As the United States men's soccer team closed out a 3-1 victory over Jamaica in a Gold Cup semifinal in rain-soaked Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday night, chants of "We want Mexico! We want Mexico!" rose from the crowd.
When it was over, American midfielder Weston McKennie said, "Fans want Mexico, I want Mexico and the team wants Mexico."
Mexico is who they will get tonight, in a sold-out final at Soldier Field in Chicago. The U.S. fans will most likely be heavily outnumbered by those rooting for Mexico, as they usually are when these two teams play in this country's major urban areas.
"Be careful what you wish for," Fox announcer John Strong said during the dying minutes of the game against Jamaica.
The last time Mexico and the U.S. met in a Gold Cup final was in 2011. The United States took a 2-0 lead before Mexico blasted them with four consecutive goals. Coach Bob Bradley was fired shortly afterward. More recently, at the start of the final World Cup qualifying tournament in 2016, Mexico grabbed a 2-1 victory in Columbus, Ohio. A week later, after a 4-0 trouncing from Costa Rica, Jurgen Klinsmann, Bradley's successor, was fired.
Be careful, indeed.
The Americans head into this match after an uneven couple of weeks. After exhibition-match losses against Jamaica and Venezuela, the United States routed Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. In the Gold Cup quarterfinals, the U.S. beat Curacao, 1-0, but were outplayed for much of the game by a group from an island nation with fewer people than live in Fort Collins, Colo. (To be fair, many of Curacao's players were born and raised in the Netherlands.)
But the Gold Cup is mostly important to the United States as a meaningful opportunity to get 23 players together for a month and build toward a World Cup qualifying campaign. By that measure, this Gold Cup has been a rip-roaring success.
A team that seemed lost since its failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and that existed without a permanent coach for a year now has a clear path forward. During the past month, the United States has become a team that belongs to Christian Pulisic and McKennie, who combined to score all four American goals in the two knockout-round games. This team will most likely only be as good as those players can make it.
To defeat El Tri, as the Mexican team is known, Pulisic and McKennie will need some help from teammates new and old. Zack Steffen looks like the next up in a long line of outstanding American goalkeepers, Michael Bradley remains a vital (if inconsistent and slowing) deep-lying playmaker, and Jozy Altidore is still the only American striker who can reliably connect the midfield and the attack.
Competitive games against Mexico will remain the crucible that most regularly tests the United States, but the ultimate goal today isn't only to beat a Mexico team that has looked underwhelming. The Mexicans needed extra time to defeat both Costa Rica and Haiti. Ultimately, the hope for the American team is that matches like this one will be imbued with less meaning as the U.S. looks to measure itself against European and South American competition, too.
No matter what happens today in Chicago, the game will not be the most important U.S. national team match of the day. Ten hours before the men kick off against Mexico, the U.S. women's team will play the Netherlands in the final of the Women's World Cup. It is an odd bit of scheduling that also serves to highlight the difference in relative standing between the two teams.
If Pulisic and McKennie can lead the United States to its first competitive victory over Mexico since 2013, perhaps today will be looked back at as the day the men began their latest climb out of the shadow and embarked on a march toward a higher level of the game.
At a glance
CONCACAF GOLD CUP FINAL
MEXICO VS. UNITED STATES
WHEN 8 p.m. Central today
WHERE Soldier Field, Chicago
Sports on 07/07/2019
Print Headline: U.S. men have a big game, too