As this summer of international football continues on, yet another trophy was up for grabs, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the continental tournament of this region and the North American equivalent to the Euros or Copa America. And if this summer couldn’t get any better in terms of football, the U.S.A. overcame their heated rivals, Mexico, in the final on Aug. 2 to crown themselves the kings of North America, ending what was truly an exciting and competitive edition of this continent’s premier international cup.
Both teams had memorable runs to the final. The U.S.A. were drawn into a group with Haiti, Martinique and Canada. However, Gregg Berhalter, the manager of the U.S. team, decided to field a B-team (some would even say C-team) this Gold Cup due to the fact that the inaugural Nation’s League Finals was last month, which the U.S. won, and World Cup Qualifying is coming up within the next six weeks. This meant that America’s star players like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna, Tyler Adams and many others would not be present. On top of that, Berhalter wanted to prepare this team for the future, testing out new and old talent. For example, Berhalter wanted to see if fringe players like Gyasi Zardes and Kellyn Acosta can hack it at the top level. Or if young players like Daryl Dike or Sam Vines are mature enough for the A-team. With that in mind, the U.S. was still expected to be dominant, but less-than-perfect performances were acceptable. And that’s exactly what happened in the group stage.
The U.S. topped the group with three out of three wins, 8 goals scored and only one conceded. While it looked great on paper, they didn’t actually play all that well. They struggled against Haiti despite winning 1-0, blew out Martinique 6-1, a team that is not even an independent nation or member of FIFA, before getting outplayed by Canada but winning by virtue of holding on to an early 1-0 lead. Ultimately though, results are what matter the most in tournament football and the US marched on to the Quarterfinals where they met Jamaica.
The Jamaicans had a team full of young attacking talent and were playing some very exciting football, but they were inexperienced and naive at times. Despite a strong start from Jamaica, the U.S. was strong enough to endure the storm and grab the winner with Matthew Hoppe’s header in the last 10 minutes. It was a similar story in the semifinals against Qatar, an team invited to the Gold Cup and the reigning Asian Champions who were playing some great dynamic football. This was seen on full display as the American goalkeeper, Matt Turner stopped Qatar from scoring on multiple occasions. Into the second half though, the U.S. grew into the game and scored yet another late winner, this time by Gyasi Zardes, sending them to the final.
Mexico’s route to the final was rarely ever in doubt. Unlike the U.S., Mexico did not bring a B-squad. However, there were some notable absentees, for example, Memo Ochoa and Diego Lainez went to the Olympics instead, while Chucky Lozano and Raul Jimenez missed the tournament through injury. But beyond these exceptions, Mexico fielded their top team with veterans like Hector Moreno, Hector Herrera, Jesus Gallardo, Jonathan dos Santos and Carlos Salcedo among others. Mexico was drawn into a group with Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador and Guatemala (who were a last-minute replacement for Curacao, who withdrew from the tournament). Although Mexico was held to a 0-0 draw against Trinidad and Tobago, they still heavily dominated the match before crushing Guatemala 3-0 in the next match. And while El Salvador were formidable opponents, Mexico still came out on top winning 1-0, going undefeated in the group, conceding zero goals.
If there was one weakness in this side, it seemed that they created many chances but failed to finish a lot of them. But that was completely put to bed when Mexico tore Honduras to shreds 3-0 in the Quarterfinals. However, Mexico’s semifinal opponent, Canada, proved to be a much tougher adversary than expected, with Mexico failing to fully dominate a match for the first time this Gold Cup and Canada being arguably the better team throughout. But despite Canada scoring the first goal on Mexico this tournament, Mexico was able to win 2-1 with some controversy mixed in between a goal from Herrera sealing the win in the 100th minute, setting up a meeting with the U.S. in the Final.
The rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico is one the most heated and intense in all of global football. Historically, these two nations are by far the best in terms of North American football, meaning that every match isn’t simply to win or for a trophy, it’s to assert dominance over the region and claim the throne as the king of North America. The Mexican-American hegemony can be seen very clearly in the Gold Cup as well. Since this tournament’s inception in its modern form in 1991 (before the Gold Cup there was the CONCACAF Championship, which was slightly different), there have been 16 editions with either the US or Mexico winning every single time except in 2001 when Canada won.
To make this particular match even more interesting, there has been very recent history between the two teams. This June, the U.S. met Mexico in the Nation’s League Final with both teams at full strength. In a back-and-forth match, a penalty from Christian Pulisic and a penalty save from Ethan Horvath in extra-time saw the Americans win 3-2. However, back in July 2019, in the last iteration of the Gold Cup, a wonderful finessed goal from dos Santos led Mexico to win 1-0 over the U.S. As a result, the two teams go in this match with extra motivation, both looking to get revenge and defend a title. When you also consider the current political landscape between the United States and Mexico as well as the occasionally violent history between the regional rivals outside of sport, it only made this match all the more exciting to watch.
