CHICAGO — Sunday’s Gold Cup final against Mexico is a great opportunity to see where the United States stacks up against the best team in the region, according to Gregg Berhalter.
The longtime rivals are set to square off in the Gold Cup final for the first time since 2011, when Mexico prevailed 4-2 at the Rose Bowl. This time, Berhalter’s young squad will be attempting to make statement that it is still a force in the region.
“When you know you’re playing in a stadium like this, with a crowd like what we’re going to have [Sunday], that’s motivation enough,” he said.
“Having said that, we know there’s a rivalry. We have a lot of respect for Mexico, we see them as a leader in our region, and it’s a great opportunity to see where we can stack up. We know these games are tense, we know these games are heated, and it’s a good experience for our group.”
The U.S. has shown impressive balance during the tournament, conceding just once while scoring 15 goals among seven different players. Mexico has scored the same number of goals, and with Raul Jimenez leading the El Tri attack, and can expect to have the majority of the possession in the match. Berhalter added that the U.S. has seen every Mexico game since manager Tata Martino took over, and is prepared even if Mexico has more of the ball.
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“We know Mexico poses different challenges than other teams,” Berhalter said. “We know they’re technically very good. We also think that there’s going to be stages where we need to keep [the] ball.
“There’s two sides to it. One is maintaining possession, and other is disorganizing the opponent with the ball. I still think we’ll be able to do that even if we don’t have the majority of the possession.”
While Sunday’s meeting at Soldier Field will be the first time Berhalter has squared off against Mexico as a coach, he has done so as a player, including the memorable round-of-16 match at the 2002 World Cup in which the U.S. prevailed 2-0.
“One thing I can tell you about the game in 2002, it was the type of game where every play mattered. You couldn’t take one single play in that game off,” he said. “That’s the intensity of rivalries like this and the magnitude of a World Cup knockout game is where every little play is in the balance.”
Berhalter said that while the U.S. is keen to get off to a good start, he doesn’t think that will necessarily determine the outcome.
“I think you need a sustained effort over the course of the game,” he said. “You need good game management of the team. You need to perform well over the course of the 90 minutes or 120 minutes.”
Much of the U.S. team’s success will depend on how effectively it can find Christian Pulisic in dangerous positions. So far, the U.S. has done that, with Pulisic scoring three goals and adding three assists in a hybrid attacking midfielder role.
“I think the most important thing that we focused on was giving Christian flexibility, putting him in positions where he could affect the game in a number of different ways,” Berhalter said.
“We wanted to play him central but also get him wide. When you think about him being central, arriving in the penalty box, the two goals that resulted in him being in good positions to be able to finish off plays that end up in front of goal. When you think about the assists he’s had, they’ve come in wide areas, notably against Curacao. So with Christian, we know he’s a top talent, and we want to get him in positions to affect the game.”
Pulisic said he and his teammates are ready for the challenge Mexico will present.
“They’re a tough opponent,” he said about Mexico prior to Saturday’s training session. “It’s a rivalry of ours. I think it’s going to give us a lot of challenges. We’re up for it and we’re ready to compete.”
Pulisic, who is set to join up with new club Chelsea just days after Sunday’s match, was part of a cup final-winning side with Borussia Dortmund in 2017. Pulisic is viewing this encounter differently.
“It’s the first one with the national team, so it’s a whole different thing, against a big [rival] of ours, so I think that’s going to add even more to it.”
Pulisic said he’s become more comfortable off the field as well.
“I’ve been here for over a month now with the team, just getting to know the guys more and more on a daily basis,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve made a lot of [progress] on the field as well, and I think we showed it last game even more. Now we need our best performance yet.”
Berhalter said he’s seen even more growth from Pulisic since he arrived in camp at the beginning of June.
“I think the most important thing with Christian is just when I think about this month for him, it’s been a lot of personal development, in terms of him blossoming with his personality within the group, his importance to the team on the field,” Berhalter said. “The skills haven’t changed from a month ago, but in terms of his role, what he’s comfortable with, how he’s embracing his role within the team and his role on and off the field, it’s been really nice to see. That goes along with some of the other younger guys the team. They stepped into this position of taking responsibility both on and off the field.”
Berhalter was largely complimentary of how CONCACAF has run the tournament, but he did criticize the confederation for failing to utilize VAR in the tournament.
“I think [VAR] is a necessity in today’s modern game,” he said. “I’m disappointed in that decision. I don’t think it’s a decision that is good for the game. Having said that, I think the referees have been fine. What I would only hope is that regardless of the crowd noise, regardless of the atmosphere, that the referee would still be able to perform in an unbiased way. I think that’s important.”
CONCACAF declined to directly respond to Berhalter, spokesman Alvaro Urrutia said, but the confederation did issue a statement explaining its position on video review.
“We are committed to bringing VAR into CONCACAF, as we have seen how successful it was at the 2018 FIFA World Cup,” the regional governing body said in a statement. “However, we will only introduce new technology when we are confident that it will improve the fan and player experience, while maintaining the integrity of the game. We are therefore growing the pool of referees that are properly trained to implement the technology and learning from the implementation of VAR in leagues and tournaments around the world so we can deliver VAR at a world-class level in future CONCACAF competitions.”
Martino and Berhalter squared off on several occasions when the two coaches were managing in MLS. Berhalter’s Columbus Crew knocked out Martino’s Atlanta United in the 2017 MLS Cup playoffs, but that didn’t diminish his regard for the Mexico manager.
“I really like [Martino] as a coach,” Berhalter said. “I think he’s first of all a very nice person, a very good person, but also the way his teams play, he’s very clear, very specific.
“He gets them to compete. There’s a very specific intensity level that he gets from his teams. I really like the offensive transition they put forth. I really like the defensive pressing that they do. There’s nice interchanging movements on the wings. They get three players on each wing that really creates problems for the opponent.
“So overall, I have a lot of respect for him.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.