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There was no Chicharito. No Clint Dempsey. No Rafa Marquez or Michael Bradley. On Sunday night in Denver, the Mexican and U.S. men's national teams met without many of the protagonists who defined a fierce soccer rivalry for a decade.
But on Sunday night in Denver, with new protagonists, the rivalry came alive once more.
The inaugural CONCACAF Nations League final gave us fire; passion; shoving matches, and flying beer cans, and a player injured by one. And it ended in controversy that boosted the U.S. to a rousing 3-2 win.
The Americans twice came back to force extra time, then won on Christian Pulisic's 114th-minute penalty and backup goalkeeper Ethan Horvath's 124th-minute minute penalty save.
Both penalties had been awarded after lengthy video reviews. Both decisions were met with furious protests. The difference, though, was that Pulisic placed his spot kick in the upper right corner. At the other end, Horvath palmed away Andres Guardado's with a massive right hand.
All of it happened at the end of three frantic hours, amid pitch invaders and match stoppages for homophobic chanting, with plastic cups and bottles strewn across the sides of the field. Fans had thrown hurled as the match got feisty late on, with yellow cards – and a red for Mexico head coach Tata Martino – being shown left and right.
One of the projectiles struck U.S. attacker Gio Reyna in the face as he celebrated Pulisic's goal.
Asked to describe the night, U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter said: "Oh my goodness. It's hard."
Extra time, he said, was "a complete mess."
At the end of it all, the U.S. men had their first competitive victory over Mexico since 2013. They leapt over advertising boards to celebrate with overjoyed fans. They repeatedly and giddily mobbed Horvath. And a little after 10:30 p.m. out in the mountains, Pulisic, the captain, lifted their first trophy in almost four years.
The controversial penalties
After 90 minutes, and then another 15 of extra time, with 15 still to play, a wild final appeared to be headed toward a penalty shootout.
That's when Christian Pulisic received the ball at the top of the box and slithered in between two Mexico defenders. Carlos Salcedo appeared to win the ball as he stepped in front of Pulisic. Both players tumbled to the turf. Panamanian referee John Pitti saw no foul live, and allowed play to continue.
But then he trotted over to the pitchside monitor, with players and coaches crowding around him, and a video assistant in his ear.
A minute later, he strode calmly back to the field, and emphatically pointed to the penalty spot.
In the 119th minute, though, Pitti reciprocated. A Mexican header ricocheted off a limp, unknowing U.S. arm. Mexican players swarmed Pitti. Again he trotted to the monitor. Again he returned to the field with a dramatic swing of his right arm.
But Horvath – who'd replaced No. 1 keeper Zack Steffen due to injury in the second half – preserved the U.S. victory with the biggest moment of his national team career.
Horvath the hero
Horvath grew up in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, some 10 miles south of Denver, the site of Sunday's match.
He started it on the bench, though, and admitted after the match: "If you're on the bench as a keeper, you don't expect to come in the game."
After all, his national team career to this point had been bumpy. Horvath started the first game of the USMNT's rebuild after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Thirty minutes into it, in November 2017 against Portugal, he let an innocuous cross clip through his legs and into the net. He immediately shoved his face into his hands.
He's also been in and out of the lineup at Club Brugge in Belgium. He's never had a consistent run with the national team since.
But on Sunday, after securing 21 tickets for nearby family and friends, he prepared as if he were starting. On Sunday morning, he spent 30, maybe 40 minutes with Steffen, third-string goalkeeper David Ochoa and goalkeeper coach Aron Hyde studying Mexico's many penalty takers. "Just in case it went to a penalty shootout," Horvath said.
It didn't. Instead, Horvath popped off the bench midway through the second half when Steffen pulled up with a mysterious knee ailment. He hurriedly stretched his glutes and Velcroed up his gloves. He shared a quick moment with Steffen, his U.S. teammate since they were 14 years old, then sprinted into the line of fire.
He conceded once, but parried away several Mexican shots in the second half and extra time. In the 124th minute, a minute that rarely exists, he sprung to his right, threw his body to the ground, and snatched a place in U.S.-Mexico lore.
And to do all of that near his hometown?
"It's kind of surreal," Horvath said.
The back-and-forth 90 minutes before the controversy
Before the insanity, before the boiling blood and the frenzy, the story of the night was the youngest starting lineup that the USMNT had ever trotted out in a tournament final. It was the story because the youth buckled early.
Center back Mark McKenzie, 22, tried to play out of pressure in his own penalty box not even 60 seconds in. His pass never got out of the box. Jesus "Tecatito" Corona nabbed it with his left foot, and powered a close-range bullet past Steffen.
Mexico bossed the first half's first half, and nearly opened up the U.S. again 22 minutes in. A cross from the right wing evaded Mexican attackers, but on the ensuing corner, Hector Moreno appeared to have doubled the lead.
A VAR review, however, kept it at 1-0. Moreno was ruled offside – barely.
Minutes later, the pendulum swung. From a corner at the other end, Weston McKennie, one of the premier aerial threats in global soccer, rose highest and guided a header off the far post. It rebounded right to Reyna, who slammed it past Guillermo Ochoa and wheeled away toward the corner flag.
Most of the first half, and the first 30 minutes of the second half, lacked rhythm. The U.S. shapeshifted between multiple formations, and created occasional chances, but couldn't grasp sustained success.
Mexico had the best first-half opportunity to break the 1-1 deadlock, but Steffen denied Hirving "Chucky" Lozano one-on-one.
In the second half, the U.S. grew into the game, and began to find space in central positions. Pulisic combined with McKennie, who forced a save out of Ochoa. Josh Sargent pounced on the rebound but flubbed his effort wide.
Ochoa then pushed away McKennie's attempt on another dangerous U.S. corner.
The game changed, temporarily, with the introduction of Diego Lainez, the diminutive 20-year-old Mexican winger who plays for Real Betis in Spain. Just a minute after his introduction, Lainez danced inside and pinged a near-post shot past Horvath.
But just a couple minutes after the restart, McKennie nodded another header toward goal off a corner. This one beat Ochoa and the post, and leveled the game at 2-2.
That sent the game to extra time, where all hell broke loose, as it often does when this rivalry is at its best.
'They seem to like to grab my neck'
There were fracases, and fighting words, and fouls that could've reduced the match to 11 v. 10.
"A lot of crowds, a lot of pushing," McKennie said. "I don't know what it is, but they seem to like to grab my neck."
A fascinating tactical battle devolved into chaos. It was, Berhalter said, a game that "falls in line with the heritage of the U.S.-Mexico rivalry."
"We're a part of it right now, just as all the teams before us were parts of it," Berhalter continued. "Each and every game unfolds in a different way. And today is going to go down as one of the classic U.S.-Mexico games."
Said McKennie, one of the new faces of the U.S. side: "It’s a rivalry that’s been there for generations. And it’s a rivalry that will still carry on. We just got the upper hand this time. And hopefully it stays that way.”
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