USMNT's Concacaf dominance over Mexico eases pressure ahead of Copa

Laurens: Adams & Reyna stepped up for USMNT in Nations League final (2:00)

Gab & Juls analyse the USMNT's 2-0 win over Mexico and discuss Jesse Marsch's comments about Gio Reyna. (2:00)

ARLINGTON, Texas -- These days, whenever the U.S. men's national team needs a pick-me-up, Mexico is there to give it exactly what it needs. In this case, it was a 2-0 win in the final of the 2024 Concacaf Nations League.

That's right, another "Dos a Cero" for the U.S. in this storied rivalry, the 11th such time the USMNT has prevailed by that score. The win also marked a third CNL crown, making the U.S. the only country to have won the competition in its brief six-year history.

As familiar as the triumph is, it's an outcome that seemed unlikely three days ago, when alarm bells were ringing around the USMNT. The U.S. barely escaped its semifinal against Jamaica, needing an own goal in second-half stoppage time to equalize before scoring twice more in extra time to seal a 3-1 win.

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Having survived and advanced, the U.S. found itself up against its longtime rival, who seemed to be riding some momentum after dispatching Panama 3-0 in the other semi. It's a matchup that historically has been fraught with tension, with each side wanting nothing more than to please its fans by getting the upper hand against its neighbor.

But of late, the U.S. has found mostly comfort. Heading into the game, the U.S. was unbeaten in its previous six matches against El Tri. This night proved to be no different. The U.S. looked more like itself against Mexico, defending superbly for most of the night, having the edge in possession and getting the goals at exactly the right time to push its unbeaten streak against its rival to a record seven matches.

"We wanted to maintain calm and play our football," U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said. "And credit to the guys because I think the intensity stayed at a really high level for the whole game and that was really important, especially against Mexico."

The first tally was a 29-yard banger just before halftime from midfielder Tyler Adams, who was on a 45-minute playing limit due to his recovery from a series of hamstring injuries that required multiple surgeries. It was just the second international goal for Adams, both of which have come against Mexico, and was as uplifting as it was unexpected.

"We thought it was about to go in the stands," defender Chris Richards quipped. "I was about to turn around, but I saw it in the back of the net, so we were lit."

Adams joked: "What about when [Richards] shoots?" He then added: "I try to put guys in situations like that, but when the ball came to me and I felt like I had time on the ball, it was a no-brainer. So I'm happy that one went in and I'll probably start shooting a little bit more now."

The second goal came in the 63rd minute from Gio Reyna, who pounced on a weak clearance to power his shot past Mexico goalkeeper Memo Ochoa. Combined with his two assists in the semifinal, Reyna deservedly won the player of the tournament award.

The goal -- and the award -- capped off a competition that has firmly cemented Reyna's role within the U.S. team. That isn't as easy or obvious as it might sound given all that he and Berhalter have been through in the past 15 months. There was the indirect disclosure by Berhalter about Reyna's poor behavior at the 2022 World Cup, which was followed by subsequent revelations by Reyna's parents about a decades-old domestic violence incident involving Berhalter. With his contract having expired, Berhalter was then left in limbo by the U.S. Soccer Federation for six months before it finally decided to bring him back as manager.

It has been almost seven months since Reyna and Berhalter first resumed work together, and the evidence points to a rapprochement between the two. Reyna said after the Jamaica game that the rift was firmly in the past. After Sunday's win, he elaborated on how he and Berhalter had moved on.

"We had our first camp back together [in October]. If we didn't put it in the past, it would've been affecting the team and I think that was most important for both of us," he said. "Just put it in the past and focus on the team. The last few camps since he's been here and we've been back together, it's been pretty successful."

Berhalter added after Sunday's final that the healing process between the two had not only been aided by the passage of time, but also by continuing to work together.

"I think when I took over the team, again, I talked about needing time and that was something that I think we both acknowledged," Berhalter said. "And the more you worked together, and the more that he believed that intentions were true and that the whole staff has his best interest in mind, I think we started to gain trust and we were very patient with it."

That all might sound like PR talk, except for the sight of Berhalter running down the sidelines and celebrating with the players after Reyna's goal. They were hit by debris thrown from the stands, but no matter. The two hugged it out when Reyna, who was cramping up, was substituted in the 79th minute.

When asked what Berhalter said to him, Reyna responded: "Something along the lines that he was proud of me. It was a long night. A lot's been happening since the game, man. I couldn't tell you word for word, but it was just something nice."

That counts as the best possible news for the U.S. team. It is no secret that the team's ability to create chances is what most needed to improve in the wake of its round-of-16 finish at the 2022 World Cup. Expanding Reyna's role represented the easiest path to reaching that goal. With his relationship with Berhalter seemingly settled, Reyna's focus can return to getting his club career back on track, with playing time hard to come by right now on loan at Nottingham Forest from Borussia Dortmund. Reyna mentioned that he had been slowed by illness, but the hope is that his showing in the CNL can give him the kind of confidence needed to contribute to Forest's fight against Premier League relegation.

As for the U.S, it's fair to say that it was under some pressure to win the trophy. Players like Adams and Richards said they had tuned it all out, though Reyna admitted some of the criticism after the Jamaica game was "a bit much" before adding: "Not every team can play well every game, and at the end of the day we responded really well tonight."

At a minimum, the pressure on the team has now eased; a collective exhale can occur. But Mexico won't always be around to be the balm that heals the Americans' wounds. It's worth remembering that what was accomplished in the CNL -- beating Mexico and claiming another trophy -- is ground that has been covered before by this group of players. Progress by the U.S. has been tough to discern so far this cycle. The performances have been uneven.

Now the team can look forward to Copa America, where the chance to make a statement awaits. Group C opponents Bolívia, Panama and Uruguay are a trio that the U.S. should be able to overcome well enough to advance. Then the knockout rounds beckon. Berhalter is already looking forward to that challenge.

"I think the Copa America, we're going to see the guys focus," said Berhalter. "We realize what a big opportunity this is for us."

As intense as games with Mexico are, this summer's tournament will provide a better gauge in terms of where the U.S. stands relative to the best teams in the world.