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United States v. Mexico, Nations League Final: What we Learned

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We learned that the USMNT can beat Mexico in a tournament final. And also maybe a few more things.

United States v Mexico: Championship - CONCACAF Nations League Finals Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/ISI Photos/Getty Images

That was one hell of a match.

US v. Mexico matches are always tense, but, man, this game just had it all. Comebacks, fights, fouls, a red card, fan misbehavior, overtime!. Everyone! I mean, somehow it even had single-elimination penalties, all within 120 minutes! That was the best, most entertaining match I’ve watched in a very, very long time. Frankly speaking, that would have been the case even if the end result was different. But the fact that the US came back and won it 3-2 makes it even better.

There’s a lot that happened in that game and that gives us a lot to talk about. With that said, let’s get started.

Second Verse, Same as the First

Here is my thesis statement. This is the big tactical conclusion that I took from the game:

That’s my take. This win over Mexico was shockingly similar to how the USMNT played in a 1-0 loss to Mexico in the 2019 Gold Cup final. I expect a lot of folks will balk at that idea, but allow me to explain.

Ahead of the match, there was talk of tactical shenanigans on the part of both Berhalter and Mexico’ coach, Tata Martino. Apparently, Martino was keeping the lineups extremely secretive to prevent any sort of leak. On the other hand, reports out of cbs were suggesting that Berhalter was considering a three – center back system, particularly a 3-5-2 formation.

That one didn’t really pass the sniff test for me. Berhalter has tried out a back-three before, but we’ve never seen a 3-5-2. Berhalter’s generally been pretty cautious with his tactical decisions in competitive matches. We don't see a lot of changes from some version of something we’ve seen before. On the other hand, the left side had been targeted by both Honduras and Switzerland in the two previous games, so some changes were going to be necessary. Forwards were getting in behind Sergiño Dest while he was playing as a left back and too easily isolating John Brooks for a one-v-one.

With those rumors floating around, everyone was ready to declare that the USMNT was playing a back-three when the lineups were revealed to show Tim Ream alongside regular center backs Brooks and Mark McKenzie. The fullback slots seemed to be filled with Dest on the left and DeAndre Yedlin on the right. Surely that’s a back-three formation, with wingbacks, right? Well, let’s actually look at what the team did during the game.

There’s your pass map for the first half. You might notice, this is actually a pretty familiar shape. If I were to lay it out as a formation, it would look something like this:

It’s a bit asymmetrical, but that’s some version of a 4-3-3 with two deeper mids (or a 4-2-3-1, if you prefer). In terms of formation, that’s quite similar to what we’ve been seeing for a while now. The significant deviation from the previous two games was that McKennie played a bit deeper, while one of the box-box mids became more of a center attacking mid.

While the formation is familiar, the personal is quite different from the previous few games. Tim Ream stepped into left fullback, while Dest is now some sort of a winger. Pulisic is now nominally a central attacking midfielder. Amusingly, this is astonishingly similar to what the team looked like in the 2019 Gold Cup final. For that match, Berhalter also played a 4-3-3, with Tim Ream playing as a conservative left fullback and with Pulisic in the center. For that match, the line up was Ream-Long-Miazga-Cannon in defense, Bradley-McKennie-Pulisic in midfield, and Arriola-Altidore-Morris in attack, with Steffen in goal. The returning players for this game were Steffen, Ream, McKennie, and Pulisic, and they all filled in at the same places as they did 4 years ago.

Ok, but formations are not everything. What about other details, how the team attacked and how the defended? Do those compare?

In the Gold Cup final, the team largely played with a low block, with Michael Bradley screening the back four. In the Nations League final, the team largely played with a low block, with Kellyn Acosta screening the back four. On defense during the Gold Cup, the team sat back and conceded possession, letting Mexico hold possession 57-43. In the Nations League final, the USMNT sat back and conceded possession, letting Mexico hold possession 57-43. Yes, those numbers really are the same.

Spot the Difference

While the tactics were largely the same, the performances were significantly improved. We can start with the back. Against Switzerland and Honduras, the opposing attackers were able to get in behind the fullback and isolate John Brooks. Against Mexico, the Mexican attackers were able to isolate Tim Ream. And that actually is a really big difference. If you beat Tim Ream, John Brooks is still there to clean things up. Ream getting isolated one-v-one is WAY less problematic than Brooks getting isolated one-v-one. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not good that Ream was getting targeted and ripped up. But isolating the fullback is better than getting in behind the fullback, simply because there’s still other players who can get back and help out. In this way, I kind of feel like Tim Ream was sort of like bait. He’s the obvious choice to target, but that lets the team compensate with the presence of Dest tracking back and Brooks stepping in to cover what gets past Ream.

For the most part, leaving Ream out as delicious piece of beef hanging on the to be shredded and fried by Mexico didn’t come with actual goals from that side. Antuna was the one on Mexico’s right side most often roasting Uriel Ream, but he was very rarely actually dangerous. It wouldn’t be until Diego Lainez came on that Ream would get smoked and the goal would be threatened. Lainez scored almost immediately and the adjustment to take Ream off and slide Acosta at left back was necessary to shore up the defense. It should have come earlier.

