Did the United States hand Mexico the Gold Cup in December?
Background photo: Diego Bam, CC BY-SA 4.0
After a 14-month search, the USSF hired Gregg Berhalter as manager. Federation president Carlos Cordeiro branded the former Columbus Crew boss, a coach without a single trophy on his CV, as the man to give the USMNT a “truly American identity”. In the sense that the United States has long been a force for mediocrity in the beautiful game, it was a consistent hire.
In Berhalter’s first six matches in charge, the squad began brightly and descended from there. If three, two, then one-nil victories left Sam’s Army with the feeling it was witnessing an auto-destruct sequence, the subsequent one-goal draw with Chile, 0-1 defeat to Jamaica and the final 0-3 embarrassment at Venezuela's hands should have made them explode at the thought this man stands to inherit players such as Tim Weah, the prodigy of a Ballon d’Or winner, who took the USMNT youngsters to the World Cup quarterfinals this past month.
After all, the future could have been so much brighter. While USMNT general manager Earnie Stewart was looking behind every curtain and turning over every rock seeking out a coach with a bland, inoffensive personality whose team was in sixth place and who would answer questions about the loss to the Reggae Boyz by suggesting he was satisfied that “the guys tried” and “gave a decent effort”, Gerardo Martino was blazing a new trail in Major League Soccer.
The franchise the Argentine built from scratch, Atlanta United was dominating the league with an exciting brand of attacking football. A slight hiccup at the regular season’s conclusion cost them the Supporters Shield for best record heading into the playoffs but they soon made up for that, storming to the MLS Cup Final and dismantling Portland Timbers to become league champions in just their second year of existence.
The squad did so in the knowledge their manager would leave when the campaign ended. Shortly after he departed, rumours were confirmed. He had taken up the vacant post with the Mexican national team, the United States' arch-rival. Before leaving, however, Tata told inquisitive reporters that neither Stewart nor anyone else from the USSF had contacted him regarding his possible interest in the US job.
How a search conducted for more than a year failed to consider a manager leading the best team in the country to a title and heartily endorsed a man who barely squeezed into the post-season is a mystery until you take cultural factors into account.
🇲🇽 3-1 🇨🇱
🇲🇽 4-2 🇵🇾
🇲🇽 3-1 🇻🇪
Despite missing so many of their best players, good comeback win against a decent #Venezuela side.
#MEXVEN #ElTri https://t.co/Of7aJLkwvd
As noted, Martino is Argentine. The USSF has appointed foreign managers in the past, including Bora Milutinovic and Jurgen Klinsmann. It’s also elected Sunil Gulati and Carlos Cordeiro to its presidency and placed Stewart, a former player of mixed race whose father was an African-American, in charge of the national team’s affairs. What it has scrupulously avoided in 38 hirings is to acknowledge the strong contingent of Latino supporters in the country. No USMNT manager has ever been of Latino or Hispanic descent.
While Berhalter finds the going to be progressively tougher with his young, inexperienced USMNT squad, Tata is working wonders with El Tri. There is no self-destruct countdown south of the border.
The fun began at La Azteca in March with Chile the victims. Wolves’ star Raul Jimenez opened the scoring in a 3-1 victory, from the spot, seven minutes into the second half. Real Sociedad’s Hector Moreno and PSV Eindhoven’s Hirving Lozano piled on just after the hour-mark.
Four days later, Tata’s squad had a distinctly more North American flavour as it romped over Paraguay, 4-2. LA Galaxy star Jonathan dos Santos and Club Leon man Luis Montes bookended the scoring, with Paraguay’s Gustavo Gomez contributing an own goal early on and West Ham’s Chicharito Hernandez joining the fun on 24 minutes. Martino’s former playmaker with Atlanta, Miguel Almiron, now with Newcastle United, had himself sent off on 63 minutes to avoid further humiliation.
Last week, three new faces attended the golapalooza under Tata as it took to the road for the first time. Atlanta welcomed their former boss back for a friendly against Venezuela. Cruz Azul’s Roberto Alvarado, Monterrey’s Rodolfo Pizarro and Real Betis’ Andres Guardado struck in another 3-1 win. Guardado captains the Mexican side. Another former player with Atlanta United, Josef Martinez, came on to replace Salomon Rondon at half-time but couldn’t make inroads for La Vinotinto.
Given Chicharito, Carlos Vela and Hector Herrera all begged off international duty for the tournament, opponents might be optimistic. The West Ham star wanted to be with his partner, who is expecting their first child. Vela, 30, felt it was better to call time on his international career for the moment and focus on LAFC’s strong beginning to the MLS campaign. The Wings are nine points above the nearest competitor in either conference. Herrera needed to pay attention to a pending move to Atletico Madrid. None of those reasons say much for the Gold Cup's status but Martino isn't naive. He knows those players will make themselves available for World Cup qualification.
On the other hand, the gaffer left Porto’s Jesus Corona out of the squad for a different kind of personal reason. The player skipped Tata's first training sessions in charge and the manager wasn't pleased. That said, the fact goals are coming from everyone who does show up ought to dampen any hopeful spirits.
There was a huge roar from the Atlanta crowd when El Principito came off the bench, and only 8 minutes later he drills a shot into the bottom corner to make it 3-1. Great response by #Mexico after conceding first.
#MEXVEN #ElTri 🇲🇽 https://t.co/lzR7T4RWTq
While Berhalter tinkers with his lineup to find something that works only for his players to become more confused with each outing, Martino introduces new players who all respond positively to his system. Nine different players found goal for El Tri over the three matches. In his fourth outing, a 3-2 win over Ecuador, Luis Alfonso Rodrigues made it an even ten while Luis Montes and Jonathan dos Santos added to their accounts.
There must be concerns that Mexico conceded six goals in those four games but CONCACAF is a top-heavy confederation and no Conmebol side is an easy win. Beyond the United States, only Costa Rica can hope to match El Tri and that is just on their best day. Martino surely wants to tighten up at the back but should have every confidence his squad can control matches by keeping opponents busy in their own end.
The Yanks always get up for games against Mexico. With the Gold Cup playing out on American soil, there’s no worry about the Azteca fortress. If the US can find some defensive cohesion, they might nick a seventh continental crown to match their rivals, albeit one fueled by derby adrenaline more than match preparedness. Yet, Berhalter’s squad isn’t inspiring any confidence that they’ll reach the final.
This tournament is Mexico’s to lose but it needn’t have been so. The United States had the inside track on Tata Martino but never bothered to come out of the blocks.