LAS VEGAS – Before the start of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, United States Manager Gregg Berhalter made it clear that his team’s goal was to win the tournament. It was the kind of statement that was easy to dismiss, a bit of coaching language for a young group of players, where it seemed out of their reach for them to win the whole thing.
Berhalter proved himself a prophet and led his team to a vibrant and deserving one 1-0 Extra time win against rivals Mexico in the final on Sunday, with defenders Miles Robinson the game winner nodded home in the 117th minute.
When the final whistle sounded, accompanied by a roar from the US fans present – and yes, there were a few – it was an almost perfect football summer for the USMNT. In combination with the triumph in the CONCACAF Nations League, the USA won two trophies at the expense of Mexico and turned the one-sided rivalry into one that was fought on equal terms. And it was the perfect birthday present for Berhalter.
“When I look back, I’m proudest for the team, for the boys,” he said. “We were together for a month and just saw them grow, we saw the team grow, we saw individuals grow and improve. We saw the team chemistry grow.
“Before the final today, I had a feeling that I wanted them so much that they could taste it and then win a trophy together. Really proud of the group, really proud of their resilience. And you know, if you watch the game today, we didn’t stop. It was tireless of us. And that was a sign of a good team. “
For the United States, it is a victory whose value goes beyond the mere engraving of its name on the trophy. Berhalter has managed to bleed a whole new group of players. With World Cup qualifiers kicking off in September – crammed with triple game windows that will test the depth – the timing couldn’t be better. This group not only got a taste of international football, but also adapted in no time and won games against a wide variety of opponents, be it in physical terms Jamaica or the property-based attacks by Qatar and Mexico.
Now many of these players have proven they can be relied on in high pressure environments. The final on Sunday at the Allegiant Stadium has certainly qualified as such. According to an admittedly rough estimate, 90% of the 61,514 spectators were loud in the Mexico camp. Yes, World Cup qualifiers will be marked by extreme weather and difficult field conditions, but the steps that were taken in this tournament and in the final on Sunday were crucial in these circumstances to excel in those circumstances and they bode well for you the future.
Robinson is a prime example of how a player has benefited from this competition. The Atlanta United defender played every minute of the tournament and it’s hard to find a mistake. He played with the necessary physicality and was also keen on the ball. And the goal, from Kellyn Acosta’s centimeter-accurate delivery, crowned a fantastic tournament for him.
“I think we really lowered our heads and got results throughout the tournament,” said Robinson. “It’s just about this group being so confident with the ball without the ball and how we really kept together like family and I’m really looking forward to this group.”
Will it be enough if he’s in the starting line-up when qualifying begins? A player like John Brooks on the left side of the US defense will not be easy to oust. But there appears to be an open audition for the spot alongside Brooks, and Robinson’s mobility could make it the ideal replacement for the injured Aaron Long. At the very least, the certainty is that if a player like Brooks is unavailable, the outage will be tiny – he’s sustained some serious injuries during his career.
Acosta and James Sands also excellent. Acosta has finally answered the question of who can be represented Tyler Adams if the holding midfielder is not available. On Sunday he was everywhere, showing his reach, fighting and passing. Sands was by no means perfect in Sunday’s final and sometimes struggled with the Mexican striker’s physicality Rogelio Villnöss Mori. But you could feel its adaptation as the game progressed and you could cope better with duels.
Ultimately, it’s up to the players to perform that day, but Berhalter deserves credit for getting every player on the roster and putting them in at the right time. On Sunday it was players like Eryk Williamson and George Bellowho hadn’t played much in the tournament and still started against Mexico. Williamson was calm at times, but showed a willingness to ride on the Mexican defense in ways no one else would. Bello was a rock on the left side of the US defense. Cristian Roldan excelled in a super-sub-role and gained valuable experience in a young group.
“For us it’s about tireless pressing, it goes up and it’s the next man because we need fresh boys, we need fit boys to be able to play the way we want to play,” said Berhalter.
In many ways, Sunday’s game was a look back at past US appearances against El Tri. Mexico dominated possession and created some clear opportunities just for a combination of wayward closure and outstanding goalkeeper – in this case, by Matt Turner, who also showed a good performance in the tournament – to hold El Tri from the scoreboard.
On the other hand, the US seemed opportunistic in attack and managed to get some clear looks at the goal. In the 27th minute, the US forced sales that were too Sebastian Lletget Putt Paul Arriola of course, but he could only hit the post with his attempt.
And, as is so often the case, the US team’s belief that it could prevail the longer the game lasted. The pressure to win was always the greatest on Mexico as it had much more of its first choice available, and that pressure was beginning to show El Tri.
“From half-time we felt we were in a really good position,” said Turner. “We felt like we were where we wanted to be. I think we may have given up a few too many chances, more than we would have liked. But it was 0-0 in the fast run and we asked questions.”
There were certainly heartbreaking moments for both teams. Oberlin Pineda and Funes Mori missed some glorious chances, but so did the US, including a later close-range attempt by Arriola, the Mexico goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera thwarted with a spectacular parade.
In the end, it was the US that finally converted, and now we have a few days of celebration ahead of us. But the game is waiting for no one and no team. When the post-game press conference came, Berhalter was already looking to September.
“We have been evaluating people continuously over the past few years,” said Berhalter. “That was the point: to evaluate in order to reach those points where qualification is everything at the moment. That’s what we are actually concentrating on right now. That is our focus. This tournament is in the past. And now we are moving towards qualification . ” We know it will be grueling. But we think the pool of players has matured and battle-tested. “
And she believes that there are even better days ahead of us.