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Climaxing in the middle of the Tokyo Olympics and coming at the end of a summer soccer calendar headlined by the European Championship and the Copa America, the 2021 Gold Cup had to fight for attention.
But the final, at which Miles Robinson’s 117th-minute header gave the United States a 1-0 extra-time victory over Mexico, delivered drama and intrigue to match anything the sporting schedule has provided in recent weeks.
It was a tournament that saw the US build on June’s Nations League triumph, Mexico and Canada meet expectations with deep runs and left-field invitees, and 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar surprise with a run to the semi-finals.
Here are five things we learned from the tournament.
1) US answered their depth question
“Part of the objective of this tournament was to give young, highly-talented players experience, and we’ve done that, and we’re continuing to do that,” United States manager Gregg Berhalter said of the young squad he selected for the tournament, leaving out the majority of his big-name Europe-based stars.
Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna, Tyler Adams, Sergiño Dest and Zack Steffen were all among those allowed to sit out the Gold Cup, so the USMNT’s success at the tournament depended on the depth on their talent pool. The progress of Berhalter’s young guns, beating a strong Mexican side in the final, showed the US has solid options beyond the usual headline names.
Despite a wobbly performance against Qatar in the semis, in which he conceded a penalty, versatile 21-year-old James Sands of NYC FC emerged as a squad option of real quality ahead of next month’s World Cup qualifiers. At the Gold Cup, he proved himself to be comfortable as part of a three-man backline or stepping up into midfield and occupying the kind of spaces that would make him a viable back-up for Tyler Adams.
Orlando City striker Daryl Dike, who spent last season on loan with Barnsley in the English Championship, had an inconsistent Gold Cup campaign but logged invaluable game time and scored his first competitive international goals. Right-back Shaq Moore was brought in from the cold to make his first USMNT appearances since 2018, and he thrived, impressing against Haiti in an otherwise lacklustre team display and scoring the winner against Canada in the final group-stage game.
And 20-year-old Matthew Hoppe of Schalke was something of a surprise call-up, given Berhalter gave most of his young Europe-based stars the summer off. But Hoppe shone, drawing flattering comparisons to USMNT record-scorer Clint Dempsey for his industrious displays and, thanks to his 83rd-minute winner against Jamaica in the quarter-finals, an ability to produce in crucial moments.
2) Tata’s faith in Funes Mori was rewarded
Former Barcelona boss Gerardo “Tata” Martino is a year and a half into his reign in charge of the Mexican national team, and he feels he is established enough that he can risk ruffling feathers with his squad selections.
Before the Gold Cup, there was a headline omission and a controversial addition in the news surrounding El Tri’s final 23-man roster: all-time record scorer Javier Hernández was out, despite having scored 10 goals in as many MLS games for LA Galaxy this season, and Monterrey’s Argentina-born striker Rogelio Funes Mori was in.
Hernández hasn’t appeared for Mexico since 2019, but it was felt his pre-Gold Cup club form would be enough to see the 33-year-old recalled. Instead, Martino elected to make Funes Mori the 15th foreign-born player capped by Mexico, and the eighth from Argentina. The decision was far from universally popular among fans and pundits.
But Martino’s choice has been vindicated. He scored twice in a 3-0 group-stage win over Guatemala and opened the scoring as Mexico overcame Honduras in the quarter-finals. And in the final loss, he forced three excellent saves from Matt Turner in the US goal.
3) Berhalter is planning for promised land beyond Paradise
Even with their stars sitting at home, a deep run at the Gold Cup was the United States’ stated aim. Throughout the tournament, Berhalter clearly had his eyes beyond Sunday’s final in Paradise, Nevada.
This was evident in the way he appeared to be allowing his young players the space and time to work through any periods of difficulty they encountered, even when it might have been to the detriment of the USMNT’s chances of glory.
The case in point was Sands’ struggles against Qatar in the semi. The young defender’s errors led to clear-cut chances for the Qataris, not least their second-half penalty. But Berhalter stuck with James, not only against Qatar but in his line-up for the final, too, and the trial-and-error experience will benefit the 21-year-old in the long-term.
4) A significant for Canada’s new generation
With Bayern Munich left-back Alphonso Davies injured and Lille declining to allow 21-year-old forward Jonathan David to participate, Canada’s Gold Cup hopes were hindered from the outset.
Yet, in their 2-0 quarter-final win over Costa Rica, they produced arguably the most significant result of this generation of Canadian players – and a solid run to the semi-final, where they lost to Mexico (they were also helped by veterans like Junior Hoilett).
Canada’s previous best win under English manager John Herdman – whose three-and-a-half-year reign is now the longest of any of the nine coaches appointed to the post this century – came in October 2019, when they beat the USA for first time since 1985. But the gloss was taken off that victory when they were thumped 4-1 by same opponents a year later.
The Costa Rica win represents a tournament victory over a strong side, and they did it without their two best and most talented players.
5) USMNT continue to banish memories of 2018
The United States’ extra-time win over Mexico was their 17th victory in their last 19 games – a run stretching back to 2019 – and it was their ninth straight win, the second-longest streak in USMNT history.
This Gold Cup triumph will only accelerate the momentum the US have built in their efforts to banish the memory of 2018’s World Cup-qualification disaster.
It wasn’t always pretty. They were poor for large stretches in the semi against Qatar, and had Hassan Al Haydos not fired his 61st-minute penalty over the bar, we might be reflecting on one of the great international-football upsets of the last decade. And in the final, Mexico enjoyed a 64% share of possession and outshot the United States 22 to 14.
But with five of their six wins at the Gold Cup coming via a 1-0 margin, the US demonstrated an ability to win games without playing well. Such habits are the bedrock of major-tournament success.