A dramatic and eventful chapter was just written into the storied rivalry between the U.S. Men’s National Team and Mexico, and it was a new, hometown hero who emerged to help the Americans come out on top.
The USMNT won the first Concacaf Nations League Final on Sunday night by beating arch-nemesis Mexico by a 3-2 mark in extra time, but the victory would not have been possible if not for the the game-saving efforts from backup goalkeeper Ethan Horvath. The 25-year-old American entered the game in the second half to replace injured starter Zack Steffen, and proved to be a difference-maker with four big saves — including one on a potentially game-tying penalty kick — in a rollercoaster affair at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado, that many observers have dubbed an instant classic.
Making it all the more sweet for Horvath was that this unexpected and heroic showing in the championship game came in his return to Colorado, in front of more than 20 friends and family members, some three to four years after last visiting his home state.
“Just thinking about how difficult it is for goalkeepers to come into the game in that stage of the game and then to make the impact that he made was remarkable,” said USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter. “Really proud of Ethan. It has been a tough season for him, and to come have a performance like that in his hometown is stuff that storybooks write about, so really proud of him.”
ETHAN HORVATH DENIES MEXICO A CHANCE TO EQUALIZE 👊 pic.twitter.com/N4AXjqGZ0s
— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) June 7, 2021
While Horvath made several important stops after replacing Steffen in the 69th minute, it was the denial of an Andres Guardado penalty in stoppage time of the added half-hour of play that proved biggest. Mexico earned a spot kick that could have tied the game up and likely would have forced a penalty shootout in the 124th minute, but Horvath parried away the veteran El Tri midfielder’s shot from 12 yards out.
The Club Brugge goalkeeper dove low and to his own right on the attempt, using his strong right mitten to paw the ball away and zap Mexican dreams while simultaneously sending his teammates and American fans in the stands into an absolute frenzy.
“This morning Zack, myself, David (Ochoa) and (goalkeeper coach Aron Hyde) spent a good 30, 40 minutes on watching penalties just in case it went to a penalty shootout,” said Horvath. “We watched from the guys who will start the game to the bench guys, so if it was me, Zack, or Dave in goal, any one of us were were prepared to step in goal and take a penalty.
“It was just down to us doing the homework.”
The USMNT’s preparations for such an occasion may have proven effective, but so too was Horvath’s execution of them in a pivotal moment that could rattle the nerves of plenty of other goalkeepers. Especially with the knowledge that a championship was at stake, family and friends were in the stands, and that things had not gone all that great at the club level in Belgium this past season.
Horvath delivering at such a pivotal point and his strong overall showing, combined with his impressive display in last week’s friendly vs. Switzerland, should only help strengthen his case to get more looks as the American’s No. 1 in the near future. Steffen currently holds that spot and has the type of technical skills that Berhalter wants out of the position, but Horvath might just have given the USMNT head coach something to think about.
“As a goalkeeper it is hard to get minutes as it is,” said midfielder Weston McKennie. “There is not that many rotations. You do not sub really ever in a game unless it is a situation like today. We gave (Horvath) the game ball because for a ‘keeper to come in a game like that, it is already high rolling and going 100 miles an hour, and to come in and make the big saves and secure the win was big, big time.”
Regardless of what Horvath’s role with the team is in the short-term future, nothing will change the fact that on Sunday night he etched his name into the USMNT-Mexico rivalry with a performance to remember. Not only did he save the Americans against their most bitter foes when the stakes were high, but also helped his nation become champions.
“It does not matter if you are on the bench or if you are starting consistently, everybody feels like they play a part,” said midfielder Sebastian Lletget. “I think it shows. It shows in big moments when you need guys.”