico, Sunday, March 24, 2024, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

ARLINGTON, Tex. — The tamest U.S.-Mexico match in years was creeping toward halftime, gently, quietly, when the diminutive rocket-launcher stepped forward to ignite it.

The concourses here at AT&T Stadium were already filling. The constant din of this festive rivalry was petering out. The first 44 minutes of the 2024 Concacaf Nations League final had largely failed to excite.

And that's when Tyler Adams — all 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds of him — spread his arms, hollered for the ball some 40 yards from goal, and fired the U.S. men's national team toward its third straight Nations League title.

Adams, of course, is a pitbull-like defensive midfielder, a ball-winner and a conductor. "I'm a player that tries to put situations like that at bay, instead of scoring them myself," he said. He had not scored a goal of any kind, for any team, in over two years. He had not even started a game in over 12 months, as he battled a recurring hamstring injury. He was on a minutes restriction, and about to be withdrawn at halftime.

So, when Weston McKennie found him, and Adams chopped his feet, sizing up a long-range strike, "we thought it was about to go in the stands," teammate Chris Richards later joked. "I was about to turn around."

Instead, with every bit of oomph and technique he could muster, Adams stung the ball past Guillermo "Memo" Ochoa, the legendary Mexican goalkeeper who looked every bit of the 38 years old he is.

The goal brought a tactical, timid game to life. The U.S. had kept the ball for 63% of the first half. Mexico, though, held firm, and held back — until Adams' rocket forced El Tri to come out and play.

And Mexico's second-half aggression played right into the USMNT's hands.

The Americans handled Mexico's physicality. They matched it, but didn't egg it on, and never crossed lines.

Instead, they played their soccer, through and around Mexico, increasingly as the second half matured. And they doubled their lead in the 63rd minute, via their most influential player this week, Gio Reyna.

Reyna's half-volley put the U.S. firmly in control. He pranced toward the corner flag, where beer rained down on him, just as it had in Denver in 2021, and just as it had last June.

Gregg Berhalter, the under-pressure U.S. coach, sprinted down the sideline to join the sticky, joyous celebration.

Adams, who'd been substituted at halftime as planned — despite a locker-room "argument" with Berhalter, because he wanted to stay in — waved toward the Mexican fans, as if to acknowledge their fury and, simultaneously, to wave goodbye.

Dozens continued to hurl their half-full cups. Weston McKennie caught one. Christian Pulisic picked up another one and tossed it off the field. Backup goalkeeper Ethan Horvath swatted a few away.

Mexico's players, meanwhile, kept pushing. Santi Gimenez seemed to have won a penalty, but VAR ruled that he had flopped. Hirving "Chucky" Lozano scurried around the penalty area, in search of a sight at goal. But very few materialized — because they were, in U.S. defender Tim Ream's words, "predictable."

"It's the most direct Mexico team that there's been," Ream said. "And that was discussed yesterday and today. So we expected exactly what they did. And it played right into what we knew, and what we were aware of. It may have looked predictable — that's because it was. We knew exactly what was coming, and we knew exactly how to make the game ours."

The fans kept fuming as U.S. dominance crystallized, and began their infamous "p***" chant midway through the second half. It boomed around AT&T Stadium, again and again, just as it had in Las Vegas last year. It prompted multiple readings from the public-address announcer, blandly discouraging discrimination. Fans booed.

The chant stopped, briefly, when the game stopped for five minutes, part of organizers' failing protocols to combat the chant. It resumed when the game resumed, as loud as ever. In stoppage time, the referee paused the game for a second time, and brought all the players toward midfield, as thousands of fans filed out. Efforts to control it were once against futile.

The ugly, hurtful, stop-start conclusion muted the USMNT's celebrations at the final whistle. But so did the fact that these celebrations have become customary. The U.S. has now beaten Mexico in four consecutive regional finals. It has gone seven games unbeaten in a rivalry that used to be two-sided, but now tilts heavily toward the Stars and Stripes. It has held Mexico scoreless for over 500 competitive minutes.

To the Mexican press, all of it was "un fracaso," a failure, and a "désastre." They grilled head coach Jaime Lozano about the gap between the two North American giants. Lozano talked about player development, about coaching, about pathways to Europe — about just about anything.

To the USMNT, it was somewhat old news. On the field, a U.S. Soccer staffer asked Pulisic if he'd seen the score. He looked up at the in-stadium boards, confused, and then — "Oh, I didn't even notice! Dos a cero!"

As Lozano spoke, American players strapped on goggles — Richards snagged two pairs, "just in case!" — and sprayed champagne. Music bumped. McKennie danced. The word "threepeat" hopped around the room, hearkening back to a slide on Berhalter's welcome-to-camp presentation on Tuesday, with the Nations League trophy photoshopped into Michael Jordan's hands.

And Pulisic, amid the giddiness, turned a camera toward his face, held up a beer, and gave his best D.J. Khaled impression: "Anotha one!"