CINCINNATI – After Christian Pulisic entered the game in the 69th minute, and after he’d slipped past and effectively barreled over defender Johan Vasquez, and after he’d headed Tim Weah’s perfect cross far beyond the reach of Memo Ochoa’s right arm, and after the ball settled into the net and gave the United States men’s national team a lead it would not relinquish, the player who wears the USA No. 10 jersey strutted toward fans in the corner at TQL Stadium and tried to lift that shirt to display a message.
The words “MAN IN THE MIRROR” were written on his undershirt. It difficult for most of the crowd to see — but it was impossible for those able to read it to escape the message.
He was ready for this moment, no doubt.
Pulisic and all those in the USMNT program had seen the comments from an interview Ochoa gave earlier in the week, in which he declared, “Mexico has been that mirror in which they want to see themselves and reflect, what they want to copy.” It was an odd time to make such a statement, given that El Tri had lost two previous games this year to the Americans.
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Now, for the first time ever, following a 2-0 victory Friday night, the U.S. has beaten its archrival three times in a calendar year: the first in the CONCACAF Nations League final in June, the second in the region’s Gold Cup in August, and now in World Cup qualifying. There is no such thing as a “friendly” when the United States and Mexico play soccer against one another, but all three of these were in serious competitions.
“It says a lot, that we’ve come a long way in the last few years,” Pulisic told Sporting News. “Mexico has always been a tough opponent for us, and to now win three in a row is obviously amazing. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to be complacent, time to think, ‘Oh, we’re the best.’”
The USMNT have another qualifier coming Tuesday, on the road at Jamaica, and even though they now stand first in qualifying at the halfway point of the “Octagonal”, they cannot afford to ponder their superiority over El Tri.
We can, though.
And the evidence proclaims that the United States now is the king of CONCACAF: three consecutive victories for the first time in nine decades of their series; two trophies for their championships of the region’s two biggest competitions; a serious advantage since the U.S. began seriously competing in 1990, with the U.S. owning 20 victories to 14 defeats and 12 games that ended in a draw.
“We talked about this; this was yesterday’s news,” coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters. “We tallked about how we thought they didn’t give us enough respect, and we had to go out and earn it. And I think we went out and earned it tonight.”
This result was especially significant for Berhalter given his appointment as USMNT head coach in 2019 had been so widely criticized, and that many of those leading the persistent “Berhalter out” campaign had preferred U.S. Soccer to hire Tata Martino away from Atlanta United instead. Martino wound up as head coach of El Tri, and now he’s dropped three in a row to Berhalter.
Berhalter installed a high press against Mexico in this game and insisted his players stick with it, expecting the Americans’ energy and zest eventually would wear down a more veteran Mexico team. It worked early, but the U.S. midfield — in particular Tyler Adams — passed the ball sloppily for much of the first 45 minutes.
Out of the break, though, the Americans rapidly overwhelmed their opponents. After Pulisic scored the goal to break a 0-0 tie in the 74th minute, when El Tri ought to have been desperate to generate an equalizer, they were unable to advance the ball past the center line for nearly four minutes. The possession stats showed Mexico had the ball 51 percent of the time, but what that doesn’t reveal is that so much of that time was spent in their own end.
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“I was thinking about it a little bit, and I was thinking about how well we were playing,” Berhalter said. “It would have been a shame if we didn’t win the game.
“But I think when we brought in Christian, it gave the team a boost. And it also put some fear into Mexico, because they know his quality.”
Weston McKennie scored the second goal for the U.S., exchanging passes with reserve forward Jesus Ferreira at the top of the box before controlling the last pass after a fortunate bounce and firing a low shot past Ochoa inside the right post.
Ferreira had a massive chance late in the game to add another, but like when Clint Dempsey missed a penalty eight years ago up the road in Columbus, Ferreira blew the shot wide left and preserved the 2-0 score line — the fans chanted “dos a cero” for a while — that has been the winning score for the USMNT now five of the past six times they’ve played a qualifier on U.S. soil.
“It’s kind of new to all of us,” Weah said, though he appeared right at home in this rivalry. He delivered an overwhelming performance, and was consistently dangerous down the right sideline, applying pressure to Mexico’s back line. Though it might not have been better for central defender Walker Zimmerman, it probably was bigger. The U.S. coaches have been searching for the ideal partner for young defender Miles Robinson, and Zimmerman played this game like he wanted to consume every ball Mexico hoped would create danger and answer any questions that might be lingering about his ability to perform at this level.
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“One of our concerns was the aerial duels, and with Miles and Walker back there, we feel pretty secure,” Berhalter said. “We won a number of headers on crosses, a number of headers on long balls, and it makes a big difference when you have guys that are confident they can win the ball.”
The United States and Mexico have been playing soccer against one another for 87 years, though to be accurate the Americans only were playing around for nearly half that time. To earn three major-tournament wins in a row at this stage of the USMNT’s development, with two teens and seven players under 23 in the lineup against Mexico, is an early sign of what might be in store for this rivalry.
“I think it’s a new era now,” Weah said. “Before the game, Mexico was talking a lot of smack. And beating them shuts them up.”