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USA vs. Mexico, 2023 Concacaf Nations League Semifinals: What we learned

The USMNT took on Mexico in the Nations League semifinals and deservedly won what unfortunately turned into a mess of a game.

Mexico v USMNT Photo by John Dorton/USSF/Getty Images for USSF

Well, that was definitely a match.

The United States Men’s National Team played somewhere between “quite well” and “brilliantly” for most of the match. Christian Pulisic in particular stood out, generating a number of chances before bagging the opener towards the end of the second half. The second half started similarly, with Tim Weah busting open the Mexican defense with a good run before laying the ball off to Pulisic for a tap-in and establishing that familiar Dos a Cero.
From there, with Mexico facing a fifth straight disappointing tournament performance v. their arch rivals (the US has won 4/5, with the one draw happening in Mexico), the Mexican players essentially lost their minds. César Montes lashed out at Folarin Balogun with a nasty and dangerous kick after giving up the ball to the young striker, earning a straight red for dangerous conduct. The referee lost control of the match and a melee ensued. Somehow, Weston McKennie both got his shirt ripped to shreds AND got sent off.

Thus far, the match had been ugly, but within the expected parameters of a USA v. Mexico match. But things escalated. American striker Ricardo Pepi decided to break the 2-0 legacy when he came on, launching the USMNT to the uncharted terrain of 3-0. This infuriated the Mexican fans, a subset of whom began to very audibly chant that homophobic slur. It was loud enough that the referee was forced to acknowledge it and paused the match to issue a warning. The warning was acknowledged with louder slurs. In the midst of this, a second fight broke out and Sergiño Dest and Gerardo Arteaga were sent off from their respective teams. At the close of the game, the referee made an absurd use of his discretion to name 12 minutes of added time, before confronting the reality of the chorus of profane chants coming from the stands. In the end, the referee cut the match early because of the homophobia.

Let’s be clear, this match was a disgrace. Mexico engaged in violent conduct. The referee completely lost control of the match and resorted to punishing both teams whenever there was an outbreak. The group of Mexico fans launching slurs and empty bottles were a disgrace. And the complete impotence of CONCACAF to deal with this particular issue after years and years is an utter disgrace.

What did we learn? Well, this isn’t a new lesson so much as a clear solidifying of something we’ve known for a long time. There needs to be strong action taken from CONCACAF. Limply asking fans to please stop creating an unacceptable atmosphere does not work. And this is not a problem with all fans. This is specific to Mexico fans. Not all Mexico fans, but enough to be heard over even the commentary on television. There needs to be sporting consequences. Deduct points, remove them from a competition, force them to play in an empty stadium. Something more serious needs to be done.

The New Normal

Going into this match, it wasn’t a given that the USMNT would dominate the match. Yes, the team had now had the upper hand for years, going undefeated against Mexico all the way back to 2019. Yes, Mexico had underperformed in the World Cup, and yes, they have an aging player pool with few comparable players. But this is a new cycle, a new potential beginning. And maybe this Mexico team is motivated to turn things around.
At the same time, the USMNT is in a massive state of flux, not in terms of player turnover (there is precious little of that, of the starting eleven in this match, only 3 weren’t part of the World Cup squad, and two of them almost certainly missed out only because of health issues), but because of player status and program volatility. The team was on their second interim manager after the federation was forced to launch an investigation following the apparent attempted blackmailing of the previous full-time coach over a 30 year old domestic violence incident by the parents of one of the players. With the exception of Antonee Robinson, basically the entire starting XI have questions on their status with their respective club teams, with most of the players coming off of disappointing seasons in one shape or another. This had the makings of a potential low moment for the US.

But that isn’t what happened. I called the match a disgrace, but the performance absolutely was anything but. The team was, at times, brilliant. Excluding the red cards, basically the entire team played well, with particularly influential performances from Tim Weah and Yunus Musah.

But the spotlight goes to Christian Pulisic, who was an absolute terror down the left and deservedly got two goals for it. Pulisic’s gone from the team’s star, to having to figure out how to be part of the team, and back to the star even within that stronger team dynamic. It’s a welcome growth for the team’s most important attacking player.

Over the last few years, the USMNT has consistently dominated over Mexico. At this point in the rivalry, we need to confront the reality that this is the new normal, this is the status quo.

The US did not merely win the game; they controlled it. Mexico had a single shot on target. El Tri struggled to even get into the USA’s box. Further, this is not a one-off. This is the third straight competitive match where the US has controlled proceedings and there is no real reason to believe that this will change in the future. The expectations need to be raised. USA-Mexico matches will remain tough fixtures, but the days when El Tri had the edge are over. The days when the match up were even is over. These are now games we should expect the US to win. Perhaps it’s fitting that this era starts with a Mexican-American scoring.

With that said, on to Canada and the final.