USA-Mexico: The good, the bad and the ugly

The USA and Mexico have faced each other 71 times but never played a game like they did on Sunday night in Denver.

They had never played with VAR before, and it intervened three times.

They had never had one team take the lead two times, at least not in a competitive game, and end up losing.

They had never had a game in doubt until a penalty kick was saved in the 124th minute.

The USA beat Mexico, 3-2, to win the Concacaf Nations League in a match filled with the good and the bad, by both teams, sometimes on the same play, as well as the ugly.

1. Tecatito Corona makes Mark McKenzie pay (1-0, Mexico, 2nd minute).How well can the USA play out of the back under pressure from Mexico? In the aftermath of Mexico's 3-0 win in September 2019, that was the lingering question about the U.S. backline. An early answer: Not very well. Three U.S. players -- Kellyn Acosta, John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin -- have chances to gain possession but fail. Yedlin finally wins the ball from Corona and plays it backwards into the penalty area to McKenzie, whose pass intended for Weston McKennie is picked off by Corona, who has a clear path toward goal and beats Zack Steffen to the near post. It's the earliest goal the USA has conceded against Mexico since Kasey Keller's misplay of Alexi Lalas' equally tentative backpass 39 seconds into their 1997 match in Foxboro, Massachusetts. Keller played the ball off Carlos Hermosillo's forehead, and the ball went into the goal. (The World Cup qualifier ended 2-2 after the USA twice rallied from a goal down.)

2. Sergino Dest puts Edson Alvarez on his butt (18th minute). For the last month of LaLiga season, Dest was a shadow of the player who won the Copa del Rey with Barcelona in April, and he has looked gassed in his three games with the USA, beginning with the Switzerland friendly on May 30. But the 20-year-old defender produced a moment of magic when he took an outlet pass from Steffen, played a one-two with Pulisic, beat two Mexico defenders on the touchline and then sent Edson Alvarez, his former Ajax teammate, to the turf on the edge of the penalty area before hitting a wasteful cross. Mexico turned the ball over just as quickly, starting the USA's first sustained attack of the game.

3. VAR saves USA (26th minute). Yedlin plays a cross over the line with no one around him for a corner kick. Mexico plays a short corner kick. The USA has all 10 players in the area, but they fall asleep, allowing Hector Moreno to head in Hector Herrera's cross. Two minutes later, Panamanian John Pitti calls the goal off for offside by Moreno, the Mexican's foot standing right on the 6-yard line as a marker, after watching the replay on the monitor at midfield. It's the first VAR call ever involving the men's national team.

4. Gio Reyna equalizes (1-1, 27th minute). With 20 seconds of the resumption of play, the USA wins a corner kick of its own at the other end of the field following a long McKennie throw-in. McKennie rises to meet Pulisic's corner kick and heads the ball off the post (where no Mexican is standing). The ball rebounds to Gio Reyna, who scores with his left foot.

5. Zack Steffen exits with a knee injury (69th minute). The U.S. keeper comes off his line to pick up an errant Mexico pass at the edge of the penalty area with no one around and pulls up limping. Six minutes later, he leaves the game and is replaced by Ethan Horvath. It's the first time since the 2016 USA-Mexico World Cup qualifier that a U.S. keeper has had to leave a competitive match due to an injury. (Brad Guzan replaced Tim Howard in the first half after Howard pulled a muscle in his leg. Mexico went on to win 2-1, ending the Dos a Cero mastery over Mexico in Columbus.)

6. Diego Lainez puts Mexico back ahead (2-1, Mexico, 79th minute). Many U.S. fans will only know the 5-foot-6 Diego Lainez from his téte-à-tête with 6-foot-4 U.S. defender Matt Miazga during the 2018 USA-Mexico friendly in Nashville, the last time the USA beat El Tri. Lainez, a last-minute replacement for injured Erick Gutierrez on Mexico's Nations League roster, needs only 66 seconds after entering the final to put Mexico back ahead. Lozano finds the 20-year-old winger all alone on the right side, and he beats Tim Ream, cuts to his left and beats Horvath inside the near post.

7. Third time is a charm for Weston McKennie (2-2, 82nd minute). Within two minutes, the USA wins another corner kick after Chaka Rodriguez trips on the ball and plays it over the end line while dealing with a Tim Weah cross. McKennie, who had headed off the post on the play leading to the USA's first goal and earlier in the second half forced a diving save from Guillermo Ochoa on a header off a corner kick, this time doesn't miss, putting his header down and past Ochoa inside the near post. For the second time, the USA responds after going a goal down.

8. Homophobic chants force game stoppage (90+6th minute). As stoppage time nears its end, the game is interrupted by fans making homophobic chants in the stands directed at Horvath while he takes a goal kick. FIFA has introduced new strict anti-hate protocols, and the game is interrupted. Another first for the USA-Mexico rivalry. Nine minutes of stoppage time is needed -- and it won't be the longest of the night.

9. Hector Herrera escapes without a red card (93rd minute). The Nations League final featured eight yellow cards, but Pitti did not issue any red cards, at least not to any players. Herrera is very lucky to escape a second yellow card for his lunging dive, studs exposed, on Weah in midfield. Late in the second half, Herrera was issued his first yellow for putting his cleats into Horvath's chest as the keeper dove for a ball.

