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USMNT Comes of Age in a Nations League Final That Winds Up Meaning Plenty

The USA's extra-time triumph over Mexico in Sunday's final was an instant classic and an invaluable experience in multiple ways for a young squad on the rise.

In theory, a Concacaf Nations League title may not have meant much before Sunday night. It’s a brand-new tournament designed to fill dates for the region’s national teams. It’s not a championship or an honor with any history or renown.

But after three hours of the most gripping, dramatic and absurd footballing theater the USA-Mexico rivalry has seen—and that’s saying something—the Nations League title is now practically transcendent. It represents a program milestone, a where-were-you moment in recent American soccer history. The title was imbued with meaning, emotion and lore over the course of an instant-classic of a final in Denver, where a promising but inexperienced U.S. men's national team overcame a potentially ruinous start, two deficits, injuries and veteran opposition to win, 3–2, in extra time.

After a frequently frustrating evening, the star, Christian Pulisic, fresh off his Champions League title with Chelsea, drew and converted the game-winning penalty kick deep into extra time. A few moments later, the backup goalkeeper, Ethan Horvath—a Denver product who entered for an injured Zack Steffen in the second half—saved a Mexican penalty that would’ve sent the final to a shootout. It was an improbable capstone to an evening of twists and turns that’ll be dissected and recalled for years.

Pulisic, the U.S. captain for the game, lifted the silver trophy at midfield of Empower Field at Mile High.

“It’s just a perfect way to end the year. I’m so proud of this group. We needed everyone today and it was a phenomenal performance,” Pulisic told CBS.

It was a wildly entertaining, gripping contest. While it lacked in consistent flow or coherence, it was full of incident and crazy swings in momentum, and it presented an almost unending series of challenges for a U.S. side that’s still finding its footing. This was as close to coach Gregg Berhalter’s first-choice team as he’s been able to bring together, and although many of his players are at big-name clubs—and even though 10 won domestic or continental trophies this season—they hadn’t really been tested as a group. Before this week, the USA's most recent competitive matches had come in the fall of 2019. There’s been significant evolution and addition since then, and with World Cup qualifying set to start this September, the Nations League final four represented the only chance to earn some valuable competitive seasoning for a group that still needed it.

They got almost a career’s worth on Sunday. The USA gave up a goal only a minute in. It equalized, only to fall behind again late in the second half. The young Americans faced multiple formation changes, a hostile crowd, classic El Tri gamesmanship, Steffen’s injury and the massive tension of match-defining moments and rose above it all. It was far from a perfect performance. But it was resilient, composed, mature and passionate—qualities that aren’t a given and which will serve this team well.

The USMNT wins the Concacaf Nations League title

"We're a young side, and we need to learn how to win. These games are very difficult, and for us it was about having a game plan, executing a game plan, but it's also about the fight and the spirit," Berhalter said. "Give the guys a ton of credit for the way they hung in there and really showed the heart of champions."

The performance also sent a message to Mexico. El Tri's position atop Concacaf no longer is a given, either. Mexico has had the run of the rivalry in recent years. Dating back to Mexico's 5-0 demolition of the USA in the 2009 Concacaf Gold Cup final, the Americans had won only one of nine competitive matches between the sides. And since the USA’s last competitive victory, which came in a World Cup qualifier played in 2013, Mexico was 3-0-1. The games that matter were going El Tri’s way, and Berhalter and this generation had yet to draw blood, losing twice in 2019. On Sunday, they proved it was possible.

“We still have a long way to go, but we’re happy with this,” Pulisic said.

There will be questions about Berhalter’s tactics, the back line, the USA’s trouble finding Pulisic for much of the match, the future of the striker position and more. But the foundation is good. There's character and commitment on which to build.

The USMNT beats Mexico in the Nations League final

Berhalter rolled the dice in Denver, deploying his team in a formation that was designed to offer extra solidity in back but with which it was far less familiar. He tried using three center backs, two wing backs and three forwards in a June 2019 exhibition, and then didn’t use it again until the recent March friendly at Northern Ireland. On Sunday, perhaps with an eye toward establishing the structure and balance he thought was lacking during stretches of the 1–0 semifinal win over Honduras, Berhalter opted for the 3-4-3 once more.

The starting XI included eight men who played on Thursday. Tyler Adams wasn’t among the three new faces, even though Berhalter said Saturday the midfielder was healthy and able to go. Adams eventually entered as a late second-half sub.

The formation change was a bold move, especially in a final. But the USA had difficulty keeping and moving the ball during two losses to Mexico in 2019, so perhaps a different wrinkle was in order. The new alignment would give Sergiño Dest, who played out left, a bit more freedom to go forward. DeAndre Yedlin, making his first national team start since 2019, offered attacking width on the right. The 3-4-3, which Berhalter said was flexible, also demanded an enormous amount from central midfielders Weston McKennie and Kellyn Acosta, who often were on their own, and left space open behind Dest and Yedlin that Mexico tried to exploit with passes toward the corners. There was give and take.

