EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Mexico brought a team that was even stronger than the one that claimed the Concacaf Gold Cup title two months ago. The USA was even younger and was missing some of its first-choice players, either because of injury or the MLS schedule.
El Tri won the last time. With its advantage even more pronounced, the result in Friday night’s friendly in the New Jersey Meadowlands was somewhat predictable. Mexico won easily, 3-0, on a night the USA tried to play pretty soccer but failed, while Mexico made it clear that the current gap between the nations is as large as it’s been in a while.
Here are three thoughts from MetLife Stadium:
Tecatito and Chicharito show the USA who’s boss
Mexico manager Gerardo Martino didn’t unleash his entire arsenal on the hosts (that included Rodolfo Pizarro and Raul Jimenez). But Javier "Chicharito" Hernández and Jesús "Tecatito" Corona, both of whom missed the Gold Cup, were on MetLife’s temporary grass field to start, and midway through the first half the pair made an emphatic statement about the current gulf in attacking talent between the squads.
The game-winning play began with a spell of calm perimeter possession by El Tri. The USA was somewhat reticent in the press, allowing Mexico to build a bit of confidence and rhythm. Tecatito took advantage in the 21st minute, pushing the ball past a static Christian Pulisic, then executing a step-over and brilliant nutmeg of U.S. debutant Sergiño Dest that obliterated the American defense on its left. Chicharito was wide open in front of the goal and lunged into Corona’s cross, powering a header past a helpless Zack Steffen.
Corona’s run brought the vast majority of the 47,960-person crowd to its feet. Mexico wouldn’t double its lead until Érick Gutiérrez struck in the 78th, and Uriel Antuna made it 3-0 in the 82nd. But the result was never in doubt, and neither was the difference in class between the sides. The early link-up between Tectatito and Chicharito was all the evidence required.
USA remains committed to building from the back (or at least trying to)
Over and over again, the Americans tried to play the soccer coach Gregg Berhalter envisions.
“We need to be more proactive when we get the ball,” he said this week. “We know that our style of play involves having the ball, disorganizing the opponent with the ball, and we need to do that more.”
And so when a Mexico attack fizzed, the U.S. would collect the ball and try to keep it. Center backs Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman often would start. The outside backs would push up, and Steffen typically would get involved. But time and again, against Mexico’s energetic press, American possession fizzled. And it fizzled quickly. There was skill in the U.S. lineup, especially in the incisive dribbling of Pulisic (who played on the left wing rather than in his more central Gold Cup role) and Tyler Boyd, but there was no one who could receive, turn and pass the ball in a manner that forced the Mexicans to shift or gave the USA any breathing room. And rather than hoist a few long balls to a lonely Gyasi Zardes or try to play Pulisic into space, the hosts just kept trying and failing to build out of the back.
A Weston McKennie turnover gifted Corona an open look at goal in the 32nd, but he curled his shot over the crossbar. Steffen was the culprit in the 78th, and that led directly to the goal from Gutiérrez. And that’s just a small sampling of the turnover-fest at the Meadowlands. There’s no other way to get better with the ball than by trying to pass and move the ball, but the USA paid for its struggles on Friday.
Hopes for Dest, Sargent largely unfulfilled on a frustrating night
They were two of the younger faces that lent the most intrigue to Friday’s game, but neither will want to spend too much time reminiscing about this edition of the USA-Mexico rivalry. Dest and Josh Sargent had the USA’s two best scoring chances of the night. They also made critical errors they’ll want to forget.
Dest is a U-20 World Cup veteran and has earned starts for Ajax at 18. He clearly is an exciting prospect—one who has drawn interest from his native Netherlands. Berhalter appeared to be so excited to get a look at him that he announced on Thursday that Dest was starting. That’s a rarity, And Dest’s danger on the ball was evident in the 14th minute, when he raced inside Pulisic and unleashed a vicious shot that forced a parry from Mexico goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco.
But it’s the nutmeg that’ll make the highlight films. Dest was playing left back on Friday rather than right—he’s played six times for Ajax this season on the right and once on the left—but that wasn’t a factor against Corona. It was a rude welcome to the international game for the Dutch-American teenager.
Sargent came on as a substitute in the second half, finally getting another chance in a U.S. shirt after missing out on the Gold Cup. The Werder Bremen striker had his chance to etch his name into the rivalry record book in the 88th minute, when he stepped up to take a penalty kick that was awarded following a foul on Jordan Morris. Sargent hit it low and hard, but right into the space between the center of the goal and the left post. Orozco guessed correctly and made the save without too much trouble.
The USA has some promising young players, but the learning curve was evident in North Jersey.