But as much as Ream was torn up, the real defensive problems came from the right. Mark McKenzie had a mixed game. He did really well to break up plays and clear the ball and his passing was instrumental in setting up attacks. But he also passed straight to the Mexican attack and gifted them a goal within 90 seconds of kick off. As if immediately putting the team behind was not bad enough, McKenzie would go on to make several more mistakes in the first half, making a bad errant pass and losing his man to let Mexico one-v-one with Steffen.

The big difference between these two matches was in the attack. Which is kind of obvious. In the Nations League, the team scored 3 goals while in the Gold Cup final, they scored none. Doesn’t take a genius to realize something’s different. In the Gold Cup final, the attacking thrust of the game came largely in the first half, with Tim Ream setting up great chances for Altidore and Pulisic, with neither able to actually score. In the rematch, the attack was a bit more well-rounded. To compensate for falling behind, the USMNT desperately needed to figure out how to get some offense going and still limit Mexico’s attack. They largely did it by leaning on a familiar playbook.

The basic game plan for the USMNT going back to the 1994 World Cup has been built on 4 fundamental aspects:

  1. High athleticism and effort used to press and win the ball back
  2. Attacking rapidly on the counter
  3. Set Pieces
  4. Excellent Goalkeeping

Against Mexico, we saw all four of these utilized. The first two goals came from set pieces, while the penalty was won with Pulisic racing down on the counter. He was involved across the attack, but Weston McKennie was particularly pivotal on the set pieces.

When comparing this final vs. the 2019 Gold Cup one, we just have to talk about the players, and McKennie is most emblematic of this. In 2019, against Mexico, McKennie was limited to a defensive presence. And, as it turned out, he was pretty culpable on the losing goal, losing track of Jona dos Santos. But by 2021, not only had his defensive concentration grown, but he was now able to put his offensive stamp on the game. That doesn’t just go for McKennie. It also applies to Pulisic, who turned a poor start into an exceedingly strong finish (and got that goal that he was missing in 2019). Better performances from the players made a big deal. That’s the big difference between now and 2019.

GOOD ENOUGH

If I were to pick a through line that connects the Switzerland friendly, the semifinal win against Honduras, and this win against Mexico, I would say that the connecting theme would be growth and experience. Against Switzerland, the USMNT controlled much of the game, but were at a severe experience deficit that allowed the Swiss to nevertheless comfortably win. Against Honduras, neither team really had control, but the MNT figured out a way to muddle through a bad performance and win anyway.

Against Mexico, it felt like we had culmination of these lessons. Mexico had control of the match. They immediately put the US on the back foot and scored a goal. Nevertheless, the USMNT suffered through the adversity, rallied together, and found a way to get back in the game. The team understood that they weren’t going to control the game, but that they could nevertheless be competitive — and ultimately win— if they were organized and strategic. That was what the Swiss did to the US. Against Honduras, the team needed to figure out how to play against a team that was willing to kick and foul to win. The game against Mexico was prettier, but there were still plenty of dirty tactics and bad fouls. The MNT demonstrated that they could handle all that crap even when it was the best competition in the region.

But the biggest through line here I think is how the team did it. The team did it together. Every single player was in this as a team. Nobody was out there playing just for themselves. Other national teams have been torn apart by internal divisions. I remember just how stupid the debate about whether the English national team should start Lampard or Gerrard, but not both because they couldn’t work together. Hell, we can just look at the previous USMNT cycle, with the team struggling and fighting amongst themselves, right up until that loss in Couva. But that’s not the case for this team.

At the start of the year, I did a series reviewing the USMNT over the course of the previous two years titled Two Years of Berhalter. I talked about roster selection, dual national recruiting, tactics, and player growth/improvement. Of the four parts, three concern who is on the team and how they are doing instead of the on-the-field aspects. The results and the tactics are quite obviously important — I mean, I write up a piece on exactly that after every game. But I think that part of the game sometimes get too much attention. What’s more important is how the team works together. What kind of attitude do the players have? How do they treat each other?

So what kind of attitude did we see from the players? They didn’t give up when their teammate made a mistake. How did they treat each other? They watched out and covered for each other. When Steffen got hurt, the players came and encouraged him and told him it was OK to go off he needed to. And when Horvath came on, Steffen encouraged him and told him he could do it.

Over the last two-and-a-half years, we really haven’t had many great results. While the team can and did beat up on minnows, they have struggled against even moderate opposition. But the time the players succeeded in a big match, what did they do? The entire squad ran and celebrated with the back-up goalkeeper because he stepped in a did a good job. And when Weston McKennie headed home to bring the game back level, how did he celebrate? By charging to the bench and bear hugging his coach. With the entire team with him.

I know a lot of people have been frustrated with Berhalter for a very long time. And, indeed, there’s been plenty to be frustrated about with how the team has looked at times. But we just got our payoff. We won. We can bicker and argue about the tactics — we did give up two goals — but the simple fact is that the team construction has been excellent. We are seeing a true team out there in a way that we haven’t in years and years. And that deserves commendation.


That’s it from me. The USMNT will return for a friendly against Costa Rica on June 9th. As always, we want to know what you think about the match and this article; tell us in the comments below.