Analysis: Epic Thursday sees the USMNT pound Mexico 3-0 amid news of Berhalter's return
June 16, 2023
THURSDAY NIGHT WAS one of the most surreal days for the United States men’s national team because of dramatic series of events that few expected. First, there was the performance of the team, then there was the opponent, and this was wrapped into an ugly but unforgettable final 20 minutes that will be one of the most iconic chapters in a fierce rivalry. Somehow, that was all overshadowed by significant coaching news off the field. All this happened in the span of about three hours.
It's tough to put into words and you almost don’t know where to start.
Might as well start with the game along with some thoughts on it. The overall performance from the U.S. team was excellent in a 3-0 win.
Tres a Cero
Interim manager B.J. Callaghan opted to go with a very offensive lineup. Without Tyler Adams, Callaghan opted to not even play with a No. 6 defensive midfield and instead attack relentlessly. It worked. The game was not as close as the score indicated.
The United States struck first in the 36th minute when it was Christian Pulisic pouncing on poor Mexican defending. Jorge Sánchez couldn’t handle a short pass inside his own box from Edson Álvarez and Pulisic was there for a quick finish. This came just minutes after Pulisic missed a golden chance after a dazzling run.
Then just a minute into the second half, it was the U.S. team again finding plenty of room to attack from out wide. Weston McKennie played Tim Weah up the right side. Weah then slid the ball across the goal to set up a streaking Pulisic for a close finish.
Then finally in the 78th minute, substitute Ricardo Pepi struck just three minutes after coming into the game. Sergino Dest swerved through a dispirited Mexican midfield before playing Pepi in a lone on Guillermo Ochoa. Mexico protested for an offside call, but VAR correctly upheld the goal.
The final 20 minutes of the game, however, will be the defining story of the game. It was ugly and heated. McKennie and Dest were sent off and will miss the final vs. Canada. The game finished 9 vs. 9 and El Salvadorian referee, Ivan Barton, blew the final whistle seven minutes into a scheduled 11 minutes of extra time given the heated nature of the game.
The United States will now face Canada in Sunday’s final.
It was fair to wonder about the level of rust and confidence for several players. Matt Turner, Chris Richards and Sergino Dest hadn’t played much for six months. McKennie, Musah, Pulisic, and even Tim Weah had tough seasons.
The players all talked about it being a relief to be with the USMNT on the heels of tough seasons. But could the players stop their club issues from spilling into the U.S. team? The players did that far better than I expected. It was a clean break. There was no sign that Pulisic and Chelsea had a nightmare of a season or that Dest was simply not wanted on loan at AC Milan.
It’s not ideal to have to do this all the time. But it is interesting to see the change in mentality the players can make when quickly changing teams.
Will the team be able to continue this against Canada? You have to like their chances after the Mexico game.
Pulisic is a gamer
Pulisic was easily the MOTM. It wasn’t even just the two goals. He was completely throwing Mexico off their game with his dangerous runs. Even when his finishing let him down, Mexico was frustrated trying to stop him – often. It’s very important to note that Pulisic drew four fouls in this game because it was the only chance Mexico had to stop him.
Like Landon Donovan, Pulisic is a different player when he puts on the USMNT jersey. Regardless of what is going on in his club career, he makes things happen and other teams take note.
It’s also effort. Pulisic might have only completed nine passes in this game, but he was 7/7 in his ground duels, and he had five shots. When he has the ball, he knows it is his time. Even after being criticized this season at Chelsea, Pulisic knows that when he has the ball for the USMNT that it is his time to deliver.
Robinson vs. Mexico
Miles Robinson had another big game for the U.S. team. To date, most of his biggest tasks have come against Mexico and he has thrived in the rivalry game. Aside from one friendly early in his career, he has played Mexico in four competitive games – each time he has started the game.
In those four competitive games, he has played 380 minutes and Mexico has yet to score. He even scored the winning goal against Mexico in the 2021 Gold Cup final. His athleticism, speed, and physical nature in the box has been an ideal fit.
Performances like this will have him continue to be in the top four central defenders selected for call-ups.
