USMNT has outgrown Mexico. The next step is to ‘be feared’ at the Copa América

By | March 26, 2024

ARLINGTON, TX - MARCH 24: The United States celebrates its victory and trophy during the CONCACAF Nations League Final between the United States and Mexico at AT&T Stadium on March 24, 2024 in Arlington, Texas.  The United States won the match 2-0 (Photo by Shaun Clark/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

ARLINGTON, Texas – They greeted the final whistle with clenched fists and high fives, but no, they didn’t end up on the field. The U.S. men’s national team won North and Central America’s most coveted soccer trophy here on Sunday. They celebrated with casual steps and no frills. They ended up popping champagne, and maybe some hard seltzers; but they responded as if they had Do a Cero rather winners because, well, they did. They have dominated Mexico and graduated to greater challenges.

Mexico was once the revered standard, the traditional giant to be imitated and emulated. The rivalry was a constant barometer for the USMNT. Concacaf finals were the benchmark by which progress was measured.

But now winning it is the basic expectation. “This is our trophy,” Berhalter said of the Nations League. When he gathered players for a welcome meeting in Texas last week, he showed them a photoshopped photo of Michael Jordan; they openly spoke of a ‘tripod’.

Now the stretch goal is bigger.

Mexico has been surpassed. South American giants are the next point of reference.

Traditionally, culturally, technically and spiritually, the US and Goliaths like Brazil and Argentina are miles apart. But on Sunday night, Tyler Adams didn’t shy away from a question that mentioned them. They are “teams [that] have already proven something. They won everything there was to win,” he said. “That’s a kind of role model, so to speak, of what the US wants to become.”

Geography and politics will keep the USMNT within Concacaf. They will not ignore the region. “I want to keep winning this [Nations League] trophy, and let’s just win it, to the point where it gets boring for people,” Antonee Robinson said last week.

But they have clearly outgrown it. They have risen from the bottom to the top of Concacaf in the past five years. “And now it is: how do you take that next step?” Berhalter pondered last week.

Their answer will determine the next three years.

ARLINGTON, TX - MARCH 24: Gio Reyna #7 of the United States passes the ball as Erick Sanchez #14 of Mexico looks on during the CONCACAF Nations League Final at AT&T Stadium on March 24, 2024 in Arlington, Texas.  The United States won the match 2-0 (Photo by Shaun Clark/ISI Photos/Getty Images)ARLINGTON, TX - MARCH 24: Gio Reyna #7 of the United States passes the ball as Erick Sanchez #14 of Mexico looks on during the CONCACAF Nations League Final at AT&T Stadium on March 24, 2024 in Arlington, Texas.  The United States won the match 2-0 (Photo by Shaun Clark/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Gio Reyna and Co. will enter the Copa América this summer with a growth mindset. (Photo by Shaun Clark/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Most of the steps in international football are taken away from national teams. Individual players ensure progress. Their “continued development at their clubs” was the first variable Berhalter mentioned. It is the most influential because the USMNT only gets together twenty training sessions per year. Tactics rarely win international competitions; talent does.

But they can’t possibly grow as much as they did between 2019 and 2023. The likes of Adams and Chris Richards grew from kids to adults and completely transformed the U.S. player pool this past cycle. From 2023 to 2026, their gains will be more marginal. Their core will solidify. In many ways it already is.

The aftermath of the World Cup is usually a time for turnover. But not for the second youngest team in Qatar. Roughly 87% of the USMNT’s World Cup minutes went to players who 15 months later either celebrated in Arlington on Sunday or withdrew from the Nations League roster due to injury. And if it weren’t for two other injuries, to Cameron Carter-Vickers and Walker Zimmerman, the number would have increased by more than 90%. The core is the core. So the growth will be collective.

It will have to find an edge to rise above the proverbial sum of its parts. And to rise, America’s men will have to reach for teams above them.

Berhalter knows this. A month ago, during a visit to Washington, D.C., he sat on a bar stool in the basement of Astro Beer Hall and pondered the eccentricities of Concacaf World Cup qualifying. His mind raced through fond memories. “It’s a glove,” he said. “And it’s great to participate.” He smiled.

“But it won’t help us win the World Cup,” he continued in an analytical tone. “We have to play against teams like Colombia, England and Italy. These are the top-level teams that will help us win the World Cup.”

They will play at least three of these teams this summer: Colombia and Brazil in friendlies, then Uruguay in the Copa América. The modified South American Football Championship will be a crucial platform. “It’s just an opportunity for us to show before the World Cup that we are a team to fear,” Richards said on Sunday evening, looking ahead to June.

To date they have not done so. In five years under Berhalter, they have not beaten a top 25 Elo team outside of Concacaf. By June 12, 2026, they must learn how.

The only way to learn in this case is by doing. “It’s very easy for us to just talk about that,” Berhalter said last month. “[But] it is something we have to build. Because it’s not there yet. When we play against Argentina or Brazil, I want the boys to have confidence in themselves, confidence in the team, that we can win the game.” They will only be confident that they can do it.

Copa América is a rare opportunity in that sense. “The urgency with which South American teams are playing,” Berhalter said, will make it “a grind. It’s not like the euro. You know this,” he told a group of fans. “It’s a different level.” It will be the USMNT’s toughest test between now and the World Cup on home soil. Hopefully it is a first opportunity to ride the wave of the home crowd.

Finals against Mexico will always be relevant. They will always be fiery and burdensome. The Nations League will sometimes be a useful experience.

But Berhalter hardly hesitated when asked to compare the two.

“Copa América,” he said last month, “will be more difficult.”

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