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Nations League

America’s greatest generation arrives, beats rival Mexico

A pair of penalty kicks late separated CONCACAF powers Mexico and U.S.

The last two penalty kicks by the U.S. national team and Mexico provided a poetic contrast for what may have been a change atop CONCACAF. America’s greatest soccer generation is here, dethroning Mexico’s Golden Generation from its 10-year reign as the region’s unquestioned leader.

CONCACAF’s two powers delivered a thrilling display Sunday night in Denver. The defense was sloppy on both sides in the Nations League final. The energy was pulsating for two hours, though. Diehard soccer fans on both sides of the Mexico-U.S. border will talk about the two penalties in the 2021 Nations League’s final for generations.

U.S. national team 3, Mexico 2.

Neither country will succeed against the world’s true soccer powers if they don’t clean up their defensive lapses. Yet, the young U.S. national team core of Giovanni Reyna, Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic claimed their first major trophy together. The tide has turned in CONCACAF, and it wears red, white and blue. 

The defining contrast that will live in CONCACAF lore happened in the second overtime period a few minutes apart. Pulisic weaved his way into the Mexican box and drew a penalty. The American wonderking had been underwhelming for more than 100 minutes, but he converted his penalty with a perfect blast into the right corner to beat legendary El Tri goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. 

Not much later, Mexico earned a penalty kick after a video review showed a handball in the box. Up stepped the Little Prince Andrés Guardado, the 34-year-old midfielder who is on pace to set the record for the most appearances with the Mexican national team. 

Guardado is already an El Tri legend, one of the most accomplished CONCACAF players in Europe.  

He’s been at every World Cup but one since Pulisic was born in 1998. Heck, Reyna wasn’t even born the last time a World Cup was held without Guardado participating.

Guardado’s legacy as an all-time great was secured long ago. He’s no longer the best player on El Tri, but he was the one chosen to take the crucial penalty deep into stoppage time. He missed.

U.S. national team’s Ethan Horvath at home

U.S. national team goalkeeper Ethan Horvath denies Andres Guardado with the save of the night.

U.S. goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, who didn’t even start the match, made a diving stop to his right to block Guardado’s penalty kick. The pro-Mexico crowd of 37,648 at Empower Field at Mile High was stunned while the American Outlaws and the U.S. faithful rejoiced.

Horvath’s save was enough to push the U.S. to the title in the first edition of the CONCACAF Nations League.

The U.S. men’s national team needed a victory like this, considering the Americans failed to reach the 2018 World Cup. They’ve also failed to qualify for the last three Olympic Games. 

Mexico still has plenty of star power. Hirving Lozano, 25, was the best man on the pitch Sunday night in Denver. Jesus Corona was arguably the second best. Mexican starlet Diego Lainez, 20, was arguably the most exciting of all the young phenoms who saw action. 

Despite the recent U.S. failures, the American haven’t exactly been pushovers for El Tri since the early 1990s. The U.S. dominated Mexico when it mattered most in the first decade of the millennium. El Tri has dominated the last decade with its Golden Generation of U-17 FIFA World Cup champions maturing into prominence.

U.S. national team is deep with young talent

Now the U.S. has its own promising generation even though they’ve failed to reach the Olympics yet again. Pulisic already has a Champions League title on his resume. Reyna and McKennie already have earned minutes in Europe.

It took 30 minutes of overtime and plenty of stoppage time, but the U.S. prevailed under somewhat hostile conditions at home. Weston McKennie, 22, was named the Best Player of the Nations League tournament.

The Juventus star from Little Elm, Texas, tied it at 2 with a header in the 82nd minute. It was his fourth goal of the tournament. He’ll likely torment El Tri for the next generation.

The U.S. has had plenty of Europe-based stars over the years, but it has never had a young trio like Pulisic, Reyna and Weston McKennie doing it so early and in the case of Reyna and McKennie with true giants of European soccer.

Reyna, who tied the score at 1 for the U.S., became the second-youngest player in U.S. history to score against Mexico. Only Jozy Altidore was younger. 

The U.S. starting lineup had an average age of 24 years, 206 days, which set the record for the youngest for a CONCACAF team in a final. The previous record was set two years ago by the Mexican squad that won the 2019 Gold Cup final with a starting lineup that averaged 25 years, 171 days.

Both countries have plenty of young talent. But when it mattered most, the U.S. picked its young star Pulisic to take the crucial penalty in overtime. He converted. Mexico picked its aging superstar Guardado, who missed.

In time we’ll know if that was the symbolic changing of the guard in CONCACAF.

Featured photo courtesy of CONCACAF.

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