The United States Men’s National Team has reached the final of the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Gregg Berhalter leads his group against rival Mexico at Allegiant Stadium in Paradise, Nevada, a meeting of the pre-tournament favorites. Through stumbles and challenges, the regional powers are once against competing for the regional crown.
This is the 72nd all-time meeting between the two nations, and Mexico holds a 36-20-15 advantage. El Tri qualified for the competition by winning League A Group B at the recently completed Nations League. The Gold Cup campaign started slowly with a scoreless draw against Trinidad and Tobago. However, the team rebounded with wins over Guatemala (3-0) and El Salvador (1-0) to finish atop Group A. The knockout rounds were difficult a mixed bag, with Honduras (3-0) and Canada (2-1) dispatched in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.
Mexico is led by Gerardo “Tata” Martino, now in the third year of his tenure. He has compiled a 29-3-3 record, but recent poor performances have been a cause for concern in local media. Winning the Gold Cup was described as “an obligation,” acknowledging the importance of the tournament. While this match will have little-to-no impact on World Cup Qualifying, losing two consecutive finals to the USMNT would force the federation to ask a few more questions of the manager.
“The approach was the same as we usually do,” the Argentine said after the semifinal. “We were able to impose our game in the first half and in the second we were beaten by 20 minutes... We recovered, then we had... four plays to score and it was enough to think that we should have won the game.”
Martino named a 23-player roster for the Gold Cup, adding Rodolfo Pizarro after Hirving “Chucky” Lozano was injured against Trinidad and Tobago. Liga MX is home to 14 of the call-ups, with an additional four competing in Major League Soccer. This could be viewed as a B+ group, missing a few key veterans but still featuring several top talents.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Alfredo Talavera (UNAM), Rodolfo Cota (León), Jonathan Orozco (Tijuana)
DEFENDERS (8): Néstor Araujo (Celta Vigo), Carlos Salcedo (UANL), Osvaldo Rodríguez (León), Kevin Álvarez (Pachuca), Héctor Moreno (Monterrey), Gilberto Sepúlveda (Guadalajara), Luis Rodríguez (UANL), Jesús Gallardo (Monterrey)
MIDFIELDERS (9): Edson Álvarez (Ajax), Jonathan dos Santos (LA Galaxy), Érick Sánchez (Pachuca), Orbelín Pineda (Cruz Azul), Alan Cervantes (Santos Laguna), Érick Gutiérrez (PSV), Héctor Herrera (Atlético Madrid), Efraín Álvarez (LA Galaxy), Rodolfo Pizarro (Inter Miami)
FORWARDS (3): Alan Pulido (Sporting Kansas City), Rogelio Funes Mori (Monterrey), Jesús Corona (Porto)
Martino has stuck to roughly the same lineup during the competition, identifying the most reliable players for his well-publicized pressing 4-3-3. The strength of this roster is in the attack that starts with the midfield and drives through the wings, while not tarrying too long in the build-up. Mexico is still holding off from being forced into an undignified rebuild, as most of these players are long-term veterans with the program.
Veteran Alfredo Talavera started every match at this tournament. The 38-year-old UNAM Pumas goalkeeper earned 37 caps for Mexico and is firmly entrenched as a back-up. He is a complete player: controlling the box, blocking shots, and playing in possession. However, the occasional catastrophic error has been known to occur.
Carlos Salcedo can thrive in both facets required for center backs, both a physical tackler and a competent distributor. His sometime partner, Néstor Araujo, serves as a safety option in possession and uses his body to shield away attackers. They form an imposing duo, surrendering zero goals in five matches when together. Captain Héctor Moreno appears to be the third option, although he started during the semifinal.
Left back Jesús Gallardo is a flashy one-on-one dribbler, looking to play the right pass behind the opponent. The 26-year-old occasionally finds himself in a position to score but is more likely to be a distributor. By comparison, Luis “Chaka” Rodríguez of Tigres will shoot from distance when given space and has a collection of highlight reel goals. He also tends to start solo runs from the defensive third, looking to advance up the field with quick combinations. The two have been described as the “ideal” fullbacks for Martino’s system, pushing high into the formation and hugging the touchline so the wingers can cut inside.
Defensive midfielder Edson Álvarez is a presence in front of the box, swarming passing lanes and stopping dribblers. He will also drop into the back line and serve as an extra center back. Érick Gutiérrez of PSV is equal parts box-to-box shuttler and creator, viewed as the heir apparent to Andrés Guardado. As a left-footed player with the vision to find attackers, the 26-year-old can prevent the formation from becoming too narrow. Veteran Héctor Herrera is of a similar mold, pushing vertically with pace. Jonathan dos Santos started in both knockout round matches, and his passing could serve as an asset against the USMNT.
PINEDA MAKES IT THREE ⚡️— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 25, 2021
Mexico fans are loving it in the first half pic.twitter.com/QEsAIz4mZ3
Orbelin Pineda stepped in for Lozano at winger, enjoying a fantastic tournament with three goals and one assist. He’s been a devastating creative presence, popping up all over the field to receive the ball and cycle possession, while also playing well-placed crosses. Porto attacker Jesús Corona is said to be on Tottenham’s radar and for good reason. The 28-year-old is dangerous when dribbling, attracting and pulling defenders out of position, which in turn opens up space for his teammates.
Former Argentina international Rogelio Funes Mori made his debut for El Tri earlier this month. The 30-year-old Monterrey striker added instant firepower, scoring four times in six appearances and likely cementing his place as the back-up to Raúl Jiménez. Standing at 6’1”, he is a master of movement, constantly shuffling his feet and feinting runs to find an open position from which to receive a cross. Rodolfo Pizarro of Inter Miami could also start. The late roster addition changed the tenor of the Canada match after entering as a substitute.
FUNES MORI— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 25, 2021
Mexico takes the lead in the first half against Honduras pic.twitter.com/hkOVpg2cEE
This has been a decent although not fully convincing tournament for Mexico, but one more win will partially wash out the sour taste of the Nations League failure. The overarching vertical strategy should appear familiar for consumers of international soccer. Martino expects his team to break forward with pace, attempting to center the ball as soon as the final third is entered. This is yet another challenge for a makeshift USMNT back line that will be punished for any mistakes or turnovers.
The final is scheduled for Sunday, August 1st at 8:30 p.m. Eastern, 5:30 p.m. Pacific. Viewing options include Fox Sports 1, TUDN, Univision, and FUBO TV (free trial).