A closer look at the USMNT win vs. Mexico: McKennie's masterpiece, Gio's genesis, and more

A closer look at the USMNT win vs. Mexico: McKennie's masterpiece, Gio's genesis, and more

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A closer look at the USMNT win vs. Mexico: McKennie's masterpiece, Gio's genesis, and more

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It may have been in a tournament that didn’t exist three years ago, for a trophy nobody had seen before a week ago, but the U.S. Men’s National Team’s dramatic win over Mexico in the Concacaf Nations League final was about so much more than the title and silverware up for grabs.

The 3-2 win became an instant inflection point for a supremely talented USMNT squad that passed its first test as a group, and did so with a combination of heart, skill and relentlessness to battle back from deficits on two separate occasions, including after surrendering a goal just 61 seconds into the match.

The Americans didn’t dominate Mexico, and all it would have taken was a few decisions to go another way and Mexico could have claimed the trophy, but this USMNT side left Denver with a mountain of respect because it stood up to a veteran Mexico side and showed that the ‘Golden Generation’ talk isn’t empty rhetoric.

Perhaps most impressive was how the team’s biggest names rose to the occasion. Weston McKennie won Nations League tournament MVP honors, and would have been Man of the Match on Sunday before Ethan Horvath’s movie script-like heroics. Gio Reyna made a jaw-dropping debut in the USA-Mexico rivalry, scoring a goal, assisting on another while also doing the kind of dirty work defensively that you don’t always see from young attackers.

Then you had Christian Pulisic, who overcame a quiet first half to start imposing himself on the match as the match wore on, and who drew and converted the match-winning penalty.

Those individual performances helped paper over some poor individual performances, and took some of the attention away from some lineup decisions by Gregg Berhalter that very nearly doomed the team to defeat. Ultimately, Berhalter redeemed himself with some excellent substitutions, leaving the USMNT with a strong group that closed out the match in extra time while Mexico never recaptured its excellent early-game form, with the exception of the brief boost Diego Lainez provided when he first entered the match.

Of course, part of the reason for Mexico’s inability to capitalize more on USMNT defensive breakdowns was Ethan Horvath, who snatched Man of the Match honors by coming off the bench to make a handful of outstanding saves, none bigger than his last-minute penalty stop to deny Andres Guardado and secure the title.

As much criticism as Berhalter received during and after Sunday’s match for his lineup choices, perhaps it is telling that McKennie raced over to his coach and gave him a big hug after scoring the 82nd minute equalizer to make it 2-2. There are plenty of USMNT fans who still don’t believe in Berhalter, but it is difficult to deny the belief Berhalter’s players have in him, especially after Sunday’s dramatic victory.

Here are some more thoughts on the USMNT win vs. Mexico:


McKennie aerial prowess overwhelms Mexico


Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos

It is no secret that Weston McKennie is a force in the air, with the ability to out-jump most opponents, but Mexico’s inability to adjust as McKennie feasted on El Tri’s zonal marking on corner kicks was a head-scratcher.

McKennie set up a goal, scored a goal, and forced Guillermo Ochoa into a stunning save on three different USMNT corner kicks. McKennie’s ability to slip into vacant spots in Mexico’s set-piece defense was impressive, and exposed Mexico’s relatively weak presence in the air.

McKennie’s night wasn’t confined to his set-piece contributions. The Juventus midfielder put in a ton of work in midfield, where Mexico was supposed to have an advantage. Tata Martino’s decision to start Carlos Rodriguez ahead of veteran standout Andres Guardado was surprising, and helped balance the scales a bit, and McKennie responded by doing an excellent job of helping Kellyn Acosta with the limiting of central threats from El Tri.

It was encouraging to see McKennie stand out after what was a trying end of the Serie A season at Juventus. The final months of the season saw McKennie battle injuries and see fewer and fewer starts, but offered a reminder on Sunday of why he is one of the most important members of this ‘Golden Generation’


Gio Reyna’s breakout USMNT performance


John Leyba-USA TODAY Sports

It has always felt like a matter of when, not if Gio Reyna would eventually develop into one of the most talented players on the USMNT, but few would have imagined he would have a breakout performance at the age of 18 in a final against Mexico.

Reyna delivered an inspired display on Sunday, scoring a first-half equalizer and setting up a second-half equalizer with a well-placed corner kick. In between those goals, and throughout his 82 minutes of action, Reyna was relentless in attack, and surprisingly so defensively. He tracked back to help defensively on multiple occasions, breaking up several Mexico attacks, and he wasn’t afraid to dive into physical battles.

“The one thing I’m telling (Reyna) is the intensity of these games is a different level, embrace it,” Berhalter said. “He has the physicality for an 18-year-old, he’s a big boy, he’s a strong boy, a lot of power, a lot of physicality, and it was great to see him using it in that game.”

Reyna’s two-way work shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise considering the amount of defensive work required to be a regular starter in the Bundesliga, but he definitely showed more of a willingness to track back than in past USMNT performances.

Reyna’s 82nd-minute departure from the match felt a bit forced by Berhalter, especially with Reyna having just delivered the assist on McKennie’s equalizer, but given the amount of two-way work he put in, playing at altitude, Berhalter may have seen it as a good time to insert some fresh legs.

