How the USMNT unraveled under Mexico's Gold Cup final pressure

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U.S. defender <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/414969/" data-ylk="slk:Aaron Long">Aaron Long</a> looks away as Mexico celebrates its 2019 Gold Cup title. (Getty)
U.S. defender Aaron Long looks away as Mexico celebrates its 2019 Gold Cup title. (Getty)

CHICAGO — Shall we start in the parking lots?

Let’s start in the parking lots, a few hundred yards off Lake Michigan, with the most patriotic of American long weekends winding down. At around 5 p.m., more than three hours before Gold Cup final kickoff, and more than five hours before Mexico unwound the United States men’s national team on this stage for the third consecutive time, a supervisor’s voice cackled through a walkie-talkie.

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“You got 125 spots,” it notified an attendant as a Mexican-decaled SUV claimed one of the 125.

A sedan cramming six passengers slipped into a second. In short order, gates would close. Grill smoke wafted through the air. Speakers hummed. Soccer balls danced about. Trunks were popped, street tacos served, coolers cracked, tricolor flags draped.

Before Mexican and American players had even arrived for the biggest match of their respective years, one of several stadium-adjacent lots was aleady full.

And there was green. Everywhere.

Green jerseys and headbands. Green t-shirts and sombreros, scarves and wigs, illuminated by a crisp summer sun, perched atop fans of the most popular soccer team in the United States.

Around 50,000 of them filed into Soldier Field on Sunday night, roughly five-sixths of a sold-out crowd, less to witness something, more to be a part of it. They did not play a game. Some will tell you they didn’t even impact one. And to be clear, there were far more influential actors. More on them in a sec.

But those 50,000? They were involved. One of many ingredients in a bubbling cauldron that eventually boiled over and burned the USMNT.

The strong start

The first U.S.-Mexico duel of the Gregg Berhalter-Tata Martino era was a fascinating blend of fervor and control. Of handbags and tactics, physicality and technicality, contrasting qualities that both contradicted and complemented one another.

And as “Mexico! Mexico!” chants echoed around them early on, in an atmosphere more than worthy of a final, the U.S. men thrived on that blend.

They’d been booed on home turf as they exited the field after pregame warmups. Even some 1,400 miles from the Mexican border, they’d been told, in colorful language, that they stood no chance. Yet they seized the game. Coaxed more boos and whistles out of the pro-Mexico crowd as they possessed the ball, calmly, with structure and sharpness.

And on occasion, they’d pounce.

Jozy Altidore threw his backside into a defender, initiating the game’s inevitable physicality. Took a slick touch and played in Pulisic.

Then he sped onto a long ball himself, the quality of his single-handed chance creation amplifying the guilt of his eventual miss.

“In the beginning, our gameplan was to go out and be very vertical,” Paul Arriola said postgame.

And Berhalter: “I think we actually did a very good job early on in the game of demonstrating our physicality, and how we could push them and we could get behind them.”

Altidore also dug his studs into Jonathan dos Santos’ heel, a moment that was strangely symbolic. Mexican players made beelines for the referee, the first flashpoint threatening to up the game’s temperature. A plastic cup was hurled onto the field, the environment intensifying.

“It’s a final,” Altidore would later say. “You gotta sometimes go into tackles, you gotta be aggressive. You can’t back down.”

Yet Altidore, somehow, did not receive a yellow card. (Not a single player did all night.) His demeanor kept the game somewhat composed, at least for the moment. There was a handshake for Jona to diffuse the situation. Jozy’s simultaneous aggression and coolheadedness exemplified a first half in which the U.S. was the better team.

Six of the starting 11 had never experienced a competitive U.S.-Mexico match before. But as Berhalter would say postgame, “We knew it was going to be a big event. We knew it was going to be a semi-hostile crowd.” They were prepared for the crescendos of noise, the impassioned yells that Mexican players feed off, the ones to which El Tri, as midfielder Andres Guardado said postgame, is “accustomed.”

It was the Americans, though, who were alert, and the de facto hosts who were at times affected. Arriola knifed in between Guillermo Ochoa and Hector Moreno after a miscommunication between keeper and defender. Arriola’s off-balance shot trickled wide. The American winger also raced back toward his own six-yard box to put off Andres Guardado and foil Mexico’s best chance of the half.

The game’s temperature, however, did gradually rise. Even Christian Pulisic went in hard on Edson Alvarez. Alvarez then hacked down Pulisic. Luis “Chaka” Rodriguez smashed a clearance into the American phenom as he tumbled. Altidore sprinted toward the scene, pointing an accusatory finger at Rodriguez’s face.

After the halftime break, with Altidore laying face-down on the turf, Guardado raised a hand to Weston McKennie’s throat.

(Screenshot: Fox Sports 1)
(Screenshot: Fox Sports 1)

It was here, or hereabouts, early in the second half – with the wave intermittently rippling around Soldier Field and night having fallen – that the match began to swing.

Mexico grew into it.

The U.S., on the other hand, wilted.

“What we lacked was some of the calmness, some of the composure,” Berhalter said postgame. “And Mexico certainly had it.”

The internal tension

All involved had explanations for the downfall. Players. Berhalter. And in many respects, they concurred. At least on the problem that needed solving and never was. The U.S. got overrun in midfield. Struggled to maintain possession, to decode a high press, to slow the game down, to stem a rising Mexican tide.

