CHICAGO — There was shock, maybe a bit of denial, and obviously all the anger and despair when the U.S. national team sunk to its lowest moment 20 months ago in Trinidad. The Americans would miss the World Cup. The sky was falling.
Defender Tim Ream was there that night in Couva, and he remembers all of that and more—an apprehension of what might or might not be next.
“It just felt like we might not have any direction. We didn’t know where we were going to go,” he said.
More than a year of limbo followed, meandering and then leading to Sunday night here at Soldier Field, where once again the USA suffered a dispiriting defeat. This time, the stakes weren’t as high as World Cup qualification. But it was a Gold Cup final. A trophy and title were on the line, and it was against archival Mexico, who brought their usual majority of fans. It felt like a big occasion–it was a big occasion–and the U.S. started strongly and probably should’ve taken an early lead. But momentum turned after halftime and the Americans ultimately fell short, 1-0, on a goal by LA Galaxy star Jonathan dos Santos.
Disappointment, sure. But this was a “completely different feeling,” said Ream, who put in another good shift at left back against El Tri, despite typically playing center back with his club.
“Now, I think everybody would say that there are very distinct roles. There’s a system. There’s a way that we want to play and want to go about things and there's a culture within the team,” he told SI.com following the final. “The way we’ve grown together over the last six weeks, is something that we’re going to take forward.”
It’s not a trophy or a title. But it’s more than this national team was able to rely on for a while, and it’ll be necessary for any long-term progress to be made. The rebirth has to start somewhere. So let it begin there—the U.S. players seem to want to be in camp, seem to like each other and seem to know what’s expected of them. You can’t put that in a trophy case, but you can’t win trophies without it. This Gold Cup wasn’t as successful as it could’ve been. But it was hardly a failure, and it provided a couple of obvious object lessons on which the team can build.
“I think what we lacked was some of the calmness, some of the composure,” coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We knew it was going to be a big event. We knew it was going to be a semi-hostile crowd, and I think that what I’d say is the calmness was what we lacked. And Mexico certainly had it.
“But overall, proud of the guys, proud of the development this month,” he continued. “We did make strides as a group. The group became much closer. I think the general understanding of our game model was much better over the course of this month, so in one sense we did make progress.”
The “calmness” exhibited by Mexico, not to mention the game-breaking skill displayed by Dos Santos and energetic winger Rodolfo Pizarro, was evidence of the disparity in quality between the two sides. There are things under Berhalter’s control and things he can’t do anything about. The difference in depth between the USA and Mexico is one of them. El Tri won its eighth Gold Cup without many of its most recognizable names. Javier Hernández, Carlos Vela, Héctor Herrera, Hirving Lozano, Diego Lainez, Jesús Corona and Miguel Layún all missed this tournament for one reason or another. Meanwhile, Berhalter’s substitutes Sunday were Cristian Roldan, Gyasi Zardes and Daniel Lovitz.
Over the course of the 90 minutes, especially after the USA missed its early chances, the better team bent the match to its will. But in that swing of momentum, and in that failure to take advantage of its own opportunities, there are takeaways that can make Berhalter’s team better in the long run. That’s what he was hired to do.
“I think the guys will learn a lot from this game,” the manager said. “There’s a lot of guys playing in their first game like this. For us, the whole month the focus was on that we need to make progress, and when I look back it at it and evaluate it, I think we did make progress. This experience will help us moving forward.”
In addition to working on mastering Berhalter’s system, which is both more detailed and consistent than anything the USA has had in years, the coach and the veterans worked on laying a foundation that would make the national team something players wanted to be part of again, while introducing some of the younger men to leadership roles. There were four friendlies earlier this year, but this was five-to-six weeks together, every day, traveling in a tournament environment. It was a first, priceless opportunity to refresh the national team. Weston McKennie captained the squad Sunday, for example, and Christian Pulisic and Zack Steffen wore the armband earlier in the Gold Cup. Neither McKennie nor Pulisic had his best game against Mexico. McKennie often looked confused or overrun in midfield, while Pulisic missed an early chance and struggled at times to find the ball (even though he was dangerous when he had it).
None of that erases the work that’s been done, Michael Bradley said.
“That was there regardless,” he told SI.com. “We all feel good about that. We feel good about the work. We feel good about what is being [built], the environment every day. We feel good about the direction everything’s going. That part has been there, and that part will continue to be there.
“But obviously along the way, there’s big games and there’s big moments and you know when some of this doesn’t go your way then sure, there’s frustration and disappointment. But it doesn’t change the feeling of the group in that regard," he added.
The Concacaf Nations League is up next (Berhalter has said he liked the new competition because any stakes are an improvement upon friendlies), and then qualifying for World Cup 2022 will kick off some time down the road. Now, despite the disappointment of Sunday, that road can actually be mapped out.
“I think there’s been a step forward. Look at the final here today, and how we started the game. I think it was terrific,” Jozy Altidore said. “I’ve been on this team a long time, and to see that initiative and see the guys eager to play forward and play out of pressure and keep the ball in a game like this, this is progress in my opinion.
“That’s how you improve, and hopefully we can continue on this road,” he continued. “I think Gregg did a good job trying to implement that during this six weeks.”
Added Berhalter: “[Mexico] definitely have an experienced team. But we have a quality team and we believe in a lot of the young players. We think that at the end of the day, we need to gain experience. So a game like this is perfect for us. It’s a big occasion ... And we need to learn. We weren’t ready for the step tonight, but we will be ready.”