That being said, it was great to see Reyna’s unhappiness with being replaced. He was fully locked into the match, and it is a safe bet Tata Martino wasn’t sad to see him replaced.


McKenzie struggled early, but persevered


Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos

If you could draw up a worst possible start for a young defender in a final, it might look like Mark McKenzie’s first minute in Sunday’s final.

Fresh off an outstanding semifinal against Honduras, McKenzie had a poor pass picked off in the very first minute, with Jesus Corona pouncing and blasting home a shot past Zack Steffen just 61 seconds into the match.

McKenzie could have gone into a shell, but he continued to battle, and while he made other mistakes in the first half, he kept his composure and eventually settled down into a steadier performance.

“I was a defender as well and I just know when you make a mistake that leads so goal, the feeling, and sometimes you want to just hide, and you have to keep going. He did that,” Berhalter said of McKenzie. “It wasn’t always pretty, but in the meantime, he made some huge plays in that game, stepped in front of guys. Was isolated 1-v-1 against top-level attackers and held his own.

“I spoke to the team about Mark and his performance yesterday, and it was just a really, I think, brave performance, a relentless performance, and he hung in there and just kept going, so really proud of him and his effort.”

It can’t overstated how important it was for McKenzie to keep it together considering how badly Tim Ream was struggling in his left centerback and then left back role, and considering John Brooks was forced to play with a yellow card from the 10th minute on.

If McKenzie had not kept it together, Berhalter would have been forced to burn a sub, and insert Matt Miazga into a game which featured Mexico deploying a speedy front three, which could have caused Miazga problems.

McKenzie earned the starts in Nations League because of his superior quickness to Miazga, which makes him a better complement to Brooks, and while you could tell he was gun-shy with his passing for the rest of the match, McKenzie closed out his 120 minutes playing much better than he started the night. For a 22-year-old making just his fifth national team appearance, McKenzie deserves some credit for his resiliency.


Dest’s surprisingly quiet night


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While many of the USMNT’s big named enjoyed outstanding performances against Mexico, one player who struggled was Sergiño Dest. The Barcelona fullback operated between playing as a left wingback and left winger, while also cutting into central positions. He had some fleeting moments, but too often disappeared for stretches, and never could get into a good rhythm.

“With Sergio, it was a case of we asked a lot of him tactically in the game,” Berhalter said. “We asked him to move from a wide midfielder to a wing back. We asked him to move inside, to move outside. And sometimes it’s difficult to get in the flow of a game because of that.”

Dest played both as a right back and right wingback for Barcelona, and as a left back at times for Barcelona and the USMNT, but left wingback and left wing were both roles the young defender hasn’t played much and it showed.

“Overall, we want Sergio embracing the tougher moments of the game, the moments when the game doesn’t look like he’s used to seeing it, because that’s what Concacaf is,” Berhalter said. “He’s a fantastic player. He’s got as much talent as anyone else on the team, and now it’s just about getting used to what CONCACAF soccer is like.”


Ream’s rough night a reminder more left-footers needed


Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos

Tim Ream’s struggles dealing with Mexico’s speedster were a surprise to nobody. It was pretty much expected as soon as the USMNT lineup was unveiled, but Ream’s struggles both as a left centerback in a three-back defense, and as a left back in a four-back defense, highlighted the need for more left-footed options in the USMNT defender pool.

John Brooks is the best left-footed centerback in the USMNT pool by a mile, and the drop-off from him to Ream is considerable, but Berhalter’s desire to play an adaptable system that could shift seamlessly between a three-back and four-back led to him starting Tim Ream, as the only player on his roster who, in theory, is capable of playing left centerback and left back.

The only problem is Ream is a slow centerback and glacially slow fullback, which was painful to see as Mexico turned him into a blonde traffic cone on multiple occasions.

Ream’s timidity and fear of being burned for pace often left him backing off too much on Sunday, giving Mexican attackers time to find dangerous passes when they weren’t blowing by him.

To be fair, Berhalter’s idea for an adaptable system is a good one, but at the moment there isn’t a left-footed player in the player pool who can handle left centerback and left back duties at a high level. Chris Richards isn’t left-footed but has shown an ability to handle playing on the left side of a defense, and he is athletic enough to play as a fullback. Mark McKenzie is another right-footed player with experience playing on the left side, though he isn’t fleet-footed enough to operate at fullback.

Unfortunately for Berhalter, he doesn’t have a David Alaba laying around who can step into that sort of diverse left-sided role. That leads us to Ream, who is an excellent passer, top-notch locker-room presence, and serviceable backup to John Brooks as a left centerback in a four-back defense, but he will always struggle against faster attacks, as he did on Sunday, and should probably never be used at left back ever again.


The USMNT’s secret weapon


Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos.

Berhalter gave USMNT goalkeeper coach Aron Hyde a special shoutout after Sunday’s win for his key role in helping the Americans beat Mexico, while also getting the better of his former boss.

“Give Aaron Hyde a ton of credit for designing set pieces that we thought could hurt them,” Berhalter said. “And not only that, also helping Ethan (Horvath) with the direction on the penalty shooter.”

The former Chicago Fire and Atlanta United goalkeeper coach may have had just a bit of special insight into Mexico’s plans. He spent two seasons as an assistant on Mexico head coach Tata Martino’s coaching staff with Atlanta United during its first two seasons in MLS.

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