Horvath and Pulisic lift the USMNT to a gutsy and signature win over Mexico
June 07, 2021
WHEN THE WHOLE concept of the CONCACAF Nations League was introduced, it generated little enthusiasm and it’s easy to understand why. In a four year cycle, this region was set to be saturated with two Gold Cups, two Nations Leagues, and an octagonal World Cup qualifying tournament. For most people, that’s just too much CONCACAF.
If you were to go back in time and tell these people that one of the region’s most riveting and entertaining games in recent years would take place in the 2021 Nations League final, most would laugh. After all, how could the final of a tournament which was viewed skeptically from its onset produce a game so compelling?
The answer is simply that the United States – Mexico rivalry is always capable of producing something compelling and emotional. When both teams want to beat each other and both teams are emotionally invested in the game, it doesn’t matter the stage or the trophy attached. It’s just winning for the sake of beating your archrival.
On Sunday night, both the United States and Mexico were all-in and for over 120 minutes – wanted to beat each other badly. In the end, it wasn’t really about the Nations League. It was just the regions top rivals doing whatever it took to beat each other in something that was more than a friendly.
The game itself wasn’t necessarily well played by either team. The United States started off very poorly – making mistakes and conceding the opening goal in the opening minute on a series of errors from DeAndre Yedlin, Kellyn Acosta, Weston McKennie, and most of all Mark McKenzie. Just like the U.S. Olympic team, the senior team was caught making a brutal mistake out of the back as opposed to making a basic clearance and regrouping when the press was intense after the errors.
The United States responded in the 27th minute when Weston McKennie headed a corner kick from Christian Pulisic off the post. The ball subsequently fell to Gio Reyna who easily slotted home the equalizer to make it 1-1.
The team continued to trade blows into the second half. Zack Steffen had to be removed due to a knee injury in the 69th minute. But Diego Lainez put Mexico up in the 79th minute when he exploited space left by Tim Ream and beat Horvath to the low near corner of the game. But Horvath responded making two acrobatic saves soon afterward.
Weston McKennie once again responded for the United States. After having three dangerous opportunities on corner kicks earlier in this game, he skied above four defenders and beat Guillermo Ochoa inside the post with a header to make it 2-2.
Extra time turned out to be wild with both teams fighting and scrapping their ways for opportunities. In the 114th minute, Pulisic was awarded a penalty on VAR after it was judged that he was taken down on the box. He promptly took the penalty himself and put the U.S. team up with an unstoppable shot into the top of the goal.
The dramatics were then saved for the 120th minute when VAR confirmed a handball on Mark McKenzie. Andrews Guardado stepped up for the penalty but again Horvath was up to the task with a perfect save outstretched to his right side.
Minutes later, the final whistled sounded on one of the most emotional games in this storied rivalry.
Here are some thoughts.
USMNT played hard & tough
This game was very reminiscent of the old-school U.S – Mexico games where the game would often devolve from the beautiful game and into a slugfest of grit. It’s best to accept that, as much as fans sometimes want to see a classic, well-played game, it is probably always going to be a very rare occurrence when these two teams meet.
But that’s okay. The most important takeaway is that this generation of players answered the call of the rivalry in this game. It’s more important and more positive that the team played so hard and so gritty than it is that they played well. If they’re as talented as a group as they showed with their clubs, they can play well.
But in this game, they showed they are willing to suffer for results, stand up for each other, and not cave when things don’t go their way. While not everyone on the U.S. team played well, everyone played hard. This was reminiscent of the U.S. – Mexico games in the past that featured Donovan, Beasley, McBride, and Claudio Reyna – among many others.
When the Mexican team resulted in chippy and shoving play, the U.S. team responded in a manner where they didn’t get a red card, but sent a message.
This was also a game about the U.S. being able to respond.
It was very easy to let the game get out of control after conceding in the first minute. But the team adjusted, kept it at 1-0, and then scored the equalizer. From then, the game was even.
The U.S. team responded losing its starting keeper. Horvath conceded with his first shot but then responded making save after save.
When Lainez put Mexico ahead, the lead lasted less than three minutes.
In extra-time, VAR correctly awarded each team a penalty but the U.S. was able to make its play.
This was a game where the U.S. team seemingly willed itself to victory and this was the type of game that should give the players a huge boost in momentum heading into World Cup qualifying – where it will rarely be pretty and it will come down to find a way, anyway, to emerge with the upper hand after a 90-minute slog.
Ethan Horvath was the MOTM for this game – and it’s a great story. The seldom used backup goalkeeper has rarely played for club or country the past two years and is now searching for a new club. In this game, he put on a fantastic performance that saved the U.S. team. It will also surely impress any scout who was watching.
After conceding a goal soon after coming on (on a shot Horvath had no chance of saving), he made a series of very difficult saves that essentially won the game for the U.S. team. It completely redefined him as a keeper and clearly gave him the edge to be Zack Steffen’s backup.
Great night in Denver pic.twitter.com/bXGkoTadpd— #SeasonTickets (@Chris120778) June 7, 2021
It was also a great story that such an important moment in his career came near his hometown of Highlands Ranch, Colorado. When he wanted to move abroad at an early age, his family sacrificed just about everything to make it happen – moving to Norway so that Horvath could join Molde.