The drama of VAR (111th minute).
A counterattack involving four U.S. subs -- Sebastian Lletget, Jordan Siebatcheu, Weah and Reggie Cannon -- puts Pulisic free in the penalty area, and he goes right at two Mexico defenders before being taken down by Carlos Salcedo. Pitti deems the play is worthy of video review and heads to the monitor a second time. Mexico coach Tata Martino tries to get a peek of what Pitti is looking at and extends his arm over the referee's shoulder. U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, knowing the trouble his former MLS coaching colleague is in, tries to push Tata back. Pitti turns around, sees who it is and reaches in his pocket to issue the Argentine a red card. Martino and Berhalter exchange works, laughing. Pitti returns to the field, makes the rectangular TV hand signal and wildly points to the penalty spot.

11. Christian Pulisic puts the USA ahead for the first time (3-2, USA, 114th minute). Pulisic had been largely invisible in the tournament until he was taken down for the penalty area. Exactly six minutes after the foul, he shows his cool, burying his penalty kick high into the corner of the goal to score the most consequential goal of his U.S. career.

12. Gio Reyna goes down (115th). Pulisic immediately takes off his shirt and heads to the corner, where the USA players celebrate. They are pelted with objects from Mexico fans, and Reyna, who exited the game the 82nd minute, goes down after being hit by a projectile. The fan who threw the object is later arrested, banned from Empower Field at Mile High and facing criminal charges.

13. VAR III (119th minute). The USA had its success on corner kicks. It also had trouble defending them. Mexico plays a short corner kick before the USA can regroup, and Luis Romo's header deflects off McKenzie's arm in the area. Penalty? Pitti initially says no, but after video review awards a penalty kick to Mexico.

14. Ethan Horvath saves the day (120+4th minute). This time, five minutes separate the original foul and the taking of the penalty kick. Horvath keeps his wits about him and remembers what his goalkeeper coach, Aron Hyde, had told the keepers in their morning review of Mexico penalty takers. He dives to his rights and pushes away Andres Guardado's low shot, struck with power but too far from the post. Horvath pushes the ball away to preserve the win.

Photo: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

16 comments about "USA-Mexico: The good, the bad and the ugly".
  1. Kent James, June 8, 2021 at 11:01 a.m.

    This game was not pretty, but it was intense.  Both teams had flashes of brilliance and epic fails.It truly could have gone either way. It was also probably one of the most difficult games on the planet to referee.  While I did not agree with some of the ref's calls, he got the major calls right. I think VAR also showed it's worth on 3 potentially game changing calls; the Mexican goal called back for offside, and the 2 PKs.I actually disagreed with both PKs; on first view, I thought Pulisic was clearly taken down, but on review, he went over the Mexicen player's leg who had cut off Pulisic's path to the ball (and was shielding the ball, which he then played with his opposite foot). I thought maybe the first Mexican player hit him also, but on review, I don't think he did (but if he did, the PK was warranted). But the referee called the PK as most refs do, essentially not allowing the Mexican player to shield the ball without touching it (with the shielding leg). On the 2nd PK, it seems that referees are now calling these instances as handling, which I think is ridciulous. McKenzie (tough night!) had his hand in a perfectly normal position and the Mexican player hit it with a header from close range that McKenzie had absolutely no ability to avoid. He was penalized for having an arm. Not a fan of the new interpretation.

  2. Wooden Ships replied, June 8, 2021 at 11:55 a.m.

    Good comments Kent. Back in the day CP wouldn't have gotten the PK call. His touch through the defenders was heavy and the second defender did touch the ball. In other words his movement use to not be rewarded. Didn't agree with the handball call either. When we use to shoot with the foot, it was expected of the defenders to have their hands behind the back, headballs were different to some extent. I still prefer the game without VAR. it's also confusing to the ref.

  3. Ben Myers replied, June 8, 2021 at 2:23 p.m.

    The Panamanian referee was the man of the match, handling a lot of contentious stuff and keeping his cool.

  4. Wooden Ships replied, June 8, 2021 at 3:54 p.m.

    Ben, I thought the ref and AR's did a good job too-overall. Refs like good players want to be in the big games. His demeanor was business like. The woman on the far side reminded me of "Spill the Wine Take That Girl", by War with Eric Burdon. Can men still admire statuesque women? Hope so. 

