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USA v. Mexico, Gold Cup Final: What we Learned

The USMNT fell 1-0 against Mexico in the Gold Cup Final. The Americans had their chances but fell short in the end. Still, there was some promise in the match. Here’s what we learned.

Soccer: CONCACAF Gold Cup-Mexico at USA Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

The United States men’s team went in against a diminished Mexican squad in the Gold Cup final and walked away with a 1-0 loss. Losing to Mexico is always going to sting, but there was still a lot to look at with optimism from the US. The Americans were not played off the field. Instead, they mostly went toe-to-toe with the Mexicans, even generating the better chances.

Unfortunately, those chances were not put away and the US would eventually fall to a chip from Jonathon dos Santos. But the team looked vastly improved from the side that collapsed the last time the US played in a competitive game against Mexico at home in World Cup qualifying. Vastly improved from that humiliation in Couva. And the attack play even looked improved over the US’ victory over Mexico, when they bunkered to a one-nil victory last year. With that, here’s what we learned, both the good and the bad.

The Berhalter Plan

For the last six months, we’ve heard and seen an awful lot about how Berhalter wants this US team to disorganize the opposition through possession. In January, we saw a glimpse of what that meant with a solid B team trying things out. We saw a hint of things in the next camp with a few more senior players. And then we saw things fall apart in the Gold Cup tune up matches against Jamaica and Venezuela. This tournament became a question about whether Berhalter could adapt his plan to make that “disorganize through possession” thing happen and whether the USMNT would be able to put together enough parts over the course of the tournament to make it work. Throughout the Gold Cup, the team very clearly has demonstrated an improvement from game to game. And the match against Mexico was a culmination of that. The attack has been slowly improving all tournament and, when put up against a Mexican team (albeit, one missing significant names), the US was able to show just how much that attack had grown. The US started out the game with a slew of great chances; if one of those had been put away, the game would have been totally different and quite possibly would have seen the US walk away with the trophy. And those attacks came from that idea that the US would take opposing defenses apart through building possession. The US wasn't limited to that old bread-and-butter of set pieces and counterattack's. Instead, the attack came from build up play, with accurate passes breaking lines and ball movement pulling defenders this way and that. The US wasn’t able to keep that up for the whole of the game, but that attack looked promising. It finally looked like a US men’s team playing modern, passing soccer, and doing so fairly comfortably and successfully.

Dr. Jekyl and Mister Ream

Tim Ream has not been particularly good during this Gold Cup. His performances have generally ranged from fine to that’s the player for the opposition to target. However, the USMNT is (and essentially has always been) thin at left back. So, Ream got the start in all the games bar one, with Lovitz clearly relegated to the deputy role.

However, Tim Ream decided to really show up against Mexico. From minute one, Ream was out there bossing the game. He was making tackles in midfield, stringing passes, and connecting the defense and the attack. I mean, take a look at this chance that Ream created.

That pass is ludicrous. A one-time half-valley delivered across half the pitch, put in perfectly behind the Mexican backline. But that wasn’t the only time Ream made some serious contributions out there. For the most part, when the US built up through midfield, the ball would go through a modestly advanced Tim Ream. And the Mexican midfield simply could not deal with him...

That is, until the second half. At half time, Tata Martino made some adjustments to his side, instructing the fullbacks to play higher up the field and for Pizarro (who had been left shackled by Reggie Cannon) switched over to the left. Suddenly, Mexico was able to run at Tim Ream and do so successfully. With Ream shut out, the Mexican midfield was able to press Bradley and McKennie, effectively shutting them out. And, from there, it became one way traffic. It’s not an accident that the goal came from a cross from Pizarro down that left side.

So, what does this mean for the USMNT? Well, it shows a more complicated situation at left back than we had originally thought. Before this match, it seemed clear that what the US needed at left back was someone who was more solid in defense at a minimum. A player who could potentially go forward and combine, as Lima and Cannon have through this tournament on the right, would be a plus. Ream is neither of those things (and, on top of that, he’ll be 34 by the 2022 World Cup.) But Ream’s performance and what happened when he was shut down shows that we need more from left back than that. Yes, the US needs a left back who can defend. But, just as importantly, it seems whoever plays at left back needs to function as a passing outlet, a player who doesn't advance as far up the field and helps out in possession. The modern prototypical fullback bombs forward and helps contribute width in attack. In contrast, hanging back and facilitating possession (and thereby serving as an outlet against a press) is a bit out of fashion. And that means that upcoming young players who may take the spot, like Julian Araujo who has been getting minutes with the LA Galaxy this season, will need to be adaptable and learn some old-school playing styles. That is, unless the plan changes.

Mising Piecs

The one place where Berhalter seemed to unambiguously fall short was in substitutions. As mentioned above, Mexico made adjustments at half time and, as a result, stifled the US. Berhalter had a chance to respond through substitutions, but that didn’t work out. Berhalter took Altidore off for Zardes (seemingly because Altidore likely couldn’t get through a full 90 minutes), Morris off for Roldan, and Ream off for Lovitz. And it didn’t really work.

Zardes brings lots of energy and good runs. But that doesn’t help in possession. Roldan could come inside and help contribute to possession, but this meant that Mexico wasn’t being stretched the same way that Morris’s positioning and speed stretched the Mexican team. And, as Rahman pointed out in this tweet, the press fell apart because these new players couldn’t synchronize with the players already on the field to have a unified press. Berhalter’s choices in changes didn’t improve the US and, instead, arguably made the US worse in retaining possession.

But Berhalter also was working with a weak bench. Some of that was because of roster choices: taking Sargent instead of Mihailovic would have given a possession option at striker, while having Weah at the Gold Cup instead of the U-20 World Cup would have given a like-for-like swap for Morris. But it also reveals that the roster pool is still really weak. Of the choices left on the bench, only Boyd looked like a clear talent upgrade who could have positively impacted the match (indeed, his absence makes me, among others, suspect that the American Kiwi picked up a knock.) Aside from him, the substitution options look poor. The good news is that, over time, more and more players under the age of 26 (the only players over the age of 27 were holdovers from the last cycle, and, of them, only Altidore seems to be a long term starter) will develop and grow and improve. And, as Berhalter gets more time with more camp, more and more players will have better understandings of where they need to be and when with the national team.

Cannon Fire

We are going to go full compliment sandwich here. We started off with something reasonably positive. made some meaty criticisms, and are back with something positive to say. The last man on the roster was Reggie Cannon of FC Dallas. He only made it on the roster at the last minute because Tyler Adams had a chronic groin injury. But he has been a revelation at fullback. With two consecutive starts to close out the Gold Cup, it seems pretty clear that Cannon (just 21 years old) is the preferred starter over Lima. He showed it during the tournament, being lock-down in defense (even as he was left isolated at times) and great going forward. Cannon was a reliable outlet high up the field and regularly put in great crosses. I’m not sure I’ve been as satisfied with a right back since, I don’t know, Cherundolo maybe?

It’s early days yet, but if I were Berhalter, I’d look at Cannon and just let him have that fullback spot, at least until Yedlin or another player can win it. That assuredness both in attack and defense has been huge for this team. The ability to create down that side has helped transform a USMNT that’s been often stagnant and dire in attack (for years now) into one that’s dynamic and threatening. I would keep that. It might be enough to push Adams back into midfield entirely.

Well, that’s what was on my mind. What did you think of the Gold Cup Final? Was there something I missed? Something I got wrong? Let me know in the comments below.