After three excellent saves from the run of play, Horvath was playing so well that it seemed like he was up to the task to stop Guardado on the penalty – even as he was taking his line to prepare for the shot.
It was an absolutely special performance from Horvath.
The 3-4-3 formation
When the starting lineup was announced, the big takeaway is that Berhalter was rolling with a 3-4-3 formation with three central defenders and two wingbacks. Part of this was to get more width in the attack – which would ideally create more space up the middle.
By design, the wingbacks would have an opportunity to move forward into the attack better with defensive coverage. On the flip side, this would leave just two central midfielders ( as opposed to three in a 4-3-3) and it would be quite burdensome on Weston McKennie and Kellyn Acosta.
It took the U.S. team awhile to really adjust to the formation. For long stretches the 3-4-3 showed some promise but it was eventually abandoned late once the subs came into the game with extra time approaching.
This formation, unfortunately, came at a time when too many in the backline were having rough games. Sergino Dest has been at his best for Barcelona once the team adopted a 3-4-3 formation in Manchester City. Dest, however, hasn’t been up to his high-level form for the U.S. team since camp opened in Switzerland. In this game, he really wasn’t able to get his offense going. Yedlin as well was only rarely pushed into the attack.
Tim Ream and Mark McKenzie both also had some tough moments. Ream struggled with the pace from Mexican attackers and McKenzie seemed to struggle with confidence, particularly with the opening goal.
So, was it a case of the formation not working, or the players having off-nights and not optimizing the benefits of the formation? It’s too early to say for certain, but Berhalter should keep this formation as a possible approach in games. If Dest is in better form (which is realistic to expect) and the U.S. has three central defenders playing well, it might work well.
Reyna, Pulisic, McKennie, & Brooks show quality
In this game, the U.S. team got special moments from four of its top players.
Christian Pulisic was invisible early on but came a live in the second half and injury time to be the difference maker. While opponents can focus in on stopping him, he is of such quality that stopping him over 90 or even 120 minutes is impossible. He will eventually get really good chances.
Gio Reyna, meanwhile, has simply had a great week. Ever since camp opened in Switzerland, Reyna has been the best and most consistent field player for the U.S. team. The son of the former U.S. national team captain has had an interesting year.
He began the season with Borussia Dortmund playing extremely well but then struggled for several months after Lucien Favre was fired. From late December through the start of March, Reyna simply was in poor form. Starting in March, however, Reyna has completely reversed course where he has re-emerged as a key player for both Borussia Dortmund and the United States. He was key to helping Dortmund making a magnificent run to end the season and improbably qualify for the Champions League.
That momentum clearly carried over into this camp with the U.S. team and Reyna has been so smooth with the ball, and his vision in connecting with his attacking teammates has been first-rate.
McKennie, meanwhile, was asked to do a lot in the 3-4-3 as one of just two central midfielders. In terms of being a disruptive presence, he was big. His aerial ability on set pieces has been special the past week. Against Honduras, he was in position several times. In this game, he scored but also forced saves and headed one off the post which resulted in the opening goal.
As for Brooks, it was a huge outing in central defense and it was made more difficult with Ream and McKenize struggling at times with the game. Brooks seemed to enjoy the hostile nature of the U.S. – Mexico game even if he has only limited experience in the rivalry. The question now with Brooks is for him to find a partner (or partners in a three central defender set) that can consistently play well. McKenzie had a rough game, but he will and should remain in the mix.
Acosta grew into the game
While Tyler Adams came into the game in the 82nd minute, it is clear he was rusty and not at his normal level. When the U.S. team is without Adams, it is always a question who should start in that role. Berhalter has explored a lot of options and in this game went with Kellyn Acosta along with Weston Mckennie in the two-man central defender set-up.
Like it was with McKennie, it was taxing on both players as the wingbacks weren’t able to get deep into the attack and everything was geared up the middle.
Acosta didn’t have a good first 15-20 minutes but grew into the game nicely and worked well with McKennie – especially when the game got intense and physical in the later stages.
Acosta’s versatility was also a help in the later stages when he shifted to play left back to help with defense and move out of the 3-4-3. Mexico had a tougher time going down his side of the field late in the game.
Overall, Acosta made a strong statement to be in the rosters for World Cup qualifying and a player who is a serious option for playing time if there are injuries or suspensions to Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie.
The starting lineup
Zack Steffen: Rating: 6.0
DeAndre Yedlin: Rating: 5.0
Mark McKenzie: Rating: 4.5
John Brooks: Rating: 7.0
Tim Ream: Rating: 4.5
Sergino Dest: Rating: 5.0
Kellyn Acosta: Rating: 6.5
Weston McKennie: Rating: 7.5
Gio Reyna: Rating: 7.5
Christian Pulisic: Rating: 8.0
Josh Sargent: Rating: 5.5
Tim Weah: Rating: 5.5
Jordan Siebatcheu: Rating: 5.5
Ethan Horvath: Rating: 9.0 (MAN OF THE MATCH)
Sebastian Lletget: Rating: 6.0
Tyler Adams: Rating: 6.0
Reggie Cannon: Rating: 5.5