By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 14, 2023) US Soccer Players – When the USMNT defeated Mexico in the 2021 Nations League final, it felt like the beginning of something new. That Nations League was Concacaf’s first effort with the format, structured not only to crown a regional champion via something other than the short-form, biennial Gold Cup but to give smaller nations across North America a chance to play more competitive matches. The upshot in that first edition was a matchup between the United States and Mexico with a trophy on the line.
The USMNT at the time was in its second full year under head coach Gregg Berhalter, a man with a specific idea of how a talented group of American players should leverage those talents on the international stage. Mexico was still Mexico. A mix of savvy, accomplished veterans and bright younger talent, El Tri under Gerardo “Tata” Martino had the look of a side putting off an inevitable changing of the guard but with the luxury of knowing it was still good enough to win in its region.
The Americans prevailed 3-2 over 120 minutes in Denver, with three of its most exciting present and future stars, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, and Christian Pulisic, scoring goals. The match had a little bit of everything, including a hometown hero performance by goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, who replaced the injured Zack Steffen and saved a penalty kick to preserve the American lead in the final minutes of extra time.
Among the notable elements of this second Nations League clash between Concacaf’s two top powers is the change in the US team. Of the eleven players who started against Mexico in Denver in June of 2021, four are part of interim head coach BJ Callaghan’s group, Reyna, McKennie, Pulisic, and Sergino Dest. Of the six players who came off the bench for the United States, Tim Weah is back to help the Americans defend their title. As is almost always the situation, injuries are part of that. For the available players, now is about facing Mexico a round earlier.
In 2021, the Americans won a tense 1-0 match against Honduras in a semifinal to reach the championship game against El Tri. In 2023, Mexico’s lackluster performance in the group stage means the showdown with the United States comes a round earlier.
That fact is unlikely to draw down the tension. Here’s what happened in the interim. A Gold Cup final in 2021 won by the USMNT, a pair of World Cup qualifiers with the USMNT winning at home and drawing away, and a friendly draw in April, giving the USMNT a five-match run without a Mexico victory. Despite the trophy not being on the line on Thursday, every USA versus Mexico match feels like a battle for regional supremacy.
Pulisic arrives for the Nations League off a Premier League season with Chelsea and leading the USMNT offense at the World Cup. His assist for Tim Weah in the opening game against Wales helped the USA start the tournament with an important point in a difficult group. He earned a Man of the Match award for his performance in a goalless draw against England in the second group stage match. Then, his goal against Iran in the group finale broke a deadlock, advancing the United States into the knockout stages. The chances are good he’ll be centerstage again with advancement to the Nations League final on the line.
The same is true of Reyna, the then 19-year-old who pounced on a loose ball to score the first US goal, then provided the corner kick that resulted in McKennie’s 82nd-minute equalizer in the 2021 final against Mexico.
Reyna returns to the Nations League finals fresh from his fourth season with Borussia Dortmund in Germany. Reyna scored seven goals across in league competition for Dortmund and helped push the club to the final day of the season with a chance to win the league title.
Though his club came up short of the championship, finishing second to Bayern Munich, Reyna played a critical role in the campaign. He can build off the second half of 2022-23, when he was injury-free and scoring goals, going into next season in the Bundesliga.
Back in 2021, McKennie’s 82nd-minute goal from Reyna’s freekick brought the game level and forced the extra time to decide a winner. The midfielder went all 120-plus minutes of that match and played a hugely influential role in both the offensive and defensive aspects of the game.
At the time of that 2021 final, McKennie was coming off of his first season with Juventus following a move the previous summer from Schalke. Two years later, McKennie returns to the USMNT after his first season in the English Premier League with Leeds United.
Dest played 60 minutes of the 2021 Nations League final before giving way to Weah. Both solidified their places in the national team setup in the intervening years ahead of this year’s final with each player started every match of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Callaghan, who was on Gregg Berhalter’s staff in 2021, can lean on that experience going into the semifinal against Mexico.
Several players who didn’t see the field in Denver have since played in important matches for the USMNT between Concacaf World Cup qualifying and the World Cup finals at the end of 2022. The look of the team two years after that first Nations League triumph is marked by the journey of the players who return to try to beat Mexico again. For the players who were on the field in Denver in 2021, what they face against the USMNT’s biggest rival in the Nations League will be nothing new.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
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Photo by John Dorton – ISIPhotos.com