It looks like he will be heading abroad after this season as he will soon be a free agent. He needs to get that decision right and select a team that wants him. If he isn’t a starter, it will set back a lot of the progress he has made.
Pepi stakes his claim
The big story in the lead-up to this game was, of course, Folarin Balogun. The Arsenal striker scored 21 goals for Stade de Reims in Ligue 1 and was going to be the national team’s long-awaited answer at forward. He still might be.
But the real story in this game is Pepi’s reaction. The former FC Dallas forward is coming off a strong season in the Eredivisie on loan at Groningen. Despite playing for a poor relegated team, Pepi still scored 12 goals.
Balogun played well enough in his debut. He drew fouls and connected effectively with his teammates during some dangerous moments. But Pepi came into the game with a purpose, almost to emphasize that he is not conceding the starting forward job to Balogun. He had a clear chip on his shoulder and a point to prove to fans, coaches, and his team.
It’s all good. Competition makes everyone better and makes everyone always have to be on top of their game. This includes Balogun. He’s not going to walk into the starting lineup. He is going to have to produce to be there.
This also relates back to last year with Pepi not making the World Cup team. Was he a controversial cut? Sure. But people are trying to compare the Pepi we see right now as the one that got cut. That wasn’t the case. Pepi went 51 weeks without scoring a goal for club or country (October 2021 through October 2022). He especially struggled in the team’s final friendlies before Qatar.
Pepi right now is in a much, much better place. He’s finishing and he’s putting himself in great positions. At Gronginen he never got many opportunities because of the team’s lack of quality, but he still scored regularly. With the USMNT on Thursday, he scored three minutes after coming on in his first chance.
Pepi has responded to a wave of adversity the past year – getting cut from the World Cup team, not producing after he was Augsburg’s most expensive ever signing, getting sent to a terrible Eredivisie team amid fans whose poor behavior suspended play four times, getting “recruited over” at the USMNT with Balogun, etc.
He’s a better player for it all.
Meaningful final 20 minutes
Breaking down the final 20 minutes of the USMNT – Mexico game is almost worthy of a book. But it had been brewing from early in the game as referee Ivan Barton lost control. He failed to card players early to settle things down.
Then when the U.S. team turned the game into a rout and Mexico couldn’t get anything going, frustration from El Tri took over. Their players baited the U.S. team into physical altercations because the result wasn’t going to change.
Yes, U.S. players lost their cool. The U.S. team should have known better because they were the team with more to lose and a final to play. Mexico could afford to bait and play dirty because their tournament (apologies to the third-place game) was over. The U.S. players – namely McKennie and Dest – needed to understand they had more to lose by getting sent off.
That being said. The ugliness of the final 20 minutes could be enormously beneficial in the long-term even if they hurt the team’s chances in the final. It is these types of games that give meaning to the “brotherhood” concept the team says they have. These types of incidents have a way of galvanizing teams and proving that players have each other’s backs.
As for CONCACAF, it is their own fault that this type of soccer gives a negative reputation to the region. Their lack of a real penalty for Mexican chants is the reason why it still happens.
César Montes kicks out at Folarin Balogun and gets a red card. Things escalate and Weston McKennie is sent off too. ????— CBS Sports Golazo ?? (@CBSSportsGolazo) June 16, 2023
10 vs. 10 for the remainder of the match. pic.twitter.com/zkZe8nKDUe
Also, the final 20 minutes were also a cumulation of unpunished Mexican history. How many times can McKennie take hands to the face, neck, or head over the years before he responds? CONCACAF has to protect U.S. players or eventually they are going to protect themselves.
The U.S. players not keeping their cool almost becomes a necessity when players such as these below are completely unpunished (not even yellow cards).
Just remember a few years ago.. this wasn’t even a card pic.twitter.com/T34tWJ085p— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) June 16, 2023
Also this in the last nations league pic.twitter.com/KhgvIkvJjB— Jordan (@NatFan9) June 16, 2023
The final 20 minutes were the result of CONCACAF simply lacking the will to get control over situations and letting them spill out of control.
