After three weeks and 54 games, the Gold Cup final that most fans and pundits wanted to see has finally arrived: Mexico versus the United States at Soldier Field in Chicago.
The last time these two rivals met in the Gold Cup final was back in 2011, with Mexico winning 4-2 in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena Calif. Eight years later there are a couple of players renaming from both squads that will be playing in Sunday’s final, most notably Andres Guardado for Mexico and Michael Bradley for the United States, but both teams have a younger, fresher look about them going into this final than in previous meetings.
Throughout this summer’s Gold Cup, both teams have played some exhilarating football, Mexico beating Cuba 7-0 and the United States beating Trinidad and Tobago 6-0, but there have been a couple of lackluster games for both sides as well. With most criticism coming in the knockout stage, with the U.S. having trouble defeating Curacao only 1-0 and Mexico having to play two extra-time games in their route to the final.
Nonetheless, even with both teams struggling at times, Mexico head coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino and United States head coach Gregg Berhalter are still happy and excited to be in this final, considering they were recently hired and having players choosing not to play this summer or players arriving later to training camp.
Since Martino has taken over this Mexican national team it has been about getting his players to play his way. Martino has worked with his players to ingrain 4-3-3 as the formation of choice and the only formation he wants his team to play in. In terms of wins, it has worked because his side is in the Gold Cup final. But, while Mexico have created plenty of chances in their five games in the tournament, finishing inside the box, at times, has been lackluster.
Wolverhampton Wanderers’ striker Raul Jimenez is leading the line for Mexico and has scored five goals, including the game-winning penalty in extra-time against Hati in the semifinals. His link-up play with the midfield and wingers has helped start the attack for El Tri, but his ability to create space for himself inside the box and convert his chances have been most notable.
Even though ‘El Tri’ looks to dominate possession and create a lot of scoring chances, there has been concern about them off the ball. Martino wants his side to win the ball back right away after losing it, but against Costa Rica and Haiti, there have been gaps in the back for Mexico.
While Mexico came into this tournament as favorites and still the giants of the region, the United States has been looking to a fresh start after missing the 2018 World Cup.
The two warmup games for the United States couldn’t have gone any worse: losing to Venezuela and Jamaica. The hosts already had a lot of pressure heading into the tournament, but after two awful performances, the cause for concern increased even more. But after five wins and winning their group as comfortably as they could, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel for the United States.
Berhalter was hired only at the start of 2019, meaning he hasn’t had a ton of time to impose his style of play and figure out his best group of players. It hasn’t taken long, however, to figure out how he wants his side to play and whose his best players are.
The goal for Berhalter in these first five games has been to have his team solid at the back and then being having good fluidity with the ball. To have that philosophy work—Berhalter needs players who can play in that system, two players that have been vital to the United States has been Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie.
Both players arrived a couple of days later to the national team, and as a result have taken a little extra time to be in peak form. But beginning with the Trinidad and Tobago game, those have been dominating games and have been creating and scoring goals for fun.
The opening goal against Jamaica in the semifinals on Wednesday came off a Pulisic pass to McKennie, who scored his second goal of the tournament. Pulisic, who’s been getting better and better each game, scored two goals in the semifinals, bringing his total to three goals for the tournament.
The link between Pulisic and McKennie has been crucial for Berhalter because of the work they do with the ball and off the ball. When the United States has been off the ball, McKennie has dropped back to help Bradley win the ball back and then getting the ball to Pulisic who can create chances for himself and his teammates.
The outline has been laid out by both managers, it will be on the players to go out and execute the plan. For Mexico, it will be about controlling possession and creating a lot of chances. For the United States, being solid at the back will be their No. 1 priority and then getting the ball up the field quickly and to Pulisic will be the next step.
Winning or losing this game doesn’t guarantee anything for either side long-term, as seen in 2017 when the U.S. won the Gold Cup and then failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. But a win ensures two things: bragging rights over their most hated rival and confidence in the short-term something both sides could use right now.