It’s never fun to lose to Mexico if you’re an American soccer fan. It’s doubly painful when it’s in the Gold Cup final, on American soil, as was the case Sunday night, when a 74th-minute golazo by Jonathan Dos Santos gave Mexico their eighth Gold Cup win—and fourth over the United States in a final—by the score of 1-0.
Painful though it may be, this isn’t a world-ending defeat for the USMNT, even as the bragging rights will reside south of the border for at least the next two years. It’s important to see this run to the final of the Gold Cup as the start of a new era, rather than a continuation of the one that led to the ignominious absence of the team at the 2018 World Cup.
The 2019 Gold Cup was the first tournament under new manager Gregg Berhalter. In the push to the final, the team showed a brighter future than what immediately preceded it, albeit with some lingering question marks. The main one is what to do about a dark reality: the pool of USMNT top level players is strikingly barren right now, at least when it comes to established talent.
Berhalter was criticized for his substitutions during the tournament and especially in the final, but he was handicapped by one of the weaker sets of players to choose from in recent memory. Part of that is that there is still an old generation of players hanging on, players who would have, in an ideal world, been phased out of the team by now. Michael Bradley is a perfect example of this: there’s no reason he should still be the starting defensive midfielder for the USMNT, except that there really isn’t anyone ready to replace him.
RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams is the logical choice, but he missed the tournament through a last-minute injury. Aside from Adams—who, to be clear, is already an extremely good player and has a potential ceiling that rivals that of Christian Pulisic’s—the other defensive midfielders for the U.S. at the tournament were Cristian Roldan and Wil Trapp, both unremarkable players who wouldn’t have been clear upgrades over Bradley.
The other problem for the U.S. is that they still have paltry few creators and scorers. Pulisic is wonderful, and plays even better for the national team than he did at Borussia Dortmund. But he can’t do it all himself, even as he’s often forced into trying to. More redolent of the U.S.’s true level of attacking prowess than Pulisic’s silky assuredness in the final third was this game-changer-that-wasn’t by Jozy Altidore:
That’s not to mention the continued reliance on Gyasi Zardes, who was at his Gyasi Zardes-y worst during the tournament. Some fans wanted Berhalter to call up Werder Bremen striker Josh Sargent for the tournament, but reports claim that Sargent was not fully fit and did not want to return to his club in less than perfect shape. Fair enough; the Gold Cup is not nearly as important as continuing development for a 19-year-old, and having him continue to improve will be key for when the U.S. begins qualifying for the 2022 World Cup next March.
And he should be there for those matches, as should Adams, right back Reggie Cannon (if there was a revelation this tournament, it was him), Schalke’s Weston McKennie, and Tyler Boyd. Really, the best plan for Berhalter going forward is to incorporate more of the country’s impressive reserves of young talent (the American lads had a hell of a U-20 World Cup) onto the team now, so that they’ll be ready for the games that really matter in World Cup qualifying and beyond. A team centered around Adams cleaning up in the middle, Pulisic creating, and Sargent popping in the goals up top should easily qualify for the World Cup, particularly as all three continue to get high-end club experience.
The USMNT is in a weird spot right now, not really having an identity or a surplus of fully realized talent, but with a promising enough core of young guys that should make qualifying for the next World Cup a cinch—especially if any of those aforementioned players make a leap into another tier of excellence. In a Gold Cup where everyone struggled (Mexico went to penalties against Costa Rica and barely saw off Haiti in extra time, for example), the U.S. looked if not the best team, then at least one that knew what they came to do tactically. They just didn’t have the pure talent to win out. (Note that Mexico’s only goal on Sunday wasn’t from a great team play or a defensive lapse from the U.S. Instead, it was just a wonderful strike from a midfielder, something you have to look at and shrug your shoulders in defeat.)
Moral victories aren’t worth much, though, and the real work begins now. Berhalter was a risky choice for manager after the most disappointing period in the USMNT’s history. How he adapts his team and begins to filter out the previous generation in favor of exciting, if imperfect, prospects will define his tenure. Anything less than qualifying for the 2022 World Cup and a repeat of run to the final at the 2021 Gold Cup will be seen as evidence that he was the wrong man for the job. If he achieves both of those things will bringing in the future stars of the USMNT, though? Well, then there might just be something to build on from this latest defeat to Mexico.