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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


John Leyba-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Comments

  1. Calling Ream a serviceable back up is just straight wrong. He has proven time and time again that he is not good enough for this level. If you know someone is not good enough it makes no sense to not at least try someone else.

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    • Last time I checked, Andrew Robertson was capped by Scotland.

      My point being, if he’s the best we’ve got, he’s the best we’ve got. Left back has been a problem spot for us since the days of…oh, I don’t know, pretty much ever? I’m still hoping Heath Pearce can step up and do the job. But until he’s ready, I think we’re doing the best we can. Antonee Robinson and Sergiño Dest can do a job, but they’re more attacking fullbacks/wingbacks than anything. Bryan Renyolds was used as a left back once for Roma, but I think he fits into the wingback mold as well. And those guys are wide options if we do play a back three (or five, depending on how you want to count it). But Ream has heaps of experience and at least knows what he’s doing back there, even if he’s short on pace. Dest wasn’t ready yet to step up against Mexico and Chris Richards wasn’t in camp, so I think Berhalter thought he was the duct-tape solution to a leaky backline.

      I think going forward, we’ll see a lot more of Richards in that spot, but until then, it’s just a position where “the best we have” is going to leave us exposed a lot of the time.

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  2. Also, read between the lines when Berhalter says “we’re trying to get him (Dest) to embrace” the parts of the game that aren’t pretty and technical and what he’s used to at Barcelona — the CONCACAF-y drama and grind; sounds like maybe he’s not buying-in completely at this point. Did anyone else see Dest and Musah off to the side just before trophy presentation, watching other players hug and celebrate and making comments to each other? Really wished that Berhalter had put Musah on the field in one of these NL matches to cap-tie him, and hoping that we can find a position for Dest that works for him, but most importantly for the team going-forward.

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  3. I went back and watched the game again and sort of isolated on that left side with Dest and Ream as much as I could — Dest almost never came back to help Ream in any way, shape, or form. Yedlin was coming back quite a bit on the right to help Mckenzie, but Ream was exposed/isolated in the back against Antuna and then Lainez, with predictable results. I think Ream was put in an unfair and almost no-win situation by Berhalter, and Dest was sulking and jogging and at times gesturing unhappily at his teammates when moves forward didn’t come off. Agree that Dest has a ton of talent, but watch the game again (especially first half) and think you can see he was negligent and culpable and showed no passion or fight whatsoever. Very disappointing.

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  4. In my opinion, this young group of Americans wasn’t going to let an inept coach mess up their chances to win. They won not for GB but the USA.

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    • Sure that’s why Wes sprinted 50 yards and hugs Berhalter after his goal before celebrating with his teammates. The boys are drinking the kook-aid you should have some. It’s sweet at first then there’s some odd bitter notes but you feel really happy afterwards.

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  5. What if Tata had brought Chicharito? Hernandez starts as the CF and Lozano then is matched on Ream instead of Antuna.
    ——————————————
    Just to be clear Tata left off the countries all-time goal scorer who is in terrific club form. Started Lozano out of position. Started a player he first saw in MLS over a European regular from La Liga. And sat his captain for a player from the domestic league. He also failed to make an adjustments to their set piece defense which easily could have given up 1 or 2 more goals if not for the acrobatics of Ochoa. All things that when Berhalter makes a similar decision we hear “no other country would ever do that”. Tata got somethings right but he also got some things wrong. I like Tata, but even with all his experience in La Liga and CONMEBOL he still can make mistakes.

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    • How could Tata adjust on set pieces? I’m curious because either man marking or zonal would be tough with the personal the US had. The US overloaded specific area with three players going towards goal with Brooks crashing just in front of the delivery. Defenders were bodies up and off balance. Mexico could not win the first ball coming in and body on a body was insufficient marking McKeenie. You saw it in SerieA and versus Honduras. Dude is livewire with the ball in the air. In he US back pocket is a near post run with a majority of players looking to switch with the overload
      A lot of credit to the coaching staff!

