It didn’t matter much that we had known for months what Gregg Berhalter was planning to do with the rosters for the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup. The complaints still came when his experimental squad for the Gold Cup was unveiled.
The immediate complaint was that it made little sense to call in what was seen as a USMNT C team, especially with Mexico announcing a close to full-strength team, complete with European-based stars Hirving Lozano, Hector Herrera and Edson Alvarez.
Berhalter and the team never bought into the idea that this American team was a C team — with a B team presumably consisting of those European-based players who didn’t make the cut for Nations League and had their clubs balk at a Gold Cup call — but as it turns out it actually was a C team, only the C stands for champion.
Berhalter took a team loaded with players who had never competed in an international tournament and made them believers. He gave youngsters prominent roles and let them battle through adversity, and he convinced the veterans on the squad to buy into what he was doing.
The result was a tournament run few could have envisioned when that roster was first revealed, which was understandable because few could have seen so many players blowing away expectations.
Followers of MLS already knew Miles Robinson was a quality defender, but few were aware he had the talent to be a USMNT starter. Now they know.
Matt Turner had been the subject of plenty of buzz in MLS in recent years, but for non-MLS followers, the Gold Cup was the first chance to see a player some believe can challenge Zack Steffen for the first-choice goalkeeper role. That idea sounds far less crazy than it did a month ago.
Kellyn Acosta had already provided a tease of his impressive ability in the Nations League final, and carried that momentum into the Gold Cup, where he silenced any lingering questions about which player is the best option as Tyler Adams’ backup in the defensive midfield role.
Even fewer non-MLS followers were aware that James Sands was such a poised and technically-gifted central defender at the age of 20, and now they are aware that he is legit and a real threat to make the World Cup qualifying roster.
USMNT fans who follow Americans Abroad closely were already aware of Matthew Hoppe after his breakout season with Schalke, but the full fanbase hadn’t had a chance to see him up close, and now they know he is a legitimate and versatile attacking threat.
Those are just some of the players who fully embraced the opportunity presented by Berhalter, and rewarded him with tournaments that not only led to a trophy, and precious win against Mexico, but also leaves their coach feeling that much better about the depth of his player pool.
That as, after all, the main goal of the Gold Cup, because there is nothing more important to the USMNT program than ensuring a successful World Cup qualifying campaign, and Berhalter saw the tournament as a chance to identify and develop some new options.
That is where the ‘house money’ theme was born, because no matter what happened in Sunday’s final, Berhalter would be heading home with the knowledge he had found several players that had proven their mettle and worthiness to be included on the World Cup qualifying squad.
Berhalter wasn’t satisfied though. He believed his team had come together in a way that beating Mexico wasn’t impossible, and after leading a full-strength USMNT to a dramatic win over El Tri in June, Berhalter had detailed knowledge of Mexico’s strengths and weaknesses.
That is what led the USMNT to high-press Mexico at every opportunity, never letting El Tri get comfortable, and consistently testing Mexico’s own transition defense with consistently quick counterattacks.
Mexico still had its chances, and might have grabbed a first-half lead if not for Matt Turner’s heroics and the stellar play of Robinson and James Sands in central defense, and if not for some poor finishing by Mexico, but there was a feeling that when the halftime whistle blew one team looked rattled and one team looked energized.
Make no mistake, Mexico’s players felt the pressure of winning a final they were expected to win easily, and the pressure of doing so in a sold-out stadium where close to 90 percent of the fans in attendance were urging them on.
That it was the USMNT that kept pushing the issue late in the match and in extra time, and the Americans who finished strong despite facing a more accomplished collection of players, makes Sunday’s loss all the more bitter for Mexico and head coach Tata Martino, who has to deal with the ignominy of being the first El Tri coach to lose back-to-back finals to the United States.
While Martino suddenly finds himself no longer enjoying his honeymoon period as Mexico coach, Berhalter celebrated his birthday on Sunday with his second trophy of the summer, bragging rights over the coach some fans had wished was hired instead of him, and with another group of players riding the confidence boost that comes with winning an international trophy.
It’s a safe bet Berhalter and his team will enjoy celebrating their title in Las Vegas, before going back to their respective teams, while Berhalter prepares for his biggest challenge, qualifying for the World Cup.
Even with two trophies on the mantle, and two wins over Mexico, Berhalter knows that none of that will matter if he doesn’t lead the USMNT through a successful — and impressive — World Cup qualifying campaign.
After Sunday’s win, and after his work turning a “C team” into champions, there is a lot more reason to believe Berhalter is up to the task.