It’s been a long few years. The fateful October 2017 night in Trinidad stands out, when the United States men’s national team was officially eliminated from the World Cup for the first time since we started caring to field a competitive national team, but there have been plenty of other lows.
A couple of them have come against Mexico, from the Gold Cup final two summers ago to one of the worst collective USMNT performances ever a few months after that.
The losses sting more because it was Mexico, because it was the USMNT’s chief rival in the region. Games against El Tri are hard to win, and they mean more. Even when they don’t mean anything.
That was pretty much the case for the CONCACAF Nations League final. What, exactly, was at stake this tournament? World Cup qualifying and Gold Cup positioning, both of which the USMNT and Mexico would’ve almost certainly gained anyway. It was hard to see how the competition would do much beyond further stratify the haves and have-nots in North and Central America and the Caribbean. Plus, this inaugural edition of it stretched all the way back to the fall of 2019 thanks to the pandemic.
So for as fierce as the rivalry is, you’d be excused for struggling to muster enthusiasm. Except the USMNT’s 3-2 comeback victory over Mexico in extra time was much more fun and compelling and bats*** than it had any right to be. And more importantly, fans of not only soccer but sports in general have been waiting for exhalations like this for a long time.
The pandemic scrambled every sports league across the planet — not that they were really that important in its context — and major events were either delayed, canceled outright or held in zombified fashion. Fans weren’t allowed at stadiums across the globe, either, draining whatever spectacle and energy the grim reality of the situation hadn’t already eradicated.
As fans have slowly resumed packing stadiums, the returns have been partly concerning but broadly well-received. That neatly coordinates with Sunday’s crucible, with some idiots acting dangerously but most of them gassing up a game that was thrilling enough on its own merit.
Everyone was tweeting about it. Everyone was lauding it. Everyone was getting mad about it.
Mexico scores a minute into the game? Same old USMNT.
Weston McKennie equalizes late in regular time? That’s new.
Was this a penalty that Christian Pulisic drew against Mexico? Ehhh.
Did backup keeper Ethan Horvath really save Mexico’s own penalty shortly after? Yes!
How was Hector Herrera not shown a red card multiple times? Don’t get us started.
The tension was elevated as ever, even if the stakes were not. Both nations realized what kind of opportunity it was, and that’s one of the few credits to the Nations League. If CONCACAF and soccer’s other governing bodies are going to continue to shamelessly cash-grab, might as well set things up so its best national teams have the chance to square off more often.
That’s how the USMNT and Mexico treated this game. In a vacuum, neither side had its first-choice lineup out there, but they were close. Besides, international soccer doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It’s all about how your program can pick up and put down shifting rosters and tactics during an already-packed calendar at the club level. Starting your best XI in any given match is a privilege, not an ordained right.
So both the teams and the fans lent the game weight. How much weight will it carry going forward?
That’s perhaps the most important question. For one night, it was a big thing on people’s radars. It can become a bigger thing if it serves a springboard for this generation of American men’s soccer players, which has been dubbed “golden” for deserved reasons.
This is the first time this group — which on Sunday included a Champions League winner, a Premier League winner, a Ligue 1 winner, and key cogs at scores of big clubs across Europe — came together to win something at the international level. Fans hope it won’t be the last, with this group hoping to qualify for the World Cup in 2022 before hosting the event (along with Mexico and Canada) in 2026.
There will be other opportunities to win trophies in the interim. This triumph over Mexico, the first in a so-called “competitive” match in nearly eight years, can become iconic in U.S. soccer lore if the USMNT wants it to be.
Don’t undersell that desire. It’s what made Sunday so special, when it had plenty of reasons not to be. We didn’t need to attach import. We just decided to.
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