Win or lose, gold or silver, whatever the end result, what a young, inexperienced and unimaginative American men’s national team achieved during this summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup, already ranked as one of the most impressive achievements of the era modern program.
The number of young Americans now contributing to and winning the sport’s top clubs, and their triumphant performance at the regional Nations League final four in June, is a sign that the United States is entering a new era. The commitment, learning curve and resolve demonstrated by the second tier of the player pool during the Gold Cup, and then Sunday’s gripping final against rival Mexico, is yet another.
US manager Gregg Berhalter has decided to put his best talent to rest and test American depth in this continental championship. It seemed counterintuitive, but the reasons were valid. The 16th Gold Cup was played at the end of the summer. Rest and pre-season are important for the best players and World Cup qualifiers are just around the corner.
However, there weren’t many preemptive excuses offered, despite the MLS team’s reduced stellar power. Expectations within the program have risen. They would play to win, Berhalter promised. And so the coach’s players took the opportunity and rewarded his faith, competing with maturity, composure and confidence and, ultimately, delivering a 1-0 overtime win over El Tri and an extraordinary and historic title. .
“I’m so excited for them, so proud of them. We really wanted it for this group, “Berhalter said after the triumph.” I can only praise their spirit, their hard work, their dedication. It’s been a fantastic month for them. “
The young Americans had been a smash hit even before the trophy was secured. But winning a charged Mexican team, in front of a very pro-Mexican crowd at the sold-out Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, sent a clear, resounding and unforgettable signal. The pendulum is returning north.
Arguably the revelation of the tournament, Atlanta United center-back Miles Robinson scored the only goal of the final in the 117th minute, heading home a bent free-kick from midfielder Kellyn Acosta. Robinson was denied the opportunity to play for the United States during this spring’s Olympic qualifiers, where an understaffed U-24 team struggled and fell short. It is clearly beyond that level. The 24-year-old played all six Gold Cup games, was outstanding as a staunch one-on-one and emergency defender, and scored two goals.
Set pieces made all the difference in the Nations League final in June, and they did it again on Sunday. The finals are tight. The details often define them.
“We were focusing a lot on set pieces,” said Robinson moments after the final whistle. “I knew that if I could open up, take a half step, I could finish one. Kellyn put in a perfect ball, so I had to finish it. “
This Concacaf championship was the seventh for the United States, and came after the Americans beat Mexico in a Gold Cup final for the second time in seven attempts. El Tri won the 2019 edition in Chicago with the same score of 1-0. Berhalter & Co. earned an unexpected revenge on Sunday.
The Americans went 6-0-0 in the Gold Cup, scored only one goal (from a penalty, no less) and won five games with a score of 1-0. This is a veteran tournament for a team that has set all kinds of milestones related to youth. The starting lineups in the quarter-final victory over Jamaica and the semi-final defeat of the visiting team and Asian champion Qatar were the second and third youngest teams ever fielded by a US manager in a knockout match. Twelve American men made their first competitive appearance during the Gold Cup and five made their international debut. Robinson’s trio goalkeeper Matt Turner and defender James Sands, who were so brilliant in the back, had earned four combined appearances before the Gold Cup began.
Berhalter had hoped to unearth some players who had the courage to assist in the upcoming qualifiers for the octagonal World Cup. Winning the Gold Cup would be the golden icing on the cake. He received both and on Sunday was his 48th birthday. In addition to the aforementioned trio, the likes of striker Matthew Hoppe, right-back Shaq Moore, striker Nicholas Gioacchini, midfielder Gianluca Busio and midfielder Eryk Williamson made good impressions. Veterans like Acosta, Gyasi Zardes and Cristian Roldan have also left their mark. However, it wasn’t just the technical and tactics that impressed Berhalter. World Cup qualifiers can expose intangible flaws and the manager said ahead of the final that this current group had the potential to pass those tests.
“The only thing that exceeded our expectations was the group mentality,” he said. “You never know exactly how the group will come together when the roster is nominated. I was absolutely amazed by the cohesion of this group, how the players are responding to the challenges and how the team is so focused on our goals.”
The ‘next man’ approach he referred to and used throughout the competition continued into Sunday’s final when he replaced four starters from the first XI who defeated Jamaica and Qatar. Or, more precisely, the first XI who established the defeat of Jamaica and Qatar. The key in both of those games, like the tournament itself, was resilience, reinforcements, and staying hard to beat. The holders survived and took down the opponent, then the cavalry charged off the bench to help find the opposite. While the fourth and semifinal were won in the last 10 minutes, it took longer to decide the final.
Turner was instrumental in keeping Sunday’s match without regular goals, denying Mexican Rogelio Funes Mori three times in the first half. Mexico, which fielded seven men who were on the pitch at the start of the Nations League final, had more ball, as expected. But the Americans didn’t just sit back and defend. They pressed, faced and looked for turnover and quick outlets. In fact, captain Paul Arriola should have given the US the lead in the 28th minute, only to send a point blank shot from the right post.
The first half was the best in Mexico. The final was frantic and finely balanced and featured some nasty finishing touches, close calls, and hardly any of the controversy, violence or antics that tend to characterize rivalry. Gradually, the game became more leveled and around the 65th minute, Berhalter started to get his legs fresh on the pitch. The United States fold but don’t break had withstood another storm and Mexico seemed to be the team that was getting tired. This had been the formula.
“For us, it’s about pressing relentlessly, he’s moving up and he’s the next man because we need fresh guys, we need fit guys, to be able to play the way we want,” Berhalter explained. .
The United States had another couple of good looks in take away Arriola and the relentless Hoppe, and when Robinson finally got it, it didn’t seem undeserved. Arriola and Sebastian Lletget, two of Berhalter’s most trusted MLS men, shared the honors of the trophy in midfield.
“We have complete faith in every man on this roster, and I think we have shown that today from the starting lineup,” said Berhalter. “So, I’m really proud of the guys who walked in. They did an excellent job. And again, it was about putting the team in a position to win the game, and that’s what we did. “
That trophy duo, and many others who participated in the past month, will almost certainly be called again this fall and winter, when 12 of the 14 World Cup qualifiers are played during compact windows of three games. He will be the “next man” again and Berhalter now knows he has a much deeper pool of players to count on.
“Qualification is everything right now. We are focused on that right now, “he said moments after the final.” The player pool has matured and has been battle tested, and now we move on. “
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