You’ll have to excuse me, as I’m writing this Mourning After while giggling incessantly. The U.S. Men’s National C team, B- at best, beat a close to full-strength Mexico squad in the Gold Cup Final, 1-0. It was a tournament that manager Gregg Berhalter was using as a laboratory to find out who could just get on the bench for the World Cup qualifiers starting in September. An exit in the semifinals wouldn’t have been out of left field (and the U.S could have easily lost to Qatar in the semis, but whatever).
Instead, the U.S. gutted out one of their most satisfying wins in recent memory. Because looking at the lineups and the experience levels of each team before kickoff, you would have been right in assuming that Mexico would run out 4-0 winners. And they probably should have, at least in the first half.
But as the game went on, Mexico got tighter and tighter, perhaps realizing the horror it would be to lose the U.S.’s JV squad. Gradually they lost fluidity, started losing tackles in midfield, and the Team USA grew into it. While they didn’t put up a raid on Mexico’s goal, the U.S. had chances here and there, and by the time Miles Robinson headed one home in the second half of extra time, no one could say it was completely against the run of play.
It was a fitting end to the tournament, as Robinson was the player of the tournament despite not getting the official trophy for that award (that went to Hector Herrera). Robinson was a calming influence for the U.S. on defense, even though this was only his 10th appearance ever for the national team. It’s not just that Robinson stuffs everything that comes his way, but does it in such a calm manner that you could see the confidence spread through the rest of the defense. Late in the second half he stepped up into the midfield and started an attack by dribbling through the midfield, the clearest sign of his assuredness. There were some definite baby Van Dijk vibes dripping off of him all tournament. Not only will he definitely make the squad for the upcoming qualifiers, but he could easily see himself starting alongside John Brooks in the big games.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about this U.S. win was that the players charged with being the vets and leaders on this team were mostly garbage. Paul Arriola missed the game’s biggest chance and other than that was anonymous. Sebastien Lletget put his shoes on the wrong foot. Kellyn Acosta improved as the final went along, but was more bailing water in his own penalty area than an influence throughout.
But Robinson was immense. Matthew Hoppe is the kind of player you can tell just doesn’t give a fuck, and you need that. James Sands’ limbs would go numb every time he tried to pass the ball, but defended well if not a little desperately. Matt Turner in goal might even have a claim to wrestle the No. 1 overall keeper role away from Zack Steffen, such was his tournament.
More than anything, not only was this the C team but they’d hardly played together in the past. Which didn’t lend itself to a lot of cohesive play or flowing attacks. But one thing Berhalter gets from any version of his team is a heaping helping of guts. This was an MLS All-Star team essentially seeing a hostile atmosphere of this magnitude for the first time basically. It was seeing a basically full Mexico team that has to win otherwise it would face an inquisition at home (by the time you read this manager Tata Martino might be cleaning out his office). So Mexico had to gut it out, and for the second time this summer that’s what the U.S. did to Mexico. It just found a way to the finish line because it wanted to. As Sergeant Hartman said in Full Metal Jacket, “Sometimes guts is enough.”
It also might be as affirming of a summer for Berhalter as it can be. When he was hired he was seen as U.S. Soccer’s pet, being the CEO’s brother and the safest choice and the one most likely to not rock the boat and change things structurally. He had some awful results in the beginning, but he was using meaningless friendlies and tourneys to try shit, be it new players or systems or formations. He’s mixed in European-based players. He’s gotten commitments from promising young players with options for other international teams. And now he’s created depth and competition by guiding the backups and the backups’ backups to a Gold Cup win.
The real test is still the qualifiers which start in September, and the mere crunch of those being groups of three games in six or seven days could see it go sideways.
But now he seems to have options in most positions, and in his time he has instilled at least a belief that the U.S. will find a way, instead of a way to fuck it up as it had under Klinsmann and Arena. They dig in, they fight and scrap, and when everything else isn’t working that probably is enough to get through to the World Cup. As we all know, there are away dates in CONCACAF where the field is a cow patch and it’s hot as shit after the players have been in European cold all season and the refs are on quaaludes and the crowd is baying for your blood where you just have to get through it. It’s rarely pretty, and Berhalter looks to have this U.S. team ready to just muscle through because it has to.
And there is a wealth of youth. The top squad’s most important players are all under 25. In this tourney, Robinson, Hoppe, Sands, Dike, Moore are, too. Maybe Berhalter isn’t the Point B to C guy when it comes time. But he’s pretty much proven to be the A to B one, and that’s where the USMNT is right now.