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The United States men’s national team is the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League champion after earning a 3-2 win in extra time over Mexico on Sunday in Denver.
Christian Pulisic scored the winner from the penalty spot in the 114th minute.
The referee initially waved play on and subsequently awarded the penalty after determining Carlos Salcedo had fouled Pulisic in the box. Mexico coach Tata Martino received a red card when he approached the referee during the review and put his arms around him.
The match had one more twist, though, as Mexico was also awarded a penalty in stoppage time. Ethan Horvath made a diving save to deny Andres Guardado, capping off an excellent performance from the shot-stopper after he replaced Zack Steffen in the 69th minute.
This is the USMNT’s first victory over its rival since September 2018. El Tri entered having won four of their six previous meetings.
Extra time followed a dramatic finish to regulation. Diego Lainez put Mexico ahead in the 79th minute, getting the ball on the right side of the 18-yard box before cutting inside with his left and beating Horvath with a low shot into the right corner.
Set pieces were a strength for the United States, and that was the source of an 82nd-minute equalizer by Weston McKennie.
Few supporters probably foresaw this outcome after how the two teams got the match underway.
A little more than one minute had come off the clock before Jesus Corona fired Mexico into a 1-0 lead. Corona intercepted a poorly delivered pass from Mark McKenzie, and his powerful effort left Steffen with little chance to make a save.
USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter provided a surprise when he started McKenzie, Tim Ream and John Brooks at center back. If Berhalter thought a three-man back line would bring more defensive solidity, then he was sorely mistaken.
In a matter of moments, Mexico shredded the U.S. defense.
More damning was the United States’ defending on a corner kick that resulted in a goal for Hector Moreno in the 24th minute. Moreno was deemed to be offside after a video review, but it was another glaring breakdown as he was left all alone in front of goal.
Having done little in the attacking third to that point, the United States responded nicely by capitalizing on a corner kick of its own. In the 27th minute, McKennie headed Pulisic’s delivery off the left post, and Gio Reyna was in the right place at the right time to hammer home the rebound.
It was the 18-year-old’s first goal for the national team in a competitive match, and it’s likely to be the first of many.
The USMNT was fortunate to go into halftime all square with Mexico since El Tri looked like the far stronger, more organized side. The second half was a slightly different story as Berhalter’s side grew into the match a little more.
McKennie forced Guillermo Ochoa to make a diving save off a corner in the 71st minute, and a go-ahead goal wasn’t inconceivable before Lainez gave Mexico its short-lived late lead.
While Berhalter has a promising young talent pool at his disposal, hiccups are inevitable with a squad that hasn’t spent much time together on the pitch.
After such a disastrous start, the USMNT could’ve unraveled and suffered a heavy defeat. Instead, the players fought their way back and provided a lot of optimism for supporters.
There are certainly things Berhalter will need to address looking ahead, but a victory like this provides an encouraging foundation.
Mexico and the United States will turn their focus toward the Gold Cup, which kicks off in July. Should both countries win their group, they could meet again in another final.