Anything less than a 2019 Gold Cup final appearance Sunday could have been an indictment of United States men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter’s short tenure.
Now that the U.S. has officially secured its spot against Mexico in the final, it has a rare opportunity to win back-to-back Gold Cup titles in front of a soldout crowd at Soldier Field. Kickoff is at 9 p.m. ET and the match will air FS1 and Univision.
During the sixth tournament final matchup between the two countries who have dominated the Gold Cup, the U.S. is a slight underdog to Mexico.
“I considered Mexico, in the beginning of the tournament, to be the favorites for sure,” Berhalter said. “When you are going into a one-off game, anything can happen. We believe in our team.”
The last time these two teams met in the Gold Cup final, in 2011, Mexico took down the U.S. 4-2 despite an early goal from midfielder Michael Bradley.
“As an athlete, as a competitor, there is nothing better than playing in a final,” Bradley said. “When you add in the fact that it is a final against Mexico, our big rival — a rival where there is so much passion, history, respect — there is nothing better.”
The U.S. is coming off its most complete performance of the tournament, taking down Jamaica 3-1 in the semifinals while Mexico scraped together a 1-0 victory against Haiti, thanks to a 93rd minute penalty kick from Raúl Jiménez.
Throughout the tournament, players have slowly grown into Berhalter’s style of play. Midfielder Weston McKennie had his best performance in the semifinal and looked the most comfortable he has in Berhalter’s system.
“It has been a good learning experience playing the role that I like to play,” McKennie said after the Jamaica game. “When I first got in, I was a little fresh on the new system that we were playing, but [Berhalter] and the coaching staff, the players around me and the players that have been with him before definitely help me get back in and get comfortable in the system, and I think I am starting to get the hang of it.”
While both Berhalter and Mexican national team coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino are new to their positions, the two former Major League Soccer coaches have faced off against each other six times. Martino’s Atlanta United won out four of those times, while Berhalter’s Columbus Crew won a crucial penalty-kick shootout playoff game in 2017 thanks to the heroics of goalkeeper Zack Steffen. Steffen will once against take his place in net for Berhalter Sunday, but this time it will be for the U.S.
Other key players for the United States include a mix of veterans Bradley and Jozy Altidore, and young talent in Mckennie and Christian Pulisic. Bradley, Altidore and Pulisic were all part of the 2017 Gold Cup team that won the title.
“I think we have the players to hurt them. It is about executing on Sunday,” U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez said. “We are going to be prepared. That is the most important part.”
Both teams are missing some star power. For the U.S., midfielder Tyler Adams is the most noticeable absence. He pulled out of camp prior to the tournament due to injury. Without Adams, who Berhalter played as a converted right back, defenders Nick Lima and Reggie Cannon have quickly adopted the responsibility on the right side of the field.
Meanwhile, Mexico is missing Los Angeles Football Club forward Carlos Vela, who opted to stay with his club over joining El Tri in the Gold Cup, as well as Diego Lainez and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez.
For Mexico, the pressure is on to perform after an early exit from the 2018 World Cup, while the U.S. is looking to prove it is on the right path after failing to qualify for the World Cup. Despite the outside pressure, the Americans are focused on going out and playing in a new system under a new coach and ushering in a new era.
“There are two parts to this game, right. The first thing is we are focused on winning a Gold Cup, and Mexico is in our way of winning a Gold Cup,” Berhalter said. “If you are a player, if you are a coach, these are the games you want to play in.”
The timing of Sunday night’s Gold Cup final comes with FIFA scheduling controversy because it lands on the same day as the Women’s World Cup final, during which the U.S. women’s national team faces off against the Netherlands at 11 a.m. ET. While forward Megan Rapinoe called the schedule “unbelievable,” Berhalter sees Sunday as a special day for American soccer.
“I look at it differently,” Berhalter said. “This is an opportunity to be soccer day in America. You get to party for half the afternoon, then you get to take a nap then you get up and go to the game and enjoy the final of Gold Cup.”