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United States v. Mexico; 2021 Gold Cup Final: What We Learned

The USMNT beat Mexico 1-0 in the final. We already knew that the US was the top team in CONCACAF, but now we’ve confirmed it. Here’s what else we learned.

United States v Mexico: Final - 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

The USMNT were already the champions of CONCACAF thanks to the USMNT’s victory in the Nation’s League finals earlier this summer. This win, this win by a team overwhelmingly built by reserves, cements that status as the clear top dog.

Deja vu

So, let’s get this straight. The USMNT took on Mexico in a final and won by a single goal from a set piece late in extra-time. Doesn’t this sound familiar to you?

It’s not just the superficial circumstances that make the Gold Cup final resemble the Nations League final. Obviously, the big difference there is that the US fell behind and leveled the score twice in the Nation’s league before ultimately winning, while in the Gold Cup, the US kept the match scoreless until winning it late. But the underlying way that the US won was really quite similar. Just take a look at the team shapes for the respective matches, with the pass maps coming from for both the Nation’s League final and the Gold Cup final.

These are both clearly 4-3-3 formations, with Kellyn Acosta (number 23 in both maps) sitting as a defensive screen in front of the backline. You’ve got a little bit of an unbalanced shape with Gio Reyna and Paul Arriola respectively coming inside. The USMNT sat back in both games, conceding possession to Mexico and clogging up the middle of the field. To attack, the US tried to force dangerous turnovers and attack on the break. But the team’s goals came from set pieces. Overall, the performances were strikingly similar.

But it’s not merely that these two particular performances were similar. In my analysis of the Nations League Final, I pointed out that the US played that game in a stunningly similar way to how they played the 2019 Gold Cup final. What we have here is an overarching tactical plan, one that is familiar to the players and is now consistently bringing results. And that strikes me as huge. The implication is that it doesn’t matter who plays for the US against Mexico. Up and down the depth pool, the players understand what they need to do and are capable of executing. And that’s huge.

I’m not going to pretend like this display was perfect. It wasn’t. Mexico got a few really threatening looks, forcing big saves from Matt Turner. But the defensive performance was enough to see the team through. That’s been a theme for this tournament. The USMNT has won 5 games 1-0, only beating Martinique by multiple goals. And in each knockout match, that goal has come late, with the team grinding down the opposition until they could get their opening. It’s not really been pretty, but it’s been effective. And that effectiveness bodes well for World Cup qualifying and beyond.

A Breakout’s Success

Everybody’s said it, but I will say it again. This was a reserve roster for the USMNT.

To a certain extent, this was hedging. If the team lost, you could just point and say “they are a bunch of 22 year olds, it’s OK, they are depth”. Instead, those depth pieces won. For starters, that’s humiliating for Mexico. Mexico was a bit split between the Gold Cup and the Olympics. But they sent a roster with the clear intent of winning this thing. Yeah, Ochoa and Lainez are in Tokyo instead. But Mexico’s midfield still had one player from Ajax and another from Atletico Madrid. While Jona dos Santos is with merely the LA Galaxy, he’s still got 58 caps. This was not a reserve Mexico side. To lose to the USMNT’s third string players after losing to them in the same summer stings. It stings so much, that Tata Martino might get fired.

On the flip side, though, this win represented a massive triumph for these young American players. The outfield players average just over 22 years of age, and yet, they’ve shown that they can consistently grind out results against the best teams in the region. That bodes well, not merely for the upcoming round of World Cup qualifying, but for the 2026 cycle. By the time that tournament kicks off, the likes of Hoppe and Busio will be in their mid 20’s. They won’t be young players anymore, but seasoned professionals with 5 years of international experience. They will likely be markedly better than they are now. Combined with the fact that these are the depth options, and that the bulk of the starters, the likes of McKennie and Pulisic and Dest, are at a similar age, the USMNT is set to go from strength to strength over the coming few years.

But the growth of these players is merely the tip of the iceberg. American soccer has shifted such that it is now constantly producing high caliber talent. Matthew Hoppe just made his professional debut this year. Daryl Dike made his last year. They both represent multi-million dollar talents, playing in the position the USMNT is ostensibly weakest at. And there’s more talent waiting in the wings. Paxton Pomykal, Tanner Tessman, Aidan Morris, and Caden Clark could all join the fold by the end of next year.

More specifically, this is a triumph of MLS. There’s a long-standing anxiety that MLS and MLS-based players are not good enough. While it’s obviously true that the average player playing in the top flights in England, Germany, Spain, Italy, and France are better than those in MLS, the North American league has nonetheless emerged as an excellent producer of talent. Young players are now being exported for multiple millions of dollars. I’ve already mentioned Dike, but there’s more than just him angling for a big-money move to Europe. Just during this tournament, we’ve been getting news about Sam Vines going to Belgium and Busio to Italy. And I wouldn’t be surprised to hear about sales for the likes of Turner, Sands, and Robinson. New talent is constantly emerging. And it’s high-quality talent at that.

But we didn’t merely see success from prospects in MLS. More established MLS pros also showed up and performed. Kellyn Acosta and Matt Turner were among the best players in the entire tournament, with Turner winning the Golden Glove. The two are often looked at as too old for a move to Europe at 26 and 27, respectively. While I definitely don’t think they couldn’t make a move, their success shows that there indeed are good players, players capable of performing at the international level, plying their trade in MLS. Fans would do well to observe that what league the players play at is less important than how the players perform.

Closing Thoughts

I want to start this section with just a moment of respect and recognition for Jonathon dos Santos who’s father passed away shortly before the match. I offer my condolences to him and his family.

It feels weird to not acknowledge the disappointing result in the USWNT’s olympic semifinal vs. Canada. It turned what what would have been a happy day for US soccer fans into a bittersweet one. That said, the WNT still has a chance to medal in the 3rd place game vs. Australia on August 5th.

Switching to a happier note, August 1st happened to be Gregg Berhalter’s birthday. Happy Birthday, Gregg. I can’t really think of a better gift than a victory over Mexico with a trophy on the line.

Matt Turner was, yet again, immense. He’s been incredible in goal through this whole tournament.

Watching both USMNT groups win their respective finals against Mexico feels like this:

That’s all from me. If you’ve got thoughts, we definitely would love to hear them. Let’s go celebrate in the comments below.