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  6. I think that Ives is too kind to McKenzie. It’s not that he made the mistake that led to the goal, but how he made the mistake. It was worse than careless, it was either a real lack of concentration or a lack of intensity. In short, no excuse for it because he wasn’t even being pressed. Then, he did the same thing again maybe 20 minutes later. I think he played himself to the bench. As for Dest I thought it interesting that Berhalter said his poor play was due to Berhalter asking him to do things he hadn’t done before. Uh, maybe the problem was in the assignment, then,and why didn’t Berhalter change it when it was clear it wasn’t working? Dest never seemed to get to playing to his ability. Finally, how important is it to have a left footed player on the left? Not so important, it seems to me, that you play an inferior player. Why didn’t Ives mention that Robinson has been a very good LB? Dempsey played most of his career at Fulham playing left midfield and he is not left footed.

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    • Berhalter is covering for a young player, he doesn’t call out his players and say “Hey Mexico double teamed him whenever he got the ball and he got frustrated and lost intensity.” Robinson is not a good LB he was a good LWB as Dest is as well.
      —————————————
      The left foot debate is different for attackers and defenders, especially if you are asking defenders to play out. Dempsey can thrive as a LM because then he can drive in on his right foot just as CP and Gio do when on the left and you let your left footed FB get the width and do the crossing when needed. If Dempsey loses the ball dribbling with his right foot on the left side he’s far from goal and has most of the defense behind him. If a right footed defender has to try dribble with their right foot under pressure on the left side they either show the ball or have try to cut inside into more pressure instead of going up the sideline. Your also showing much more of the ball to try to pass with your right on the left side. If the defender turns it over 20-30 yards from goal it’s a big deal. It’s largely to do with playing out of the back in the past when you just booted it down field when under pressure or passed back to the keeper to do it for you it didn’t matter what foot you used. Klinsmann always wanted left footed defenders on the left not sure if it is European thing or if Americans just didn’t develop enough left footed soccer players to apply it before. McKenzie, Richards, and EPB all are two footed and play at least some as LCBs for their clubs. EPB turns the ball over a lot but I’m not sure if that’s related to his feet or decision making. Hopefully one of those three will be Brooks’ backup slash LCB/LB combo from now on though.

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    • Playing LB requires a lot of passing with your outside foot, especially diagonal passes. Almost all systems/formations requires the diagonal pass. Think about it! Right foot dominant players, playing on the left, tend to bring the ball back on your inside foot, which is the dominant. Fine if you’re a winger or forward, passing or striking the ball. Bad if you play defense because you have the ball in front of the opposing player. Different position but a left foot example: John Brooks. His passes that bypass the opposing midfield are with his left. His passes to CF, and wingers are with his left. Brooks is left foot dominant and plays CB, which is truly unique to the player pool. Ventura Alvarado is left foot dominant, hopefully he gets a GC opportunity. …but he’s tall, and short area quickness, turning and running will be a weakness. You’re right when you say, you don’t have to be left foot dominant to play on the left, but you better be damn good with your left foot. Kellyn Acosta is prime example, I thought he would’ve GBs LB until Antonee was ready. Playing in the midfield, in today’s game requires players to use both feet. I don’t know any player in the top ten leagues, playing in the midfield that can only use one foot. If you have? Examples pls! One footed players a generally played outside. Johnathon Lewis, Benji Michele, aren’t the best examples but my to point. Ohh Aryn Robbin (Netherlands) better example! I understand you’ve played this sport, IV, Mysterious and others have spoken on playing also. I’m left footed, so understand. You can tell sometimes btw a player stops, steers, or passes the ball. 90s, and early 2000s style, tactics, or philosophies, can’t be applied because the game has changed. The way the NBA is played today is much different than 2001, right?! It’s not so simple to put right footed players on left side of your defense like you could in the early 2000s.

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  7. I agree with pretty much all of this. The win makes the individual reviews a touch more generous than otherwise would be.

    I do think that Reyna, Horvath, McKennie, Brooks clearly stood out as most positively impactful performers on the night.

    Steffen, Pulisic, Yedlin (praised by fans, but did lose some challenges including the one that led to 1st MX goal) all added more positives than negatives. Adams, holy moly, did he cover acres of space in a split second when subbed in- also deserved to be praised a bit. Along with Brooks most irreplaceable USMNT player.

    Sargent, Siebatcheu, Lletget (the upgrade from him taking set pieces to Reyna and Pulisic won the game), Acosta, Cannon, Weah seemed neutral overall to the outcome.

