In what is already being called one of the greatest matches in U.S. soccer history, the United States are Nations League champions after a Christian Pulisic penalty in the 115th minute and an Ethan Horvath penalty save long after the 120th capped a 3-2 U.S. victory.
Regular time was filled with the usual intensity of a championship match, with both teams matching each other’s energy while also trading goals. The U.S. started with a nightmare as a Mark McKenzie give away in the back gave Mexico the first goal in the second minute.
The U.S. did well to respond, as their organized defense with a new look five-man backline prevented too many future chances from Mexico. Despite the strong response, the backline was still shaky at times and dodged a bullet after a Mexico goal from a recycled corner kick was called back for offside by VAR in the 24th minute.
Moments after the goal was called back, the U.S. scored in the 27th minute when a Weston McKennie header from a Pulisic corner kick bounced off the post and into the path of Gio Reyna, who fired home the equalizer. While Reyna was in the right place at the right time, he did well to put a quality shot on goal in the top left corner.
While the Reyna goal helped stabilize the U.S., they did not generate any more meaningful chances in the first half. They showed they could string together strong passes, but they were not sharp on the dribble while attacking in the box. Mexico had the majority of possession throughout the rest of the half, but the U.S. continued to be well organized defensively to prevent any more quality chances.
The U.S. flipped the script in the second half, creating several chances and controlling the game well in the midfield. The tide reversed however when Mexico subbed on Diego Lainez, who quickly scored in the 79th minute to put his team in front for the second time in the match. The U.S. was also rocked by losing goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who had to be subbed off due to a knee injury in the 69th minute. Despite being a late addition to a highly competitive match, substitute Horvath did well to integrate himself, coming up with several great saves.
The U.S. rebounded yet again, with McKennie scoring just three minutes later. For the second time in the game, he found himself unmarked on a corner, striking his header hard enough that Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa could not keep the ball from crossing the line.
The rest of the game was testy, but no real chances were created by either side after the McKennie goal. Stoppage time was a bit chippy after Mexico’s Héctor Herrera got a yellow card for kicking Horvath, leading to a mass confrontation between the teams. Play was also temporarily stopped due to discriminatory chants in the stands.
In extra time, the script flipped again as Mexico was the more dominant side in the first half of bonus soccer. They controlled possession and created several promising chances, causing Horvath to come up big. The U.S. struggled to generate anything going forward and were benefited by the break in extra time.
The game really blew open in the second half of extra time, creating an incredible ending to what was already a phenomenal match. When people look back at the all-time U.S. vs Mexico games, they will have these fifteen minutes in the highlight reel. It started out simply enough with neither team creating many chances going forward. That changed when Pulisic made a run in behind the Mexican backline where he was cut down before getting a shot off just above the six-yard box. After initially waving play on, referee John Pitti went to VAR and awarded the Americans a penalty in the 115th minute. While looking at VAR, which was located between the two benches, Mexican head coach Gerardo Martino got a little too close to the referee, making contact while Pitti consulted the replay, resulting in a straight red card. After all the drama, Pulisic stepped up and buried the penalty in the top right corner. While Ochoa guessed the right way, Pulisic’s thundering strike was placed too well to be stopped.
Just when we thought we had seen in all, the referee went back to VAR after the 120th minute and awarded Mexico a penalty for a hand ball. Substitute Andres Guardado took the kick and was denied by Horvath, who made a huge save to his right-hand side. The Colorado native who was playing in front of friends and family said after the game that all three American keepers on the roster met with assistant coach Aaron Hyde before the match to review every player on Mexico and which way they might go on penalties. He said doing his homework helped prepare him for making that save.
After Horvath’s save, the match still had five minutes of stoppage time, which were marred by debris thrown from the stands and fans running on to the pitch. The U.S. did well to keep their cool and possession of the ball until the referee blew for full time, marking the end of an instant classic.
The U.S. team is relatively young, and there has been lots of speculation about how a new “golden generation” will handle the pressures of qualifying through Concacaf. The Americans showed they were capable of handling the pressure and much more through their performance both physically and mentally. It takes a lot to rebound from a second minute goal and a late game potential winner, but the U.S. showed they could regroup and keep their heads in the game. They also showed they could run with a talented Mexico side who was arguably the favorite going in.
Additionally, the team showed they like to win. The Americans were clearly thrilled celebrating on the field after the game. The momentum and enthusiasm that they earned through this game will help push them through World Cup qualifying.
Tactically, coach Gregg Berhalter surprised everyone when he came out with a five-man backline. The move paid off as his side was able to prevent Mexico from gaining too much momentum at any one time. While John Brooks was the only centerback who looked comfortable, the tactical approach was still the right one. The formation change also helped the midfield find the game better, something they struggled with against Honduras. The central pairing of McKennie and Kellyn Acosta was a marked improvement from the trio of McKennie, Sebastian Lleget, and Jackson Yueill who were frequently out of shape in the semifinal.
Next up for the U.S. is a friendly against Costa Rica on Wednesday in Salt Lake City. This final tune-up match will continue to simulate the cadence of World Cup qualifying. With so many games in a short amount of time, expect a heavy squad rotation. It will be interesting to see how the U.S. comes down from such an emotional high, but they should be favored against the Ticos.
I hope you enjoyed this game as much as I did. The thrill of this match should spur the U.S. forward to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, as the team showed they can beat anyone in the region. It is not often that we get games as fun as this one, so remember it and use it to be optimistic about the future. As Berhalter and Lleget said after the game, this is one of the best USA-Mexico games of all time.
The iconic photo at the top of the article was captured by Cristian De Marchena.