USMNT Player Ratings
Matt Turner: The New Jersey keeper made the saves he had too, which weren’t many. Rating: 6
Antonee Robinson: The Fulham left back was his steady self and defensively shut down his side but wasn’t involved in too many attacks: Rating: 6
Chris Richards: Looked sharp despite limited minutes this season. Mexico struggled to get things by him. Rating: 7
Miles Robinson: His athleticism and physicality helped him dominate the box defensively. The Atlanta United centerback was also effective passing out of the back. Rating: 7
Sergino Dest: The right back has had a tough season, but his dribbling and quality on the ball gave Mexico fits. He assisted on the third goal and was part of the first. But he shouldn’t have lost his cool and been sent off. That puts the U.S. in a bad position for the final. Rating: 6.5
Yunus Musah: The Valencia midfielder’s dribbling in the midfield helped the U.S. team dictate the pace of the game. He made a nice pass in the buildup to the opening goal. Rating: 6.5
Weston McKennie: A red card marred what would have been a nice game. His pass broke open the play for the second goal. Defensively, he was frequently in great positions to help fill the gap left by Tyler Adams’ absence. Rating: 6
Gio Reyna: The Borussia Dortmund midfielder grew in strength as the game progressed. He kept Mexico on their heels and his passing helped keep the pressure on. He nearly assisted on dangerous Pulisic header. Rating: 7
Christian Pulisic: The Chelsea winger was the best player on the field by a large margin – and he could have scored more than his two goals. It wasn’t just his goals, he threw Mexico completely off their game. Rating: 9
Tim Weah: A very solid outing for Weah, who was the U.S. team’s second most dangerous player over the entire game. He assisted on the second goal, was in the buildup to the first goal, and he created gaps of space on the right side of the field. Rating: 8
Folarin Balogun: the anticipated debut of the talented forward was a little muted. Eight completed passes, one shot, and 17 touches over 75 minutes isn’t a sign of heavy involvement. But he had some nice moments of hold-up play and he drew three fouls. Rating: 6
Ricardo Pepi: He came off the bench with a purpose and delivered a big goal. Rating: 7.5
Luca de la Torre: The Celta Vigo midfielder helped the U.S. team with possession as it got ugly. Rating: 6
Walker Zimmerman: The veteran defender brought some maturity to the game once it became a mess. He made some nice defensive players late as Mexico pressed – including three clearances. Rating: 6.5
Brenden Aaronson: Eight touches, 3/3 passing, in nine minutes of work. Rating: NR
Looking ahead to Canada
So how does B.J. Callaghan handle Canada on Sunday now without McKennie and Dest? It is going to be tricky because Canada is better than Mexico right now. There should be enormous concern over the U.S. right side because it will have to defend Alphonso Davies, who is one of the best left-sided players in the world.
Callaghan is going to want to keep as much of his core together after a dazzling display against Mexico. But there are legitimate questions as to how to deal with the absences.
Callaghan can opt to do straight swaps and keep everything the same. The likely means Joe Scally in for Dest and de la Torre in for McKennie. But are these like-for-like swaps enough defensively.
De la Torre, in particular, is a very different player than McKennie. Is Johnny Cardoso a better option?
Then you have Scally and the responsibility of going up against Davies. The problem is that central defense is also going to have to deal with Jonathan David.
Another potential option could be a 3-4-3 with Weah and Robinson has wingbacks, de la Torre and Musah in the middle. Then an attacking trio with Pulsic and Reyna outside with a forward. The three central defenders could then provide cover for the wings. That formation could be best, but only if the U.S. team has been practicing with it.
The loss of McKennie and Dest are certainly complicating how the U.S. team can play for the final.
There is also the question of starting either Pepi or Balogun for the final. It’s hard to argue against Pepi.
Callaghan has tough decisions. It’s not going to be an easy game to manage.
Berhalter to return
The big news of the day came shortly before kickoff when multiple reports indicated Gregg Berhalter was rehired to manage the USMNT for the 2026 World Cup cycle. This will cumulate with the first World Cup on U.S. soil since 1994.
