CHICAGO — Long before it started, Sunday’s match against Mexico already carried weight for the U.S. men’s national soccer team thanks to the opponent: the Americans’ southern rival and a regional power. Then toss in these stakes: One team would end the night celebrating with the Concacaf Gold Cup final trophy.
The teams had met five previous times in the Gold Cup final, but this year’s edition held additional value: The Americans had a chance to reestablish confidence in a program still haunted by its failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter singled out July 7 as the all-important date when the team started training camp in May. This was the night the Americans would work toward together. But when the Gold Cup final arrived, the U.S. team couldn’t top tournament-favorite Mexico in a 1-0 loss at Soldier Field.
The Americans had early chances, but Mexico looked like the more dangerous team in the second half. It finally broke through in the 73rd minute when Jonathan dos Santos scored off a back-heel pass from Raul Jimenez, prompting fountains of beer to fly upward in the pro-Mexico crowd. The ball barely hit the crossbar and bounced into the net.
“Over the course of 90 minutes, Mexico was the better team,” Berhalter said. “Having said that, we started the game really bright. We came out, created some really good chances.”
Thousands of Mexican supporters flocked to Soldier Field hours in advance, greeting the U.S. team with boos and filling the stadium with Mexican flags as kickoff approached.
But for the Americans, the past month has been about development as much as a journey to the final. Berhalter has only led the program since December, and players have had to learn new roles. The first half, striker Jozy Altidore said, “showed the ideas that Gregg has, the ideas of the players being brave and wanting to play this style.” And that’s tangible progress.
The Americans created scoring opportunities early — one of the positive trends through the tournament, Berhalter said — but the United States never capitalized. Christian Pulisic had an early attempt saved by Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. Soon after, Altidore sent the ball just to the right of the post.
When Mexico’s defensive miscommunication in the 31st minute caught Ochoa away from the net, Paul Arriola’s shot rolled just outside the left post. Early in the second half, Jordan Morris tried to head in the ball from close range off a corner kick, but Mexico’s Andres Guardado blocked the shot on the goal line.
“Obviously everyone’s disappointed,” Morris said. “… It’s a game we felt like we could have won, had some clear-cut chances.”
The game started to swing into Mexico’s control in the second half. The team struggled in midfield against El Tri, and after the break, Berhalter saw his players rushing their attacks, draining their energy by playing more of a vertical game.
After falling behind, the Americans had a couple of late chances off corner kicks, but Mexico’s defense managed to keep the ball out of the net.
In a hostile environment with a raucous crowd that favored Mexico, Berhalter said his group lacked poise and composure, while “Mexico certainly had it.” But now the younger players have this experience, something to build on heading into this new World Cup cycle.
Even though the United States arrived in Chicago after an encouraging performance against Jamaica in the semifinal, the team still hadn’t been tested quite like this.
“That’s what’s hard about these tournaments,” Altidore said. “You play games that kind of aren’t up to scruff until the final. The final is a huge step — faster game, just way more intense than some of the group-stage games. In that regard, it was tough but it was a good measuring stick of where we’re trying to go.”
Each game added a new layer of judgment about this team: How well have the players learned their roles in Berhalter’s system? And how well will it work? Some games have showed promise. Other moments have illuminated concerns.
The U.S. team only conceded two goals through six games. The semifinal win showcased bursts of cohesion. But against Mexico, the Americans’ toughest challenger since Berhalter took over in December, the U.S. squad couldn’t rise to the level of its rival. There’s still solace in the progress, the learning and the experience.
“I think it’s a step forward,” Altidore said. “If you look at the final here today and how we started the game, I think was terrific. I’ve been on this team a long time. To see that initiative, to see the guys eager to play forward and play out of pressure and keep the ball in a game like this, this is progress in my opinion.”
The Gold Cup final could have been even more: a confidence-building night in this new era of U.S. men’s soccer. Instead, the team exits with a mix of performances that suggested improvement but ultimately a final night in Chicago that left it off the top tier of men’s soccer in the region.
“When you talk about a step the team needs to take, we’re close,” Berhalter said. “We’re close. But we weren’t there tonight.”