The latest chapter in the storied USA vs. Mexico rivalry was an instant classic.
The U.S. men's national team battled back from two one-goal deficits, including one just over a minute into the game, winning the first Concacaf Nations League title in extra time with a 3-2 triumph over its nemesis.
Tecatito Corona scored after 62 seconds and Mexico had a would-be second goal wiped off the board by VAR before Gio Reyna pulled even for the U.S. in the first half. In the second, Diego Lainez and Weston McKennie scored two minutes apart late to send the game to extra time at 2-2. It was there where a Christian Pulisic penalty kick following a VAR review and an Ethan Horvath PK save on Andres Guardado following another VAR review wound up being the difference on an unforgettable night in Colorado.
Both regional powers advanced from the semifinals in similar circumstances, struggling to enforce their will against sides they were largely expected to beat more handily. The U.S. emerged with a 1-0 win thanks to a diving header in the 89th minute vs. Honduras from substitute Jordan Siebatcheu, while Mexico eked by an undermanned Costa Rica side in penalty kicks following a 0-0 draw.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter opted for some significant tactical changes to his starting lineup, going with a three-man defensive unit, bringing veteran Tim Ream into the fold and opting for DeAndre Yedlin and Sergiño Dest at wingbacks. Dest had started at left back vs. Honduras in the semifinals and struggled at times with his defensive positioning and assignments. Despite Berhalter's insistence that Tyler Adams was fit to play in the match after recovering from a back injury, the midfielder began the night on the bench.
Mexico wasted no time in picking apart the U.S. to take the lead. Just over a minute into the game, Mark McKenzie, the right most of the three center backs, tried to play out of the back, but his ball was picked off by Corona, who pressed forward and lashed a powerful blast by Zack Steffen to make it 1-0.
The U.S. looked to answer immediately and had a change through Josh Sargent, but the forward slipped a bit as he went into his shot after charging down the right-hand side and had his shot saved by Guillermo Ochoa.
From there, Mexico managed to have the upper hand, with fans even bringing out the "Ole!" chant 13 minutes into the contest. El Tri's press troubled a U.S. side intent on playing out of the back, while Corona and Hirving Lozano both caused trouble with runs down either flank, only for their crosses to be dealt with.
The USA's most threatening piece of possession came in the 18th minute, with Dest charging down the left-hand side. The most dangerous moment in the final third resulted in a Pulisic shot that was blocked, though, and Mexico draw a foul when trying to clear the ball the ended the trouble.
A couple of minutes later, Reyna went down in the Mexico box, but no penalty was called, and VAR was not consulted after the tackle.
Mexico, meanwhile, appeared to have doubled its lead moments after. Off a short corner routine, Hector Herrera picked out Hector Moreno at the edge of the six-yard box, and the unmarked defender beat Steffen with a header. VAR was consulted for this one, though, and Moreno was whistled for being offside, taking the goal off the board.
That call loomed large a couple of minutes later, when the U.S. pulled even. Pulisic's corner kick picked out McKennie, and while the Juventus midfielder's header hit off the post, Reyna was onside, unmarked and in position to capitalize with a point-blank finish that beat Ochoa. With the 27th-minute goal, Reyna became the second-youngest U.S. goalscorer vs. Mexico, with only Jozy Altidore tallying against El Tri at a younger age.
Steffen preserved the 1-1 scoreline just before halftime, robbing Lozano in a 1-v-1 situation. The Napoli star had gotten behind the U.S. back line, but Steffen held his ground and extended himself to make an acrobatic save in the 43rd minute.
The second half did not start out like the first, with both sides struggling to enforce themselves in a slower, physical, more disjointed segment of play.
A giveaway from Dest in the U.S. half led directly to Mexico's best chance of the half, with Charly Rodriguez ultimately putting his right-footed curler from the edge of the box just wide of the upper right-hand corner in the 56th minute.
The pace and tempo of the game continued to pick up, and it was Mexico threatening again, with Corona played into space down the left-hand side and McKenzie coming up with an essential block to prevent the goalscorer from firing on net.
The U.S. was the first to go to its bench, with Tim Weah coming on for Dest at the hour mark after the Barcelona fullback had just fired wide after a Pulisic corner came to him at the edge of the Mexico box. The move changed the U.S.'s tactics to a four-man back line, with Yedlin moving to right back and Ream shifting to left back.
A minute later, the U.S. had a great chance to take the lead. Pulisic played McKennie down the center, but Ochoa got down and made the save on McKennie's low shot, and Sargent's shot on the rebound went wide.
Ochoa's counterpart, Steffen, was forced out of the match a few minutes later. The play on which he was hurt was rather innocuous, with the goalkeeper pulling up after a non-contact play. Despite his best attempts to stay in the game, Steffen was forced out in the 68th minute, replaced by Horvath.
Ochoa, meanwhile, stayed locked in. McKennie once again got his head to a corner kick and directed this one on target, but the veteran goalkeeper reacted perfectly to rob him of the go-ahead goal.
Ochoa made a less spectacular but similar save in the 76th minute, when McKenzie was first to a corner kick and headed on frame from the center of the box.
Those saves kept Mexico one play away from taking the lead, and it did just that in the 80th minute. Lainez, fresh into the game after coming on for Uriel Antuna, took a pass from Lozano on the right-hand side, cut back to his left on Ream and fired inside the post to give El Tri a 2-1 lead.
The lead did not last long. Two minutes later, McKennie, after having been denied so many times before, managed to head one by Ochoa and inside the post to make it 2-2.
Mexico looked to strike back as regulation wound down. Horvath was called into action in the 90th minute and came up huge in that moment, swatting away Lozano's shot from distance with a diving, right-handed save.
After officials enacted Concacaf's anti-discrimination protocol and halted the match for three minutes following an offensive chant in the stands, regular time expired, sending the final to 30 minutes of extra time.
In the opening half of extra time, Herrera found himself lucky to still be in the match. A crunching tackle on Tim Weah could have easily been Herrera's second yellow of the game—he earlier had put his hand on McKennie's throat during a scuffle between the two sides but was not punished for it—but was let off with just a foul being called.
Herrera was taken off by Mexico manager Tata Martino in the 100th minute, getting Guardado on in his place and not leaving anything else to chance.
In the 102nd, Lozano tested Horvath from distance, but the backup goalkeeper held his own again, making a strong save to deny Mexico the go-ahead goal.
VAR came to the USA's aid again in the second half of extra time. Pulisic went down in the box under a challenge from substitute Carlos Salcedo in the 108th minute, and despite an initial no-call, Pulisic was awarded a penalty after a video review. Amid the chaos surrounding the referee during the review, Martino wound up being sent off, leaving Mexico without its manager for the final few minutes.
Pulisic showed his confidence by seizing the ball after the PK call and delivering a powerful penalty that tucked under the bar and gave the U.S. its first lead at 3-2 in the 114th minute.
The VAR gods finally smiled down on Mexico in the waning moments of extra time. After a ball that hit off McKenzie's hand in the U.S. box was not whistled in real time, it was judged to have been penalty-worthy upon review.
Horvath wound up being the hero, though, diving to his right and denying Guardado to preserve the USA's lead and cap off the first trophy of the Berhalter era.
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- Straus: Why the USMNT Has Opted Against a Traditional Captaincy
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