“It became a very vertical game,” Berhalter said. “We needed to avoid that by being able to keep the ball, and then to move the ball side to side. Get them moving more horizontally than vertically. We were rushing attacks in the second half. Much too direct. And it cost us energy.”

Legs began to go. “They tired a bit,” Alvarez said of the U.S.. “And we took advantage of the space.”

Berhalter inserted versatile midfielder Christian Roldan for wide forward Jordan Morris after an hour.

“The idea was to help us keep possession,” the head coach explained. “It was to help us overload the center of the field. I thought we had a difficult time in the center of the field tonight, and we felt like he was going to give us the help that we needed centrally.”

Michael Bradley, who operated in that center, added: “In the second half, we weren’t able to find the first pass out of their initial pressure. When you’re not able to do that consistently enough, you’re a little bit deeper than you’d like, and they’re able to gain a little bit of momentum. That’s football.”

This, however, was a novel situation for many U.S. players. Even those who’d confronted games of this magnitude before. Because it was their first under Berhalter, a coach committed to imposing his ideas on the game. But in a rabid environment, with fatigue gnawing at muscles and opponents wearing them thin, their natural instinct, it seemed, was to go long. To revert to the verticality.

In fact, it was more than instinct. “You know what, I don’t think we used it enough,” Arriola said an hour later.

And Aaron Long: “We had a little bit of trouble getting out of the back. I think maybe we could have played a little bit more direct. But we were looking to break them down and stretch them as much as we could.”

Until Sunday, Berhalter’s process had been humming. At half-empty American football stadiums, in front of pro-U.S. crowds, against inferior opponents, the U.S. rarely wavered from the boss’ approached. His teachings overrode their past tendencies, the freshly instilled philosophies uninfected by circumstance.

On Sunday, that changed. Discomfort crept in. So did human nature.

Inside players’ brains, in a way, there was likely tension: between what they knew and what they’d been told. In more serene environments, they had been able to adhere to coaches’ advice. In front of 50,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans with immortal vocal cords, the beer in their cups waiting to fly, adherence was much more difficult.

“If you look at that 10-, 15-minute period we kinda lost the game a bit,” Altidore said, “we’re trying to play out of the back, and stick to our guns, when maybe it was a time to get up the field and get in their half, and change that momentum a bit.

“But it happens. It’s a learning experience.” One that must be considered in the broader context of the USMNT’s evolution.

“As we continue to grow and mature as a team,” Bradley said, “one of the things that we’ll always need to work on is the balance of using the speed and direct attacking ability of guys like Jozy and Christian and Jordan Morris and Paul Arriola, a bunch more guys as well, whose ability to be fast and mobile and on the move in a vertical way towards the goal was quite good.

“We want to use that, we want to take advantage of that. But we also then, in other moments, want to know how to slow things down, know how to make the first pass or two out of our half, but then be able to manage things.”

The aftermath

As Bradley spoke, victorious rivals snuck behind him, back to Mexico’s team bus, buckets of Modelo and ice in hand. Some carried open bottles, evidence of a postgame party that had commenced but was anything but complete. Some flashed smiles, or even blared music, their gold medals flapping ever so slightly as they walked, their demeanors polar opposites of their American foes. Ochoa politely posed with his Golden Glove. Guardado was asked to show off the trophy.

“It’s heavy,” he said with a grin.

Andres Guardado in the postgame interview mixed zone. (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
Andres Guardado in the postgame interview mixed zone. (Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

Back out on the Gold Cup’s grandest stage, on what had previously been the epicenter of the cauldron, blue and gold confetti flashed under still-bright floodlights.

This, perhaps, was a scene similar to the one Berhalter might have envisioned when he rung in camp back in May. July 7, the date of the final, had been on his mind. He’d communicated that to players. This was the goal.

Perhaps he’d envisioned the cheesy postgame playlist Soldier Field’s DJ queued up as a celebration soundtrack. Perhaps he’d envisioned bouncing in a circle with players at midfield, a trophy in their midst. Perhaps he’d envisioned those players squirting water and dancing as dejected Mexican opponents watched on, instead of the other way around.

He and so many others had worked tirelessly and meticulously throughout the month, and over the past six, to bring about a different outcome. Players, of course, were chief among them. “We gave everything we had, man,” an impassioned Reggie Cannon said postgame. “Everything we had. Every ounce, every day, a month-plus. We gave everything, man.

“That’s why it sucks. ... It just hurts, man. Just watching them lift that trophy. ... I gave 150 percent to that game. And the outcome was still like that.”

In the end, the U.S. wasn’t quite ready. Wasn’t quite at an advanced enough stage, neither as a group nor as individuals, to blend the tactical and technical and physical and emotional elements of a day unlike a majority of them had ever experienced before. They were up for it. Energized. Intense. Committed.

But surrounded by green, and by elite CONCACAF players on the pitch, sometimes intensity and commitment aren’t enough. Sometimes not even 45 minutes of the full package is enough.

Mexico – players, fans, skill, noise, aura – set a bar that proved to be just above the current USMNT’s temporary ceiling. There’s no shame in that. Just reality. And there is time to raise it.

“We weren't ready for the step tonight,” Berhalter admitted with his last words of the night, and of the tournament. “But we will be ready.”

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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