Football Features

USMNT overtaking Mexico? 2021 Gold Cup win shows Concacaf power shift

By Chris Smith

Published: 16:50, 3 August 2021 | Updated: 18:43, 10 September 2021

The Concacaf Gold Cup is over for another year and the United States have been crowned champions for the seventh time.

Despite leaving the likes of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams at home in favour of a young, experimental side, Gregg Berhalter’s men were undoubtedly the best team of the tournament, conceding just one goal en route to success.

But what does this success mean for the USMNT? And what about the other teams at the Gold Cup? Here are five things we learned from this summer’s tournament.

1. Emerging US talent makes another statement for MLS

Berhalter’s best XI went toe-to-toe with Mexico in the Concacaf Nations League final back in June, winning a thrilling encounter 3-2 thanks to a 114th-minute winner from Pulisic. Had you asked US supporters if that was enough to make this a successful summer, they’d have probably said yes. After all, this was the USMNT’s first competitive win against El Tri since 2014 and their first in a final since 2007.

Even more so, when Berhalter named his squad for the Gold Cup, filling it with emerging MLS talent and a few up and coming stars from Europe while leaving the big hitters at home to rest, getting to the final probably seemed about the ceiling of expectation.

But what the young side has done this summer is remarkable. Going all the way and lifting the trophy while conceding just one single goal is quite something. New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner once again showed why clubs in Europe should be queuing up for him with a number of top-class saves. Centre-back Miles Robinson, who scored the winner in the final against Mexico, proved the quality Atlanta United fans have been talking about for a couple of years now.

Further forward, Matthew Hoppe did his chances of a move away from Schalke no harm with some exciting and industrious performances, while throughout the tournament, the likes of Sam Vines, James Sands, Eryk Williamson and Gianluca Busio brilliantly showed off the growing MLS talent pool at one time or another. Scouts and football professionals have been mining the league’s talent for a few years now, but this could be a watershed tournament win that makes the wider world stand up and take notice of the players within MLS.

Berhalter’s depth chart has suddenly got a lot deeper and with World Cup qualifying coming up (and getting back to that stage is the ultimate goal for this team) that’s no bad thing, especially considering the injury records of Pulisic and Adams.

2. Mexico nearing the end of a cycle

That Mexico lost a second final to the United States in a matter of months is bad enough to take for supporters. But factor in that Berhalter effectively brought a reserve team and it gets even worse for Tata Martino.

El Tri have tormented the Concacaf scene for years now, only occasionally loosening their grip to allow the United States a moment in the sun. But now, it looks like this side is ending a cycle.

The average age of Mexico’s starting XI for the Gold Cup final was a whopping 29.45 with a number of veterans still manning the barricades. The average age of the substitutes Martino brought on to change the game was 26. Compare that to the United States, whose respective average ages were 24.27 and 22.5 for starters and subs respectively, and you start to see why some are worried about their dominance slipping.

Sure, there is talent coming through at youth level for Mexico. After all, Mexico cruised through Olympic qualifying earlier this year while they’re consistently competitive at age-group level.

The big difference, however, is that far fewer Mexican talents are being picked up by European clubs. MLS is all the rage with scouts right now, with increasingly talented Americans available for comparatively cheap prices. If Diego Lainez doesn’t turn out to be the talent with think he is, who comes through to replace him? Ask that question of, say, Yunus Musah for the United States and you have the likes of Gianluca Busio, Eryk Williamson, Tanner Tessmann and more lining up to take his spot. And that’s barely scratching the surface.

Mexico need to start getting more talent through the pipeline and they need to start getting it across the Atlantic or the United States may move out of sight.

3. Canada to challenge the Mexico-US hegemony

Canada haven’t won the Gold Cup since 2000 and if you were to ask casual onlookers who the third-biggest power in Concacaf was, they’d probably say Costa Rica.

But this summer, the Canucks made a huge statement by going all the way to the semi-finals, beating Costa Rica along the way. What’s more, they only lost 1-0 to a first-minute goal against the US, while Mexico snatched a cruel 2-1 win in the ninth minute of second-half stoppage time in the semi-final.

Most impressively, Canada did this without their undisputed two biggest talents, Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, who were left at home in Europe nursing injuries. To make things even more difficult for John Herdman, clinical Besiktas striker Cyle Larin had to pull out after the group stages, as did Toronto FC forward Ayo Akinola.

In their place, the likes of Tajon Buchanan, Richie Layrea and Pacos Ferreira’s Stephen Eustaquio stepped up to deliver their nation’s joint-best performance in this competition for 21 years. With their best players back on board later this year, Canada might well shock a few by qualifying for the 2022 World Cup ahead of co-hosting in 2026.

4. Qatar may not be whipping boys next year

Nobody is really sure what to expect of Qatar at the World Cup next year. Ranked 58th in the world, they’ve never played on this stage before and only qualified for the first time by virtue of being hosts.

But The Maroon have been working hard improving their talent in recent years ahead of the big event, winning the 2019 AFC Asian Cup — beating South Korea and Japan along the way — with seven wins from seven games, 19 goals scored and just one conceded. And though they crashed out of the 2019 Copa America (playing as invitationals) in the group stages, they did manage a 2-2 draw with Paraguay and only lost to Colombia and Argentina 1-0 and 2-0, respectively.

This summer, they made an even bigger statement that they’re not to be messed with, going all the way to the final four of the Gold Cup. Fuelled by the goals of Almoez Ali (4), Abdulaziz Hatem (3) and Akram Afif (2), Qatar finished above Honduras and Panama in the group stages and sent El Salvador packing in the quarter-finals before succumbing to a 1-0 defeat to the U.S in the semi-finals. But ask any American fan and they’ll tell you just how fortunate they were to come through that game.

Okay, so obviously Qatar won’t be considered as favourites or dark horses next year. But in one-off games? Underestimate them at your peril.

5. Squawka’s team of the tournament