Then, on a warm August night in the Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, the match kicked off between the two rivals. Because the U.S. had not brought their top players, Mexico were seen as favorites. However, all were aware of how high-profile of a rivalry this is, meaning anything could potentially happen and this trophy was anyone’s to take.
It became very clear that this match was going to be end-to-end action when Mexico’s striker, the Argentinian-born Rogelio Funes Mori, had a clean header off a corner saved by Turner, only for the U.S. to immediately go in the opposite direction with a forced error from Sebastian Lletget leading to a one-on-one chance for Paul Arriola, whose shot hit the post. Turner turned up again for his team as Funes Mori carved out a chance with a strong run, only to be saved. Then, shortly after, Funes Mori connected with a low cross from Chaka Rodriguez and hit a one-touch shot, which was, yet again, saved by Turner. Both teams tried to gain the lead before the halftime whistle blew. The U.S. had a corner which the breakout star, Hoppe, steered just wide. At first glance, it looked like a wide miss but upon watching the replay, it just missed the open goal by a few inches. Then for Mexico, a swinging longshot from outside the 18-yard box from Edson Alvarez was deflected away by Kellyn Acosta.
At the very beginning of the second half, Mexico had two crucial chances which they really should’ve scored. The first of which saw Orbelin Pineda collect a great cross from Herrera before taking a touch inwards, leading to a clear opening to shoot. It looked to be a guaranteed goal, but Pineda pulled the shot wide. Only a few minutes later, a curling cross from Rodriguez found Pineda yet again at the mouth of the U.S. goal. All Pineda had to do was get a clean touch and it would be the opening goal, but instead, he tried to use the outside of his boot, to which the ball deflected off his shin and over the net.
The U.S. had been let off the hook massively, but credit to them as they made sure Mexico would not be able to grow into this dominant position. The U.S. responded with a flutter of chances of their own. Zardes had shot fly wide but was ruled offside anyway, then another defensive mishap from Mexico resulted in a powerful curved shot which was deflected off-target by a Nestor Araujo header. Hoppe had yet another chance as a cross missed Zardes, only for Hoppe to grab the rebound. A quick touch and change of direction saw Rodriguez to the grass, slipping and sliding on the way down, but a last-ditch tackle from Alvarez blocked a sure-goal.
With less than 20 minutes left of the 90, the U.S. had their closest chance of regulation time when they were awarded a freekick. Acosta whipped in a beautiful cross but Zardes wasn’t able to connect cleanly, instead sending the ball into the ground bouncing right in front of Mexico’s open goal. Arriola came rushing in, ripping a thunderous shot but Mexico’s goalkeeper, Alfredo Talavera, flew across the goal-line like Superman, throwing his body in front of the shot and eventually saving it with his back. The U.S. should’ve taken the lead there but were very unlucky to be thwarted. Having exhausted so much energy throughout the match, the two teams did not push forward that much in the final minutes of regulation, sending the 2021 Gold Cup Final to extra-time.
The U.S. and Mexico went into the next 30-minute period walking on eggshells, trying to look for a winner but not wanting to commit too many numbers forward in fear of a counterattack. As a result, both teams had a few half-chances; Funes Mori had a curling shot that was easily saved by Turner, as it lacked power, while Nicholas Gioacchini had a shot pawed away by Talavera, but it was from such a tight angle that realistically it would not have been a goal. However, as extra-time lumbered on, the U.S. seemed to be the more comfortable team overall. Zardes had a nice turn and shot which had to be saved by Talavera, and the U.S. continually made dangerous runs into Mexico’s territory resulting in several fouls.
With less than five minutes to go, it looked that the match would go to penalties even as the U.S. kept charging forward, but then Gioacchini was violently taken down by Alvarez, resulting in the fourth yellow card of the game and a freekick in a dangerous area on Mexico’s right flank. Then, in the 117th minute, Acosta stood over the ball for yet another set-piece. As he did throughout this match, he sent in another fantastic ball which hooked over the entire defense. With a Michael Jordan-like leap, the emerging star of a center back, Miles Robinson, outjumped his markers, rising far above Alvarez and Araujo before heading the ball straight into the ground, under Talavera’s outstretched arm and bouncing it into the open net. The U.S. scored the elusive goal and dealt the final death blow to their opponents. With barely any time left, tired legs meant that Mexico had no ability to push for an equalizer, and just like that the referee blew his whistle for the final time, ending the match 1-0 in favor of the United States of America, securing their seventh Gold Cup trophy.
With their hard-fought victory in the Nation’s League in June with the A-squad and now this Gold Cup win with the B-team in August, the U.S. proved that they are the undisputed king of North America, for the time being. Looking ahead to World Cup Qualifiers in a few week’s time, the U.S. hasn’t looked this good in years, if ever. The manager, Gregg Berhalter, who has been subject to a lot of criticism since taking the job in late 2018, redeemed himself and solidified his credentials. While the players in these two winning squads were different, the one thing that didn’t change was the strong team mentality, desire to win and pride for both the team and the country, qualities that are worth more than any amount of talent or tactics.