Opinions on this are wide ranging. On the broadcast of the game, Clint Dempsey acknowledged that Berhalter did a good job but asked why they needed these past six months just to rehire the same coach. Charlie Davies, meanwhile, questioned who was available in the current budget and rules over how much they can pay the men’s coach compared with the women’s coach.
There are fans who don’t like Berhalter. There are fans that do. There are fans who liked Berhalter’s performance but who question the wisdom of giving a second cycle to a manager after it didn’t work with Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley, or Jurgen Klinsmann. There are others who say this cycle is different given the youth of the player pool and the need for continuity. There are others that believe the Reyna situation should have disqualified him.
Obviously a lot has changed at U.S. Soccer since Qatar. Earnie Stewart is out as the Sporting Director. Brian McBride is out as the general manager. Will Wilson is out as the CEO. Matt Crocker is in as the Sporting Director. J.T. Batson is in as the CEO. Oguchi Onyewu is in as the VP of Sporting. Sportsology was retained as an outside consulting firm during the process.
An entirely new group was brought into the front office, took their time, and decided to bring back Berhalter.
But cutting through all that, the one constant has been the players. We don’t yet know how much the players were interviewed or considered in this process. But the press release included this paragraph.
“Crocker outlined the ideal competencies for the head coach, which included building lasting relationships with staff and players, [emphasis mine] planning and effectively driving a vision-led identity, pushing innovation and boundaries, and being a decisive decision-maker. Within these categories, he utilized advanced data analytics, sophisticated metrics, and cutting-edge hiring methods to profile and rank each candidate. During the course of several weeks, candidates were evaluated through all of these filters and went through a battery of practical and psychological testing.”
During this camp leading up to the Nations League, the players started speaking up for Berhalter. This includes several of the team’s most important players. Tim Weah said he hopes Berhalter would come back.
“I think [Berhalter] should be considered,' Pulisic said. 'I think he did a great job with the team. He brought us a long way. I think a lot of people and a lot of guys in the team especially would agree with that [emphasis mine].”
The last sentence is key. It wasn’t just Pulisic and Weah. Outside of the Reyna debacle at the World Cup, the bond on this team is strong. If Pulisic is saying that a lot of people agree with him that Berhalter did a great job with the team, it’s probably true that many of the team feels the same way.
The feelings among the players shouldn’t dictate the big-picture direction of the program. That is why there is a line between the front office, the coaches, and then the players. But my guess is that it played a big role here. There is not going to be a lot of player turnover this cycle compared with the previous cycle when most of the core was quickly ushered out. There will be new players making their way into the team, but the core is largely known.
On top of that, Crocker said in his U.S. Soccer introduction that when he watched the World Cup, he liked how the team played and he liked the confidence/attitude of the players. It’s not hard to see that as a compliment to Berhalter.
It’s also questionable to state that this team lost a lot of time by not going back to Berhalter immediately. Since the 2022 World Cup, the team has been run by Berhalter’s staff. Things have not been taking a radical departure under Anthony Hudson and Callaghan. Plus, some useful steps were taken. Reyna was brought quickly back into the team so that it wasn’t a lingering issue. Folarin Balogun was also signed into the team to bring a potentially big scoring option.
The money question is whether Berhalter is the right person for the job? We saw reports Patrick Vieira, was a candidate, but we don’t know the complete list of candidates. Berhalter indeed grew and developed as a manager during the last cycle. By the end, he had a strong comradery among the players and they all played hard for him. There are, of course, legitimate questions. Could he have rotated his squad better in the World Cup? Should Pepi have been there despite a tough year?
But what is Berhalter’s ceiling as a coach? If he improved during the last cycle, does that mean he will continue to improve? What are his future visions for the team and how realistic are they?
The good news is that the Copa America next year will be an excellent measuring stick as to how much further along this team is from Qatar. With Berhalter’s rehire and the core now in their prime, the expectations should be that the team will be much better since U.S. Soccer has elected to stay on the same path. But how much further down that path will they be?
Meanwhile, Callaghan will coach the team through the Gold Cup.
“B.J. will continue to lead through the Nations League Final and the Gold Cup tournament this summer while I work collectively with Gregg on some of the big-picture items away from the team,” Crocker said.