Not many thought this team could do it. They had the odds stacked against them in so many ways. A plethora of reasons why that Mexico team should have come out victorious in this Gold Cup.
Instead, the USMNT is likely still celebrating in Las Vegas after winning its second trophy of the summer, beating rivals "El Tri" both times in the finals, with two completely different squads. This summer will go down as a massive statement for US Soccer, and head coach Gregg Berhalter, who had to catch himself in his postgame press conference.
“Mexico is still, I think, the best team in the tournament or one of the best teams in the tournament," said Berhalter before collecting his thoughts. "Next to us, obviously.”
It was an absolutely wild match as it usually is when USA and Mexico face off. Tons of chances coming mostly for Tata Martino's squad, which had the support of the grand majority of the 65,000 fans at Allegiant Stadium. But once again a solid defense and excellent goalkeeping kept the US alive into extra time. The drama was palpable, and the nerves of the Mexico fans continued to rise as the game went on, as they were the odds on favorites.
It was so incredibly fitting that in the 118th minute the best player all tournament long for the USMNT, defender Miles Robinson, charged towards a beautiful set-piece ball from Kellyn Acosta, to finish with a thumping header into the back of the net. Pandemonium ensued after the winner, and just a few minutes later, it became a reality. Two versions of the US squad have won trophies this summer, proving the American player pool is as deep as it has ever been. Gone are the dark days and painful memories of faltering in Trinidad & Tobago and missing the 2018 World Cup. It’s a new dawn for US Soccer.
Most of the American Soccer world, including myself, have called this version of the USMNT, the “B” squad. No Pulisic, McKennie, Reyna, Adams or Dest proves this to be true, but I wonder just how much of a motivating factor that was for these players. So many of them had plenty to prove coming into this tournament, with massive fixtures on the horizon. World Cup Qualifying begins in September.
"Qualifying is everything right now," Berhalter said after the match and celebrations. "That's we're focused on right now actually. That's our focus. This tournament is in the past and now we shift towards qualifying. We know it's going to be grueling, but we think the player pool has matured and it's been battle-tested. Now, we move on."
Let’s take a look at just a few of the stars of the tournament for USA.
We've been praising Robinson all tournament long. I honestly think he was robbed of the "Player of the Tournament Award" which was given to Mexico's Hector Herrera. The 24 year old Atlanta United star did it all from the very start. A lockdown defender, who saved his team multiple times throughout Gold Cup with key blocks and timely coverage in emergency situations. That was clearly his most important task but to add to it, he scored a few goals, including the all important one in the final. Robinson has no doubt played his way onto the World Cup Qualifying roster, as Berhalter searches for a partner in defense alongside veteran John Brooks.
In honor of the best goalkeeper in the Gold Cup, I’m actually writing this in Park Ridge, New Jersey - the hometown of Matt Turner. I feel like there should be a street named after the New England Revolution keeper in this town now. Turner allowed 1 goal in the tournament. That's not a typo. One goal allowed in six games, including 5 clean sheers. That's impressive regardless of who the competition is. He came up with 2 massive saves that kept the team alive in the semifinal against Qatar, and a couple of incredible stops against their powerhouse rivals in the final. With presumed number one goalie Zack Steffen not getting as much game time over in Manchester City, Turner will have to be considered for the team in September.
Early in the tournament, Berhalter preferred Gianluca Busio in the central defensive midfielder role, but the young Sporting Kansas City and soon to be Venezia FC player struggled. In came Kellyn Acosta to play that role, and holy hell did he finally find his sweet spot. Acosta has bounced around positions quite a bit over the years. The Colorado Rapids player was brilliant in the second half of the Gold Cup. Defensively he dominated the midfield against Jamaica, Qatar and Mexico, getting into passing lanes to make interceptions and arriving at the most opportune moments to make the perfect tackle to break up the opponents attack. This is a role that Tyler Adams seems to have locked up for the "A" squad of the USMNT, but now Acosta has shown that there is depth at what is a hugely important position.
I have to give credit where credit is due. I have criticized Berhalter quite a bit over the last few years, but in this tournament, he got almost every decision correct. From tactics to substitutions, he nailed it. He took this Gold Cup as a chance give talented players a chance to acquire priceless experience. Guys that normally wouldn't get the chance, to expand the player pool just before World Cup qualifying. In the world of soccer, coaches don’t get much of an opportunity before their jobs are in jeopardy. Berhalter didn't care, and chose to select a roster of up-and-comers and veterans desperate to prove that they deserve a chance.
"I think I've been consistent in saying that we want to win the Gold Cup and, from day one that we came in camp, that was our objective," Berhalter said reflecting on this team. "That was the team's goal. We thought we had enough quality in the squad to get it done."
"It sometimes looks a little different and sometimes the shape changes and the personnel change but we have guys that are committed to winning and take great pride in it. When they step on the field to represent the country, I think, in terms of looking at it differently, I just think this was a great opportunity to evaluate guys in very competitive games."
They proved that they're trustworthy, that they can handle anything that may be thrown at them if they are needed on the road to Qatar 2022. This summer also proved that the U.S. has everything it will need. It has the players it needs to survive that sprint and the flexibility required to survive it in different ways, which is very, very important in Concacaf. Whether they win pretty or win ugly, they have proven that they can win.
The entire American player pool will now return to their clubs, with the European players set to begin their seasons later this month, and the MLS players getting ready for the home stretch of their seasons.
We will be keeping you posted on the coming's and going's of American players during the last few weeks of the transfer window, with a few expected to move to Europe from MLS very soon. As well as updates from preseason of the players already involved with their European clubs.
September 2nd is the USMNT's first game in World Cup Qualifying as they'll visit El Salvador, before playing Canada in Nashville and Honduras on the road, all in a week's time during the international break. Not much time to waste.
If you're still celebrating this Gold Cup win, stay safe and I wish you an easy recovery from a trophy-wining hangover.