There also was a lack of rote familiarity, and that likely contributed to the Americans’ nightmare start. The USA had difficulty building out of its own half—like it did two years ago—and it was punished as the match hit the one-minute mark. Yedlin, under pressure, played a pass back to Mark McKenzie, who tried to send the ball wide to McKennie. But McKenzie never saw Mexico’s Jesús Corona. The Porto forward picked it clean, raced toward Steffen and blasted El Tri into the lead.

It was the press and the hunt for advantageous turnovers, rather than more deliberate buildup, that told the story for both sides (apart from Mexico’s probing behind Dest and Yedlin). The game’s frenetic flow made it difficult for the USA to find Pulisic, who didn’t see much of the ball in the first half. The Americans then got a break in the 24th minute, when VAR ruled out a headed goal from Mexico’s Héctor Moreno. The defender was a few inches offside. The USA took advantage and leveled the score three minutes later as McKennie crashed a header off the left post before Gio Reyna turned in the rebound. It was a wild swing, from potentially two goals down to tied in mere moments. And it was this final in microcosm.

USMNT's Gio Reyna scores vs. Mexico

Berhalter abandoned the 3-4-3 on the hour mark, bringing Tim Weah on for Dest and sliding Tim Ream to left back. If the starting formation had run its course, at least the manager realized it and was willing to make changes. As the Americans reorganized into a 4-2-3-1 and then their more familiar 4-3-3, McKennie ran onto a feed from Pulisic, who was starting to play more centrally, and forced a save from Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa. The USA then had to improvise again in the 69th minute as Horvath replaced an injured Steffen.

That set the stage for the frenzied finish.

Mexican reserve Diego Lainez put El Tri ahead in the 79th minute, freezing Ream on the right before sliding a shot past two more U.S defenders and Horvath. McKennie’s dominance on set pieces then made the difference again in the 82nd, as his header off a Reyna corner kick sneaked inside the right post. For every gut punch by Mexico, the youthful hosts had an answer. Horvath steadied himself and made a big save on a Hirving Lozano curler, and the Americans held on for extra time.

Mexico had won the two previous extra-time matches between the teams: the 1999 Confederations Cup semifinal and the Confederations Cup qualifier in 2015. Sparked by Lainez, El Tri carried the play in Sunday’s extra session as well until Pulisic and Horvath snatched the trophy away.

"Overtime was just a complete mess, to be honest. With everything that was going on, the guys still stayed cool, still were able to focus," Berhalter said.

Pulisic had difficulty beating Mexican defenders on the dribble all evening, but he didn’t have to beat Carlos Salcedo in the 108th. As the young U.S. forward turned in the penalty area and headed toward goal, the Tigres UANL veteran stepped in front of him. After consulting VAR (and red carding Mexico manager Gerardo Martino), Panamanian referee John Pitti pointed to the spot.

The European champion made no mistake, beating Ochoa easily before ripping off his jersey and holding a ‘hush’ finger to his lips. Reyna, who’d been substituted, appeared to be hurt when he was hit by something thrown from the crowd during the ensuing U.S. celebration. Bottles littered the field.

"It has no place in the game, spectators throwing objects onto the field. Total lack of respect for what's happening on the field and all the effort that both teams were putting into the game. So really disappointing to see. [Reyna is] going to be O.K, but he did take something to the head and it could've been a lot worse," Berhalter said of the incident.

The Americans hadn’t clinched the title yet, however. In the 120th, Pitti checked VAR again and ruled that McKenzie had handled the ball during a goal-mouth scramble. And so the whiplash continued. Veteran Mexico midfielder Andrés Guardado, whose cap total exceeded the highest American’s by more than 100, stepped up and fired to his left. Horvath had played just once for the USA in the past two years—against Switzerland at the start of this camp. He was perhaps the side’s least likely hero. Yet he dove to his right and punched Guardado’s bid away, sealing his place in national team lore.

Ethan Horvath saves Andres Guardado's penalty in the USA's win over Mexico

"Just thinking about how difficult it is for goalkeepers to come into the game in that stage of the game, and then to make the impact that he made was remarkable," Berhalter said. "To come have a performance like that in his hometown, it's stuff that storybooks write about."

The USA not only confirmed the inaugural Nations League crown in that moment. It had arrived in dramatic and dazzling fashion, demonstrating its maturity and readiness to face the rigors, adversity and farce that’s sure to come in World Cup qualifying. Over the course of three hours, Berhalter’s team earned experience worth years. It was a signature victory for a coach, a program and a host of young, promising players, full of all the requisite and legendary style, even if the substance wasn’t always there.

On Sunday night—and Monday morning in some places—the U.S. national team came of age.

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