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USMNT Eyes Litmus Test for Progress, Not Revenge, in Mexico Rematch

The U.S. men's national team faces Mexico two months removed from the Gold Cup final won by El Tri, but it's all about forward thinking for Gregg Berhalter and his squad, which features some new faces–and one in particular who is slated for a role in the spotlight.

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Let’s hear it for Reggie Cannon, the U.S. national team defender whose enthusiasm is so enjoyable and inspiring, we’ll overlook how wrong he is.

“It’s gonna be a revenge match,” he told reporters this week, when asked about Friday’s game against Mexico. “That feeling [after] Gold Cup, that we were so close we could taste it. After that game we were all disappointed in ourselves, the team and the way we played. We’re going to come back out and have that fire and that hunger again. This time around it’s going to be different.”

Oh, it’ll be different all right. It’ll be different in the sense that Friday’s game at MetLife Stadium is a friendly, not the Concacaf Gold Cup final. That game came and went, and with it—thanks to a 1-0 loss—an opportunity for the Americans to repeat as continental champions. A win Friday night will change nothing. El Tri won’t have to put their gold medals in the mail.

“It means just as much if there was a trophy involved or if there wasn’t,” Cannon claimed.


But the FC Dallas fullback’s zeal is welcome anyway. Consider it a more eloquent version of John Belushi’s “When the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor” speech. Because friendlies can drag, and because only so much can be learned when the stakes are so low. So if a little passion, anger or old-fashioned USA-Mexico animus is injected into Friday’s proceedings, then those watching—and the younger Americans on the field—will be better for it.

This friendly, the first of two the USA will play over the next week, is an interesting one, even if revenge isn’t in the cards. Rarely is a major final followed immediately by a matchup with the very same team. So even if the USA can’t reverse the result from two months ago, perhaps it can learn from some of what went wrong in Chicago and then apply that knowledge and experience in New Jersey. Speaking here Thursday, coach Gregg Berhalter confirmed the Gold Cup final and Friday’s exhibition are somewhat linked—just not in the way Cannon hoped.

“That’s the beauty of playing them [again],” Berhalter said. “In the the next game, you get to make adjustments. You get to look at what you want to work on, how you want to work, and change things a little bit and how the team is how is going to react.

“For us, it’s good,” the manager continued. “What we’re trying to do is gather information on Mexico, gather information on how to hurt them, what we can to do off-balance them. These are fun games. When you get to playing back to back, we’re obviously going to alter a couple things [from the final] and see what effect it will have.”

Mexico has altered a few things already. This team, announced last week by coach Gerardo Martino, is even stronger than the one that won the Gold Cup. Consider the fact that El Tri claimed this summer’s title without Javier Hernández, Hirving Lozano, Héctor Herrera, Jesús Corona, Marco Fabián and Miguel Layún. They’re all in camp and available to play Friday. Throw in Gold Cup MVP Raúl Jiménez and attacking midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, who tortured the USA in the final, and you have a formidable opponent that could waltz to victory.

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It’s against that murderers row, or some portion of it, that Berhalter will try to see how much his squad (which also features different personnel) absorbed the lessons from July and whether it can produce an improved performance.

“A very consistent theme since we’ve been together is just to keep progressing,” Berhalter said this week. “Especially against Mexico—I thought [the final] was an O.K. game, but we could’ve played better. And now it’s about trying to play better and execute our game plan.

“I didn’t think we finished our chances well enough,” he said of the first half in Chicago. “I thought that our defensive pressure got too low in the second half. And we need to adjust to those things. And, most importantly, we need to be more proactive when we get the ball. We know that our style of play involves having the ball, disorganizing the opponent with the ball, and we need to do that more.”

The transition from first-half opportunity to second-half misery hinged on a couple adjustments by Mexico and Martino. Firstly, the former Atlanta United manager switched Pizarro from the American right to the American left, allowing the spry Monterrey star to avoid the quicker Cannon and instead match up with Tim Ream. Ream isn’t as fast and also was a key part of the American build-up during the first half. Secondly, El Tri harassed, obstructed and largely eliminated Michael Bradley (who’s not in camp this month) as a conduit in possession. Weston McKennie had an off night, and the Americans were pinned back. Mexico eventually got the goal it needed.

Berhalter announced a change at outside back on Thursday. Sergiño Dest, the 18-year-old Dutch-born son of a U.S. serviceman, has broken through to the first team at Ajax and will start against Mexico. Although Dest played for the USA at both the U-17 and U-20 World Cups, he isn’t cap-tied and said this week that the Netherlands federation has been in touch with him and that he’s “keep[ing] the options open.”

Starting Dest at the Meadowlands may be an expression of commitment from Berhalter, but it also will give the USA a different look—especially if he switches to the left flank and is able to invert or slide into midfield when the Americans have the ball.

“Forget about the dual-national part, but just to give a player who’s been in our youth national team program, who played a strong U-20 World Cup, who’s now broken in with the first team at Ajax—to give him an opportunity with the first team, that’s what’s nice about this story,” Berhalter said Thursday afternoon. “It's not about, to me, the dual-nationalism of him. It’s about, he’s come from our programming. He’s performed well, and he’s really achieved something this month at Ajax, and it’s nice to be able to reward that.”

Berhalter was less committal about Christian Pulisic’s role. During the Gold Cup, Pulisic was deployed as one of the two advanced central players in Berhalter’s triangle—with a twist. He frequently interchanged with left wing Paul Arriola. The D.C. United attacker isn’t in camp, so either Pulisic will play the same role and hope to develop chemistry with someone else, or Berhalter will use someone like Sebastian Lletget or Cristian Roldan in the middle while shifting Pulisic out wide. That would give Mexico something new to get used to.

“It does have to do with the structure of the opponent, no question,” Berhalter said Thursday when asked about Pulisic. “We want to put him position to be able to help our team and affect the game. He’s got a great skill set. He’s a game changer, and we want to put him into position to get the ball and hurt the opponent. Part of it is looking at how the opponent plays, and part of it is looking at what could be his matchup or how he could unbalance the opponent, or are they going to man mark him. … We’re cognizant of all those things.”

Film from the Gold Cup final obviously was consulted. Even if Friday’s result isn’t relevant, there will be games against Mexico down the road that matter a lot. A Berhalter-coached team hasn’t outscored a Martino-led one in six all-time meetings, and every bit of information the U.S. manager can gather should be useful when it matters. There will be tactical and personnel options available at MetLife Stadium (Josh Sargent, anyone?) that could push the Americans forward. And there were clear deficiencies during the Gold Cup that may be fixable.

On that part, at least, Cannon is clear.

“We’ve learned form [the final],” the fullback said. “We’ve studied it. We know what we did wrong. We know what we can adapt to make the game better for us.”