When the CONCACAF Nations League was started, the goal was that it would give teams an opportunity to get more game time in, to help them create chemistry, and hopefully spur development ahead of World Cup Qualifying. While the intention was to help smaller sides make the next step, who knew that it would be the United States that would benefit the most out of the arrangement? After crashing out in World Cup Qualifying, the USMNT rebuilt their roster and pulled off a shock Nations League title victory over their rivals Mexico.
The CONCACAF Nations League is a play that essentially could be split into two acts. The first act took place prior to the COVID-19 epidemic going all the way back to 2018 with sides looking to qualify for the inaugural event. Sides such as Canada, Curacao, Haiti, and Martinique used their matches to put together sides and organize. Whereas in the past teams seem to be put together on the fly for friendlies and World Cup qualifiers there genuinely seemed to be interest in using this event as a springboard for greater fortunes. It seemed to have worked with Curacao and Haiti both putting in a solid run in World Cup qualifying and Martinique making the Gold Cup. Canada perhaps benefited the greatest, earning a 4-1 win over the United States, their first win over their southern neighbors.
While that win certainly gave Canada a jolt of energy it seemed to send the USMNT down a path of embracing a full rebuild (Enter Act Two). While USMNT Head Coach Gregg Berhalter had been flirting with revamping the roster with younger players, there still seemed to be flickers of the old guard hanging around. In many cases, that isn’t a bad thing as veterans can certainly have intrinsic value. But when the veterans were culpable for the US missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986 then perhaps it isn’t as big of a deal.
Berhalter’s move towards a younger roster was in a way helped by COVID-19 as it forced the USMNT to essentially take a break from March 2020 to October 2020. During that seven-month time span, younger USMNT players that had already broke through such as Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, John Anthony Brooks, and Christian Pulisic began taking stronger roles with their club sides while others such as Darryl Dike (Barnsley), Brendan Aaronson (Red Bull Salzburg) and Sergino Dest (FC Barcelona) were breaking through. Playing in high stakes matches for their clubs coupled with low stakes friendlies designed to get them to gel created the perfect opportunity for the young side to grow and prepare for the knockout stage of the Nations League.
Despite the inroads made, it was still a difficult journey in the playoff rounds. In the semifinals, the USMNT just edged a battle-tested Honduras. A very late goal from newcomer Jordan Siebatchu, the Young Boys forward who was born in Washington D.C. but raised in France, proved to be the difference. While that match was a challenge, their biggest test laid ahead against Mexico, who only narrowly defeated Costa Rica in penalties to advance. The two sides’ usual hatred was heightened to toxic Twitter levels with Mexico coach Tata Martino being rebuffed by US Soccer after showing interest in the USMNT head coaching position, a job that Berhalter inevitably took. That this was also one of the first matches to be at full capacity since the pandemic certainly added fuel to the fire.
The match itself certainly lived up to the pregame expectations with Mexican forward Jesus Corona scooping up a bad pass to make it 1-0 in the first two minutes of the match. The two would then go back and forth with the USMNT tying via a Giovanni Reyna goal just before halftime and El Tri’s Diego Lainez burying a shot from distance to equalize. But the US maintained their composure and forced extratime with McKennie knocking in a header. In extratime, the US would take the lead thanks to a Pulisic penalty kick (which also saw Martino exit after interfering with a referee). Mexico had their own chance to equalize after earning a penalty. However, Andres Guardado’s shot was stopped by back-up Goalkeeper Ethan Horvath preserving the result.
After four years of asking some hard questions, the United States seems to at least have some answers as to where things are going. While there is still plenty of work to be done, there is at least for the first time in years a sense of hope in the side, that better days lay ahead. With a young group of players to build around, Berhalter has a chance to really earn back the supporters trust and perhaps make a run at some more silverware.
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Story by Sean Maslin, Soccer 360 Magazine