DENVER — As young as many of the players are on the U.S. Men’s National Team, they are no strangers to the passion surrounding the USA-Mexico rivalry, but nothing will have prepared them for what they will face on Sunday, when they take on El Tri in the Concacaf Nations League final.
Gregg Berhalter understands the rivalry better than any of his players, having played El Tri as a player five times, many of those times on the biggest of stages, including the 2002 World Cup, before some of his players were even born. He will be deploying a young team filled with players who haven’t faced Mexico before in a meaningful match, but both Berhalter and the team’s veterans have made sure to let the younger generation know what they are about to experience.
“I think it’s important our guys understand the heritage of the rivalry,” Berhalter said. “Understand what it means, and then embrace it. Knowing that it’s a final, knowing a trophy is on the line, but also that we’re playing our fiercest competitor in the region.”
The Americans are facing a strong and seasoned Mexico team that heads into Sunday’s final as the favorite even after struggling with Costa Rica in the semifinal before winning a penalty shootout.
Some of the USMNT’s top stars have already experienced facing Mexico in the final, with Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Zack Steffen among the five current U.S. players who took part in the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup final, which Mexico won by a 1-0 scoreline.
That final saw a tight contest, and a first half the Americans could have easily taken the lead in, but missed opportunities left the door open for Mexico to eventually take control in the second half on the way to a victory the improved El Tri to 3-0-1 in their past four competitive matches against the USMNT.
“What I realized from that is you need to finish your chances,” Berhalter said of the 2019 Gold Cup final. “That’s what finals are about. Finals are really tight games. There’s going to be moments where you suffer in the game. There’s going to be moments that aren’t going your way. And it’s just about withstanding those moments.
“And then when you have opportunities, really taking advantage of that,” Berhalter said. “That was a back and forth game. We had a lot of chances early in the game, and then a couple late in the game, but I think that’s the biggest takeaway.”
Berhalter’s young squad — which fielded the second-youngest starting lineup in a competitive match in USMNT history on Thursday against Honduras —heads into the final having passed a tough test against a physical opponent in just the kind of intense match they will see on a regular basis in Concacaf World Cup qualifying, and will surely see on Sunday against Mexico.
“I was most pleased on Thursday with how we kept our poise,” Berhalter said. “(Honduras) was a a game that you could easily lose your patience, you could easily lose your poise, and we didn’t do that. We hung in there, we stayed focused, and we got a goal late in the game due to good movement behind the line, attacking the ball in the penalty box.”
USMNT fans had to be encouraged by the site of young American players standing up to the physicality of an opponent like Honduras, with nobody backing down, and with players like Brooks showing their leadership in tense moments.
“That’s our group,” Brooks said. “We fight for each other. We battle for each other. We stand up for each other. That’s what we want to do, what we want to show.
“Talking about it is different than actually playing against teams like that, and after the Honduras game now I think everybody knows how it is to play against teams like that,” Brooks said of his young teammates getting their first real taste of Concacaf intensity. “It’s never going to be easy. Every game is a battle, and so it was against Honduras. But all that counts is that we won the game and we’re in the final against Mexico now and we are ready to go.”
The Americans will not only be facing what will likely be a considerably pro-Mexico crowd in Colorado, but facing an El Tri squad with much more experience playing together. While the Americans may not have as much international experience, a majority of the team’s starters are coming off successful seasons playing heavy minutes in Europe’s top leagues.
“Everybody knows that Mexico has a good team, but we’re a good team as well, and we try to play our game and not focus that much on Mexico,” Brooks said. “We try to push our game and that’s what we want to do tomorrow.”
The true test Sunday will be which team can impose its will on the match. The possibility of Tyler Adams starting on Sunday could be a major boost for the USMNT, especially if the Americans want to try and attack Mexico consistently from the start. Even if Adams is unable to play, a U.S. attack featuring Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna will be expected to generate chances, while the Brooks-led defense prepares to face the daunting task of stopping a Hirving Lozano-led attack.
“What we need to do as a group is just embrace those moments and respond to those moments,” Berhalter said. “Really step up in those situations and say ‘We’re ready for this game’.”