  5. Kent James, June 8, 2021 at 11:04 a.m.

    The US has the most skillful team it's ever had (and young), but it was unclear how they would do under fire.Well you don't get much more fire than was in that game, and while they made some mistakes, they certainly proved they've got what it takes to win.
    As for Berhalter, I thought is line-up selection was good; I'm not a fan of the 3 centerback formation (especially against Mexico, with their small quick forwards not matching well with our tall slow centerbacks), but I understood his desire to get Yedlin and Dest to combine with Pulisic and Reyna. Unfortunately, we didn't get that (and to his credit, GB adjusted the lineup accordingly). My main concern with GB's coaching is his play it out of the back under all circumstances (and that cost us the first goal and almost another). When you've got players like Steffens (who seems a litte too relaxed when he has the ball at his feet and is under pressure from an opponent), Brooks, McKenzie and Ream as your primary ball handlers trying to beat opponents on the dribble, that's not going to end well. To their credit, most of the time they did better than I'd expect (especailly Brooks), but that's my point; it only takes one mistake to cost us a goal. And if Mexico is putting us under high pressure in our defensive third, that means there must be openings further down the field, so rather than proving our ability to go toe to toe with Mexican pressure, we should exploit the openings by going further down the field. Always playing out of the back also violates a basic tenet of good offense; being unpredictible. So while playing the ball out of the back is fine most of the time, mix it up by playing the occasional long pass, and for goodness sakes, avoid instances of having the last man taking on an opponent one v one. Risk v reward!

  6. Wooden Ships replied, June 8, 2021 at 11:59 a.m.

    Definitely agree with mixing it up as we struggle in back with confident dribblers and passers. I also like our chances on the long clearance with Sargent winning in the air 75% of the time. Learning to play (anticipate) the second ball is something most teams do better. We need to work on that. 

  7. Kent James, June 8, 2021 at 1 p.m.

    Wooden, I agree; playing to Sargent with him playing to either Pulisic or Reyna is a good scenario.  Or shorter to McKinnie (if he's there) to Dest or whoever is on the other side are also good.  But mixing it up is Vital.

  8. Ben Myers, June 8, 2021 at 2:22 p.m.

    Overall, the USMNT did pretty well, but Mexico exposed our defense too easily.  The USMNT scored zero goals from the run of play, something that needs attention.  Brooks looked fine leading the back line, but I have to question Ream's age/speed/quickness and McKenzie's relatively naive play.  Ream does bring national team experience to the party.  Maybe US-Mexico will be a wakeup call for McKenzie.

  9. James Madison, June 8, 2021 at 2:53 p.m.

    Agree with James's  observation about Steffen.  My heart climbed into my throat every time he put the ball to sleep at his feet. It seemed almost certain something bad would happen.

    And I have written friends that Mr. Pitti deserved to be named "man of the match."  Great job in an unusually difficult situation.

  10. Wallace Wade, June 8, 2021 at 4:39 p.m.

    The AR you speak about missed at least 2 offsides against the Mexican Team

  11. R2 Dad replied, June 8, 2021 at 5:39 p.m.

    These days, WW, it's hard to tell if the AR actually misses the call because they are instructed to keep their flag down, even for obvious calls. I don't agree with it, and this is as VAR has (d)evolved. 

  12. Frans Vischer, June 8, 2021 at 5:24 p.m.

    I agree with most of what you say, Kent. But playing out of the back has to come sooner or later. We have to develop defenders who are comfortable, want the ball at their feet, and are quick enough mentally. I feel for McKenzie, but he was far too relaxed, At the very beginning of any game you have to be pumped up and totally focused- same for the remaining 89 minutes, (or 119, as was the case here.)
    Same with Steffen- he created some dangerous situations for himself in previous games hanging on to the ball far too long. I like confidence in players, but a bit more focus is needed. 
    On the whole I am thrilled with the result, (i could hardly sleep Sunday night, way too wired,) but the team is still a work in progress.

  13. Kent James replied, June 9, 2021 at 12:43 a.m.

    Frans, I'm not against playing out of the back.  I agree we should do that most of the time (85-90%?), but we should always consider the risk, and play as safely as possible (at least when the last man has the ball and a mistake will lead to a 1 v 1 with the keeper).  The advantage of playing out of the back (in addition to being more likely to keep possession) is that if they are sending players to aggressively challenge our backs (as Mexico did), they must be leaving some less defended areas further up the field, and I think we should do our best to get the ball there as quickly as possible.  There may also be some confidence building if we successfully play out of the back (but that's harder to measure), but currently our play out of the back makes me nervous more than it should!

  14. Mark Landefeld, June 9, 2021 at 1:25 a.m.

    Let GB have his backs play out of the back for now.  We're still in the "honeymoon" period of his tenure, so let him demand it now, and bring the variety in later, once opponents are so certain of this habit as to over commit numbers and then we can better exploit Route 1.

  15. Carlos Rocha, June 9, 2021 at 11:38 a.m.

    Really? It's been almost 30 freaking years since the U.S. began this quest of trying to be the powerhouse in WORLD football. 30 years!!
    While with all it's great resources and "ambition" ☺ I thought the USMNT would of won 2 World Cups by now. No in fact they boast how they beat Mexico in a crappy tournament again. Set your priorities straight U.S..

  16. R2 Dad replied, June 9, 2021 at 12:35 p.m.

    Frustrating, right? The goal is a WC semifinal, and 2002 has been the closest we've gotten. Turns out Money+time+ambition is NOT all it takes for the US to get there, as you have observed. If you've followed this site you'd know that setting our priorities straight is an easy thing to proclaim but very difficult to do as those in power cannot agree what exactly that means. It means different things to different segments of the soccer community. The only building block people seem to agree on is "love the ball, love the game". Consensus beyond that has been difficult without an integrated club environment, among many, many other things. 

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