The Concacaf Nations League is left with the final two most expected to be there, but it certainly wasn’t a cakewalk.
Both the U.S. men’s national team and Mexico labored Thursday night in the semifinals in their first competitive matches since group play in the tournament ended in November 2019. Whether it was the time away from meaningful matches, heavy legs due to the completion of a long yet compressed European club season and playing at altitude, opponents who were wrongfully overlooked or some combination of all of that, it came down to the wire for both regional powers to emerge from the semifinals.
For the U.S., it was an 89th-minute goal from Jordan Siebatcheu that broke a deadlock and gave the Americans a 1–0 win over Honduras. For Mexico, a 0–0 draw vs. Costa Rica that went straight to penalty kicks was decided by the hands of Guillermo Ochoa, whose save on Allan Cruz in sudden death spot kicks sent El Tri through.
So it’ll be the U.S. and Mexico sharing a field for the first time in 21 months, the first match of consequence between the two in almost two years and the only time the first-choice players will go head-to-head before World Cup qualifying starts in the fall (both are expected to bring squads of a different makeup to the Gold Cup this summer).
Here are three key elements entering Sunday night’s rivalry bout with a trophy on the line:
Berhalter vs. Tata and Mexico’s recent domination
The USA-Mexico rivalry has had its ebbs and flows, but right now it’s El Tri that’s been carrying the upper hand. Mexico has gone 3-0-1 in competitive matches against the U.S. dating back to 2013, when the U.S. last enjoyed a win in a meaningful match in the series. Including friendlies, Mexico is 4-1-1 in the last six meetings, with the one defeat a 1-0 friendly result while Dave Sarachan was the USA’s interim manager. Ever since Paul Aguilar won the one-off Concacaf Cup in extra time and Rafa Márquez shattered the mystique of Columbus, the rivalry has belonged to Mexico.
As for the managerial matchup, Gregg Berhalter has had some tough luck when matching wits with Tata Martino. With Berhalter as coach, the U.S. has lost its two games vs. Mexico, with both coming in a two-month span in 2019. The Gold Cup final—which could have broken differently had Jozy Altidore converted a clear early chance—was decided by Jonathan Dos Santos’s fantastic goal, while Mexico had its way in a 3–0 win in a subsequent friendly. In their time overlapping in MLS, Martino’s Atlanta United won the four regular-season matchups against Berhalter’s Columbus Crew, though the Crew did emerge from their one playoff matchup following a 0-0 draw and penalty shootout. Should Sunday’s match go to PKs (and in the event of a draw, extra time would be played in the final as opposed to in the semifinals, which went straight to spot kicks), Berhalter would have Zack Steffen on his side again, just as he did in that October 2017 showdown.
Who will play in the U.S. midfield?
The U.S. midfield struggled to gain a stranglehold over Thursday’s match vs. Honduras, with Weston McKennie, Sebastian Lletget and Jackson Yueill comprising the three-man unit. While the U.S. did have 65% of the possession, it felt that on the balance of the night, things were a bit too haphazard and not under control.
“Honduras was very compact, and they wanted us to play central and I think we did too often,” Berhalter said after the match. “We played central and got turnovers and [Honduras] started transitions. I think at times we lacked balance in the midfield. We could’ve been more stable and drawn them out a little bit more.”
All eyes in the coming days will be on Tyler Adams, who is still recovering from a back injury that ended his RB Leipzig season early, and Yunus Musah, who was an unused substitute and will have fresh legs should Berhalter call on him. Adams and Musah would offer assistance in terms of covering ground effectively and advancing the ball in transition against a Mexico side that you would expect to come out more aggressively than Honduras and try to dictate the tempo of the final.
While Adams does have experience against Mexico—he scored the winner in that lone recent U.S. triumph between the two—Musah, who would be cap-tied with an appearance, would be entering the rivalry cold and in a big spot. If Yueill isn’t trusted Sunday and Adams can’t go, then Kellyn Acosta, who did come on as a late sub Thursday, could get the call. If Musah is considered too green, then it’s likely Lletget would get another shot. Berhalter has a couple of days to assess his options (which include altering his tactical formation altogether), calculate the best combination to counter Mexico’s expected approach and decide.
The Chant and The Protocol
Despite Concacaf and the Mexican federation’s best efforts, That Chant still reverberated through Empower Field at Mile High Thursday night during Mexico’s match vs. Costa Rica. It wasn’t until second-half stoppage time that the region’s new three-step protocol was fully put into effect, with the referees halting the match for up to three minutes while an announcement was made in the stadium, though some fans were ejected for using the anti-gay slur prior to that.
The confederation has gone to great lengths to disseminate information on why the chant, that’s customarily shouted when the goalkeeper opposing Mexico launches a goal kick down the field, is offensive, and the effort has been going on for years. FIFA has even threatened sanctions in the past, to no avail.
If the defiance was in full effect on Thursday night vs. Costa Rica, then you can likely expect it again with an impassioned crowd witnessing the next chapter of the USA-Mexico rivalry. Should the protocol go beyond the first step of temporarily halting the match, then the next steps are taking the teams off the field and stopping the match for even longer and then, if it gets to that point, abandoning the match altogether.
“We are doing everything in our hands to never get to Step 3,” Mexico federation president Yon de Luisa recently said. “This will be a terrible decision to make; however, if it is needed, it will be done.”
For reasons that go well beyond competitive stakes, let’s hope that the match is decided by the players on the field and not by unruly supporters compelling officials to act.
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