New trophy, old rivals: Why the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League final really matters to USMNT and Mexico

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Most of us are still trying to figure out exactly what to make of the new CONCACAF competition – but to these powerhouses, it means bragging rights

In many ways, most of us are still trying to figure out exactly what to make of the CONCACAF Nations League. Even with its extended run thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, it still feels very new and, like anything else that’s very new, it’s something that needs adjusting to.

So how do you contextualize it? Is it more important than World Cup qualifying? Absolutely not, no chance. Will it tell us more than friendlies against European or South American teams? It’s hard to say. Is it elevated higher than the Gold Cup? This year quite possibly, with the U.S. men’s national team (USMNT) set to leave most of their heavy-hitters in Europe.

As the rest of us try and figure out this brand new tournament, both the USMNT and Mexico have indicated that they’re going to value it heavily, and for good reason. In some ways, there’s more than a trophy on the line, more than being the inaugural winner of a brand new tournament. This, like most USMNT-Mexico collisions, is about respect.

The U.S. and Mexico will collide on Sunday in the CONCACAF Nations League final, giving both teams a chance to assert themselves as the kings of the region.

With the Gold Cup expected to have a different feel this summer with the way the schedule worked out, this match will be the first time the USMNT and Mexico A teams will collide in two years, and the last time they’ll meet until World Cup qualifying.

For the U.S., Sunday is about proving that, after several down years, they’re back to being a team that can compete at the top end of this region. For Mexico, it’s about proving that, even with some changes in personnel over the last few years, they’re still levels ahead of their fiercest rivals despite all of the hype behind the young U.S. side.

In short, even though this tournament has no history, there’s still plenty at stake.

“Wow, it’s intense,” said USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter when asked about the rivalry.

“Just thinking about all the times watching it and then participating in it, coaching it now, these games are raised to a different level and I think it’s important that our guys understand the heritage of the rivalry, understand what it means, and then embrace it.

“It’s knowing that it’s a final, knowing that a trophy is on the line but also that we’re playing our fiercest competitor in the region.”

While Mexico and the USMNT have been fierce rivals for quite some time, the scales have been tipped heavily towards El Tri for several years.

Heading into Sunday’s clash, the U.S. haven’t beaten their southern rivals in a competitive match in nearly eight years, with the September 2013 World Cup qualifying win the last time the USMNT got one over on El Tri.

Since then, Mexico has amassed a 3-0-1 record in official competitions, while also watching on as the USMNT crashed out of World Cup qualifying for Russia 2018.

It’s been almost two years since their last meeting, with Mexico winning the big one 1-0 to claim a Gold Cup before picking up a 3-0 win over an experimental USMNT just a few months later. 

That Gold Cup finale, which was won by a 73rd-minute goal from Jonathan dos Santos, was this new-look USMNT’s first chance at making a statement against their local rivals and, on that day, they fell short. Sunday will be their second, and Berhalter believes that the look and feel of this game will be a lot different.

“They certainly bought a lot of intensity,” Berhalter said when reflecting on that Gold Cup defeat. “That game, for us, was a good demonstration of how aggressive they can be pressing and also where the spaces are available for us. That probably the biggest takeaway in that game, but it’s also different personnel now,

“For us, just collecting that information from the game was valuable, but also realizing that now we’re a different team. It’s going to be probably eight different players on the field in the game so anything can happen but we’re really looking forward to the final. This is the third time we’ve played Mexico and we want to get to win.”

Berhalter is right: this is a very different USMNT. That Gold Cup team was one stuck between generations, one just ushering in the new blood that defines the current team while holding on to some familiar faces of cycles past. Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore started that game alongside Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie. 

At that time, Sergino Dest was with the U.S. U-20s. Gio Reyna was still in the academy at NYCFC. Yunus Musah was in the England system while Jordan Siebatcheu, the scorer of Friday’s game-winner against Honduras to set up this meeting, was still considered a part of the French set-up.

Over the last two years, this U.S. team has emerged from that post-2018 hangover and has grown into one that truly does have some of the brightest young stars, not just in CONCACAF but in the world.

One person who believes that is Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino, the former Atlanta United coach and current Mexico boss that is all too familiar with the recent rise of America’s talented youngsters.

“The United States really has a young and important team,” Martino said. “Surely we will all stay with Pulisic, because he also played in the last Champions League final with a very good team, or with Dest, because he plays in Barcelona, or McKennie, who does it in Juventus.

“The reality, in general, is that they are very good footballers in each of the positions and they are footballers, in addition, who play for big teams.”

Like the U.S., Mexico is also a team that’s dealt with a bit of change. A total of 14 of the players from the Gold Cup-winning squad are here, but there are some notable absences and some big newcomers.

Dos Santos isn’t here, out of action with a knee injury, while Mexico are also missing their truly world-class No 9 Raul Jimenez, who is still recovering from a catastrophic head injury suffered with Wolves. 

They do have arguably their most important player, though, as Hirving Lozano will be no doubt dying to push Mexico ahead after a tough game against Costa Rica, who did everything in their power to disrupt the Napoli star.

In general, Los Ticos were able to hold Mexico relatively quiet, but even without much offensive punch, El Tri were able to escape with a win in penalty kicks thanks to some heroics from Guillermo Ochoa.

Yet despite all of their successes in recent years, it’s easy to feel like Mexico lack the pure momentum and hype of the U.S. team. In some ways, El Tri have been overlooked in recent years as players like Pulisic, Dest and McKennie have risen to the top of the European game.

In this game, though, your club history doesn’t matter, because these sorts of matches are unlike most games you see on the club level. Sunday’s clash will be intense and it will be physical, much like their semi-final matches were. That, after all, is CONCACAF at its finest.

There’s a pretty good chance Sunday’s final could be ugly, and that’s something neither team will shy away from as they look to add to their already fierce history by creating a new moment in a brand new tournament.

“For us in this game, in the final, it’s about rolling up your sleeves,” Berhalter said. “I’ve talked before about how these games aren’t easy games. They’re very, very difficult games.

“It’s about moments in the finals. It’s about being able to withstand pressure but give pressure. There’s a whole bunch of dynamics that are going on and what we need to do as a group is just embrace those moments and respond to those moments, really step up in those situations and say that we’re ready for this game.”

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