    Dest does not appear worthy of a starting spot at this point. I’d never thought I’d be saying this two weeks ago, but much less skillful Antonee Robinson is a better fit at this point, for this team. Dest makes pretty moves that don’t actually lead to goals or high quality chances and ends up being responsible for 3-4 chances for the other team. I’d love for Dest to develop into a major offensive threat and hold his own on defense but he does not appear ready yet and I’d rather have Robinson play solid, unspectacular defense and let Pulisic, Reyna and McKennie create with the ball at their feet.

    McKenzie didn’t just have a nightmare pass that led to a goal, but made another terrible pass just like the first one later in the game AND had the penalty called on him, however soft it may have been judged. If USMNT loses that game on PKs, fans would be screaming for him not to get called in again. It was an awful performance in moments that mattered the most. Would Miazga been that much worse?

    The only worse performance was Ream, as it was mentioned in the article and this was also to be expected ahead of time, especially vs speedy MX wingers. Coach deserves a markdown for that alone.

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  8. Bring back the SBI Podcast! First topic all the crazy things that happened that we didn’t see on the game broadcast. Like where did the guy that jumped off the set land?

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  9. What was remarkable is that despite 2 of the 3 starting centerbacks not having good games, they still helped hold Mexico to 2 goals. Mistakes by backs are often punished with goals and McKenzie’s bad pass and Ream’s inability to stay closer to attackers did result in goals. Even though Dest was seldom back in time to help Ream handle the quicker Mexican attackers, somehow the US muddled through that (thanks to Horvath and Steffan).

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    • Part of that is do to Tata starting Antuna instead of Lainez. The US was set up to force Mexico to play long balls from their CBs and they did that for about the first 20 minutes. Ream was effective in that stretch aerials vs the Mexican forwards he wins those. Then Tata adjusted and slid Alvarez deep so we either couldn’t pressure the ball or Reyna left the LM open. Now they could play better passes with more time and space and they were able to get the ball to Antuna. Antuna largely had one move try to beat Ream to the endline. Ream was able to mostly contain it and his teammates had a good idea where Antuna would play the ball to. Berhalter just couldn’t get Ream fast enough once Lainez came on it was only 4 minutes. 4 minutes that saw each team score. If the US wanted to use a 3 man backline there was no good choice. The other option would be to play Miazga and slide Brooks over to defend Lainez 1 on 1. McKenzie played RB at U20 WC and can play as a LCB, but really wouldn’t have been much better in open space.

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    • Gary- then we’d have to switch out of our 3-4-3 build up though, which honestly wasn’t working that well either. I thought when Weah came in for Dest, that Robinson would eventually come on for Ream and would just go to our normal 4-3-3. I wonder if the Steffen injury substitution prevented that one? Lainez hadn’t scored a goal in any competition since October and has never scored in La Liga in a year and a half so it’s not like your expecting him to hit that perfect shot between three defenders 1 minute into the match. You’re trying to buy time because you want to put in Adams but the prospect of extra time and 30 more minutes when he hasn’t played in 5 weeks your trying get a few more minutes before your last substitution window. Berhalter gambled and it didn’t work. Tata didn’t want to mark McKennie in the box and it cost him two goals he gambled and it didn’t work.

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      • Yes, Laidez hasn’t scored in over a year in La Liga, but he doesn’t have in Liga a Ream, Mckenzie, and Acosta to abuse.

      • Johnny,

        I think everyone is underestimating how much work Dest had to do helping Ream. It looked like a 5-4-1 for much of the first half with Dest back. Its not a surprise that the goal came after Weah came in and we exposed Ream to abuse by the speedster.

        Which is also, of course, why Dest wasn’t on full display. But also, I think we need to trust Dest, or Antonee, or someone over there and add a second MF to help him if needed. In that respect, I think Adams absence was a bigger issue most of the game than Ream’s inclusion, because it made it difficult to just trust Dest out there to sink or swim.

    • Turk, I went back and watched the match a second time Dest rarely ever got back within 20 yards of goal. Some of that was Mexico played a lot of balls that bypassed the midfield and went straight to the forwards and then they quickly attacked. On the goal I just watched the highlight but Weah and Reyna had interchanged and Reyna was sitting in the WB roll on the left so it would have been Reyna helping in that case but he saw Ream with Acosta helping and McKenzie in support so he just mostly stood watching.

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  10. This article is a joke. Please use more constructive criticism. At which point in the game did the US team connect more than 4 passes in the game? Not back passes, forward passes. US did not have any control of the game. Pure luck that they won.

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