USMNT’s Nations League win over Mexico was expected – that’s what made it important

That the opening goal of the CONCACAF Nations League final happened the way it did — a blistering shot uncorked 30 yards out — felt fitting for the environment around this U.S. men’s national team this week. 

The pressure had been building up in the days ahead of Sunday’s game and was bound to explode — positively or negatively.

The U.S. was coming off of a less-than-decisive 3-1 win over Jamaica in the semifinal on Thursday that required a last-gasp own goal to take it to extra time — a performance significantly below expectations for a U.S. team that’s believed to be capable of more than any that came before, and with a U.S.-hosted Copa America just months away.  

U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter chuckled to himself on Saturday when asked by a media member whether it was true that they had more pressure on them than Mexico ahead of the big occasion. Berhalter tried to deflect, pointing out that Mexico was coming off of a dominant semifinal win (3-0 against Panama) and would be expected to continue that against their bigger rival. 

But Berhalter’s smile was also an acknowledgment of the truth: the U.S. — and Berhalter — had more to lose. Nothing but a win on Sunday would have been enough, and Tyler Adams’ goal late in the first half broke the pressure of expectation in the U.S.’s 2-0 win.  

“There’s always going to be talk,” said Gio Reyna, who scored the second goal on 63 minutes and was named player of the tournament. “And I think looking into Jamaica was a bit much. It obviously wasn’t our best performance, but it’s one game. Not every team can play well every game and we responded really well tonight.”

While neither team dominated the final, the U.S. never looked overwhelmed, circulating the ball and probing Mexico for weak points. They gave up very little defensively. Mexico had to chase the result in the last half-hour after Reyna doubled the lead. While El Tri had some half-chances, they never truly threatened the U.S.

The postgame press conference for Mexico coach Jaime Lozano had a clear tilt to it: El Tri were chasing the U.S. now. How could they catch their biggest rivals? 

There was no doubt which team was favored — a sign of how far the U.S. has come since Berhalter first took over.

The U.S. was smashed by Mexico in September 2019, a 3-0 loss in Berhalter’s first year that altered the course for this group. After that loss, the U.S. became a more transitional, high-pressing and physical team. They learned the intensity it would take to win those big games against their rival. 

That result, six meetings ago now, is the last time Mexico beat the U.S.

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The U.S. was able to limit Mexico’s chances throughout the final (Shaun Clark/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

But while Sunday’s win was a requirement, it will bring little relief ahead of the Copa America. If anything, a third straight regional crown will only ramp up the hopes that the U.S. can do something special against bigger opponents in a tournament that will include the likes of Lionel Messi’s World Cup champions Argentina and world power Brazil.

“I would say that, as a federation, those teams (such as Argentina and Brazil) have proven something already; they’ve won everything there is to win,” Adams said. “That’s kind of the role model, so to speak, of what the U.S. wants to become and kind of: ‘How do we get there?’.

“I would say that we’re making the right steps in order to get there. Obviously, people want us to be there tomorrow and win a World Cup, but that’s not an ideal situation. We need to go through a lot of ups and downs before we get there. But steps like this tonight, playing in finals, getting that experience now, winning three in a row, this means something… We’re learning how to win in pressure situations.”

The Nations League tournaments have served as markers for this group.

The first win, in June 2021, was crucial in that it was a validating moment for a young team asserting itself in the region. That they battled back twice from deficits to win, 3-2 after extra time, showed the character of a group that has shined through since on multiple stages, including at the following year’s World Cup in Qatar.

Last year’s dominant 3-0 semifinal win over Mexico only reinforced the U.S.’s position atop CONCACAF but, more importantly, it showed off the growth of Reyna playing in a central role. After the off-field issues in and after Qatar, Reyna came back into the group in 2023 looking to show he could be the influential playmaker the U.S. fans hoped he would be, and he then assisted on both goals in a 2-0 win over Canada in the final before being substituted for the second half due to a leg injury.

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Adams celebrates his long-range goal (Omar Vega/Getty Images)

Reyna continued that impact into this year’s tournament, setting up both goals in extra time against Jamaica and then scoring in Sunday’s final. He went through the mixed zone still holding his trophy as player of the tournament.

This Nations League final was never going to be the same type of marker for this group — not with the Copa America just around the corner. Instead, it served as almost a checkpoint. The U.S. was supposed to win this game. And that, in itself, spoke to the difference of this cycle.

The U.S. isn’t going to be considered a young team anymore. They are expected to get results. 

“I think it’s something that we do respond to,” Berhalter said. “When the guys feel like we’re pressured, then we come out and we play really good performances. In the last World Cup, as soon as they got to camp, it was like, focus, focus, focus, they were on it. And the same thing in this camp as the camp went on. So I know they’re focused.

“For me, it’s about really taking advantage of every single opportunity we have because, before we know it, ’26 (the World Cup being co-hosted with Canada and Mexico) is gonna be here.”

(Top photo: Shaun Clark/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

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