The 2019 Gold Cup Final is set. The United States and Mexico will meet in Chicago, Illinois at Solider Field on Sunday, July 7th. While most casual soccer watchers in the United States think that this competition is a walk in the park for both of these nations, this will be the first time since 2011 that they have met in the final. With the growth of other countries in CONCACAF, the tournament is becoming more and more competitive. Jamaica has reached the last two finals (2015, 2017) while knocking both Mexico (2017) and the United States (2015) out of the competition. In 2013, Panama eliminated Mexico in the semi-final round but would go on to lose the final to the United States.
The 15th edition of the tournament marks the sixth time these teams will meet in the final. History does not shine brightly upon the United States. In the previous five meetings, the US has only managed to beat Mexico in the final once. The good news…that match was played in Chicago at Solider Field. That match also saw Benny Feilhaber etch his name into USMNT folklore with an absolute worldie from outside of the box in the 73rd minute. Seriously, head over to YouTube and watch that highlight. The bad news for USMNT fans is that in the previous two meetings the US has been outscored 9-2. In 2011, they gave up a 2 goal lead eventually losing 4-2 at the Rose Bowl.
But as USMNT supporters, we cannot dwell on the past. This is a different team with players looking to create history themselves. We also need to remember that Mexico is going through their own changes. Tata Martino was announced as the head coach of the Mexican team a month after Berhalter had been announced as the head coach for the USMNT. They have had roughly about the same time to implement new playing styles as well as integrating young players into the set up. In this preview, I want to take a brief look at each team’s run to the final and a couple players that could have an impact.
Let’s start out with Mexico. Drawn into Group A, their road to the knock out stages of the tournament was straight forward. Two games against weak CONCACAF opponents in Martinique and Cuba and a game against Canada. A 7-0 thrashing of Cuba was not surprising and was a good spring board to their game against Canada. Again, the result was not surprising as they knocked off Canada 3-1. It did look like Canada might give Mexico problems late on with a goal in the 75th minute to make it 2-1. But Mexico answered back shortly after to put the game away. While Mexico was able to beat Martinique, the score line was shocking. A 3-2 win gets the job done, but we saw the shakiness of Mexico’s backline. Martinique were able to take advantage of set pieces on both of their goals. In the quarter-finals, Costa Rica gave Mexico some problems. After a first half Raul Jimenez goal, Joel Campbell fought through two defenders, got a shot off, and drew a penalty. Bryan Ruiz leveled the game at 1-1 from the penalty spot which would be the scoreline through extra time. Mexico squeaked by on penalties. The semi-final game saw Mexico face cinderella team, Haiti. I think Haiti played a great game to keep Mexico off the score sheet. It wasn’t until the 93rd minute, that Mexico were controversially given a penalty and Raul Jimenez put Mexico ahead.
The biggest weaknesses for Mexico have been their defense and their struggles in front of goal. Throughout the tournament, we have seen Tata Martino shift the personnel on the backline in multiple games. This can cause some disruption between the players as they aren’t used to playing with each other. This was seen most in their game with Martinique specifically on the second goal. When the ball restarted on a short corner you see Jordy Delem wander unmarked near the six yard box. No Mexican player communicates or picks up the movement and he is left wide open for the header. I would look for the United States to exploit this heavily on set pieces with the likes of Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman lurking in the penalty area.
The biggest strengths for the Mexican team are the form of Raul Jimenez and the emergence of Uriel Antuna. Raul Jimenez has carried over his form from Wolverhampton Wanderers and has an eye for goal. If he is able to get service from his midfield against the United States, I would imagine that he will cause problems for whatever center back pairing Berhalter will have out there. The other player I have been impressed with is Uriel Antuna the young midfielder on loan at the La Galaxy from Manchester City. He has had a good tournament so far scoring four goals in five games while also providing an assist in the first game of the tournament. He could provide Mexico with a boost coming off the bench or give the US midfield fits early if he starts.
The United States was drawn into Group D with some familiar foes in Panama and Trinidad and Tobago as well as Guyana. Coming off two losses in the build up to the Gold Cup, these would be the first real games of the Berhalter era. The first game saw the US put four past Guyana with Tyler Boyd scoring a brace in his second game for the team. The second game against Trinidad was built as the rematch (Trinidad stopped the US from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup), but turned out to be a thrashing with the Yanks putting six past the Trinidad goalkeeper. Aaron Long scored a brace along with Pulisic scoring his first of the tournament. Panama and the US played their second teams in the last group stage match to determine who would win the group. The US claimed the top spot with a 1-0 win and set up a quarter-final match against Curacao. This would be a lackluster game by our standards, but thanks to Weston McKennie we were able to squeak through to the semi-finals against Jamaica. Now, before the tournament began I picked Jamaica to win the tournament knocking out the US in the semi-finals. I was wrong. Jamaica looked lost in this game. They were completely dominated in the in the midfield and Weston McKennie played his best match of the tournament while Pulisic scored a brace by being alert to the ball and being in the right position.
The biggest weakness for the United States is their mentality. It seems that this team will sometime switch off during the game. We saw it numerous times in the Curacao game and a stronger team will make them pay for those mental errors. Besides the mental errors, I think the only other weakness could be Berhalter. I was surprised by the lineup that he chose for the Jamaica game. A switch at center back with Miazga coming in for Zimmerman and Cannon coming in for Lima seemed liked a bold move. I thought Zimmerman and Lima had cemented themselves as first choice options with their performances. I don’t think we saw an issue because Jamaica rarely threatened but a striker like Jimenez might see those switches and look to exploit communication errors.
The biggest strength for the US is the midfield. If Berhalter goes with Paul Arriola, Christian Pulisic, Weston Mckennie, Michael Bradley, and Tyler Boyd (our strongest midfield selection), I think we will give Mexico problems. We have seen Mexico look shaky on defense for this tournament and they haven’t come up against this kind of talent. I would look for McKennie to drop deep to receive the ball (like he did against Jamaica) and look to spray passes out wide to Arriola and Boyd. This would open up those cutting balls he can play to Pulisic. Also, I think Altidore has to start this match. He has the ability to receive the ball with his back to goal, hold it up, and lay off passes to those midfielders making runs.
I feel very positive about this game. I believe that this US team looks better and sharper than El Tri. If Berhalter starts Altidore with that midfield mentioned above and plays a backline of Nick Lima, Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Long, and Tim Ream, then I think we could see a second US victory in a Gold Cup final over Mexico. I believe that this game will end 3-1 to the Yanks and they will lift their 7th title tying them with Mexico for total Gold Cups won.
Prediction: U.S.A. 3 Mexico 1