Late last night, the budding US men’s national soccer team came of age in a memorable 3-2 win over archrivals Mexico at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado. Weston McKinnie, Christian Pulisic, Sergino Dest, Gio Reyna, and Ethan Horvath starred.
The USA captain, Pulisic, scored the clutch third goal (at the 114th minute) with a sublime penalty kick, and substitute goalkeeper Horvath saved Mexican captain, Andres Guardado’s, blasted penalty kick (at the 123rd minute) to preserve the win.
The match provided the crucible this young crop of USA stars direly needed. With a generation of individually accomplished players fast reaching the notice only the communal heights of the prior “Golden Eras” of 1930 (Bert Patenaude, Bart McGee), 1994 (Tab Ramos, Eric Wynalda), 2002-2010 (Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey) attained, the leading stars of vintage 2021 (Pulisic-38 caps, McKinnie-4 caps, Reyna-7 caps, Dest-10 caps, and Horvath-6 caps) shone brightly and came together when it mattered most.
The match started awfully for the USA as a catastrophic mistake by Mark McKenzie gifted Jesus Corona the ball inside the US box for an easy early score at the second-minute mark. If the young US crew was to ever emerge as a viable team it could not have asked for a tougher trial by fire than to climb out of an early-mistake-deficit, in a final, against their superior archrivals.
Things got worse at the twenty-third minute when an Hector Herrera’s cross found Hector Moreno unmarked in the box for an easy header past Zack Steffen. VAR replays would show Moreno was just offsides, saving the US from the embarrassment of another defensive letdown. But the let-off seemed to spark the US team. McKinnie in particular seemed fired up.
And then, it only took four minutes.
At the 27th minute Pulisic’s corner kick was met by McKinnie’s head, the ball beat Mexican keeper, Guillermo Ochoa, but smashed off his right post, and it was Reyna who slotted home the ricochet for the tying goal.
A very tight and at times chippy match ensued (a shared eight yellow cards and a red for Mexico’s Argentine coach, Gerard Martino) and unruly fans made it an unnecessarily tougher contest with their homophobic chants (requiring a stoppage) and subsequently with several instances of projectiles sent flying onto the pitch (one hitting Reyna on the head), and eventually with pitch invasions. But the teams persevered.
At the 60th minute, USA coach, Gregg Berhalter, substituted defender Dest (who had been manhandled most of the match) and replaced him with a striker, Timothy Weah. Berhalter would use all six of his allowed substitutes (one extra allowed in extra time) revamping his midfield, attack, and defense, aside from his keeper.
At the 69th minute, a sad but providential injury to Steffen (who crumbled without contact, his left knee seemingly giving out) required Horvath substitute for him. The change was a tonic as the starting keeper was not having one of his better matches and with his team’s defense its glaring weak point a sure-handed keeper was desperately needed.
Ironically, Horvath was scored upon within ten minutes of coming in when the tentative US defense again backpedaled against an oncoming striker and allowed Diego Lainez room to maneuver at the top of the US box and to easily slam a low, close-range shot to the keeper’s left for the Mexican go-ahead score at the 79th minute.
And that was when the USA team melded.
The US reaction to the Mexican score was to level the match with another McKinnie header, this time off a Reyna corner kick, and this time the ball went into the Mexican net with Ochoa sprawled trying to bat it out of the inside of his goal.
This time it only took three minutes.
Mexico 2, USA 2.
As the game edged toward extra time those watching the match could verify that McKinnie had showcased why Juventus want him in their starting lineup every bit as much as Reyna had shown why Dortmund are high on him. And while Horvath had shown a calm assuredness that belied his age and status as a backup, but also clarified why Belgian Club Brugge were intent on keeping him on their squad, Pulisic had yet to fully emerge.
In the necessary extra time Martino, who had only used half his subs to that point, brought in three sets of fresh legs, but more importantly, two of his most veteran players captain Guardado (166 caps, more than twice the international experience of the combined young USA stars mentioned above) and Carlos Salcedo (41 caps, or almost as many as most of those USA stars combined).
At the 108th minute Pulisic was crushed between two Mexican defenders in the box and brought down for a clear penalty, but the ref did not see it and it took a VAR communique for him to trot over to the monitor to closely view what his colleagues and the rest of the stadium had seen. A penalty ensued.
Pulisic, who had picked up the ball and held it in the expectation that a penalty would be called was quick to point out to the ref that while the VAR review was taking place the Mexican team players took turns stomping on the area around the penalty spot ensuring the footing and ball placement would not be ideal for the upcoming shot. The ref waved the complaint away.
It had been six minutes from the time of the offense to the execution of the penalty, a tribute to the multiple Mexican team attempts to freeze Pulisic, the most egregious being Martino’s walk up behind the ref, while he was viewing the replay. The Mexican coach then wrapped an arm around the ref’s shoulders and said something to him. The actions earned the coach an immediate red card. But Martino did not leave the pitch—another bit of gamesmanship that required the ref’s attention before the penalty could be taken.
Pulisic smiled at the ref as he placed the ball on the spot, took his customary short run, and pummeled the ball into the upper ninety on the right side of the goal, Ochoa’s correct guess, and dive to his left, an afterthought as the ball exploded in the net before the keeper hit the ground. Christian had come to play.
USA 3, Mexico 2.
In the ensuing celebration unnamed fans pelted the celebrating USA team by the corner flag, a number of objects finding their marks including the one to hit Gio. Brooks, who saw Pulisic still on the ground as their teammates piled off, stood hovering over his teammate, bending to shield him from the projectiles, and so received a water bottle hit on the rear end. McKinnie, as always was also protecting his teammates.
Then, at the 118th minute, USA defender, McKenzie, extended his arm at a ball in the box he was defending, and VAR clearly awarded the penalty to Mexico. The most experienced player on the pitch, Guardado, walked up to take the spot-kick at the 120th+3 minute. The least experienced man on the pitch, Horvath, stood his ground as the Mexican captain took a very long windup run, in hopes that the keeper would show his hand. Horvath did not budge. Guardado shot low and hard and to the keeper’s right, and the ball met Horvath’s hand for the game and championship-winning save.
The final whistle blew at the 120+10:56 and the USA became the first CONCACAF Nations League winner.