CHICAGO — Sunday was a huge day for U.S. Soccer, but the juxtaposition of the women winning the World Cup and the men losing the Gold Cup final just hours later showed the massive difference between the two teams.
The difference is not just in quality, but in what they are hoping for at this time. The women entered the World Cup in win-or-bust mode, while the men are left trying to spin a loss to Mexico on home soil into positive growth. The women captivated the nation. The men couldn’t even come close to a 50-50 split among fans, with supports of El Tri showing up in force at soldout Soldier Field.
The men are looking for positive growth and signs of hope just within their own region, forget making any noise on the world stage at this point. Fans looking to replicate, to some extent, the excitement of the women’s success were hit by the harsh reality that the men’s team simply isn’t in win-now mode. It’s still a rebuilding project with a young team.
“Overall, I’m proud of the guys, I’m proud of the development this month,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said after the conclusion of his first competitive tournament in charge. “We did make strides as a group. The group became much closer. I think the general understanding of our game model is much better over the course of this month. So in one sense we did make progress.”
After giving up one goal en route to the final, the positive signs were there. Even Mexico labored with a penalty shootout win against Costa Rica in the quarterfinals and needed extra time to get past Haiti in the semifinals. However, during the USMNT’s loss to Mexico, the need for further improvement was evident.
Perhaps if the U.S. had converted quality chances early, or if Jordan Morris’ free header early in the second half doesn’t get blocked off the line, the narrative changes. Reality is the Americans didn’t convert when they had chances. Then Mexico made adjustments and took over the game.
“We got a young team and I think there’s moments of growth there,” forward Jozy Altidore said. “I think you can look at that 10-15 minute period when we kind of lost the game a bit. We’re trying to play out of the back and stick to our guns, but maybe it was a time to get up the field and get in their half and change that momentum a bit. It happens. It’s a learning experience, but at the same time we had our chances in the game. We had a lot of run of play, so we have to be proud of that and build on that.”
It’s natural for players to try to put a positive spin on things after a loss. However, their tone showed the team’s goals are more about building, growing and improving than winning at this point.
Experience was a big thing for this U.S. team, as in it didn’t have much entering the tournament. The Gold Cup represented the first competitive caps for 12 of the 23 players on the roster. Another four had never faced Mexico in a competitive match. Seven of the starters on Sunday were 24 years old or younger.
“We believe in a lot of the young players and we think that at the end of the day, we need to gain experience, so a game like this is perfect for us,” Berhalter said. “It was a big occasion. It was a lot of the players’ first time playing in a game like this and we need to learn. We weren’t ready for this step tonight, but we will be ready.”
Berhalter believes that the experience will help his team moving forward. Still, any progress in terms of the learning experience is muted in the moment by the fact that the U.S. came up short against its southern neighbors in a final.
“I think we made good progress,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “Any time you get an extended period of time together, you use it in the best possible way. I felt we did that. In the moment, it’s difficult to talk about some of that because there’s just the raw frustration and the raw disappointment of losing a final.”