The U.S. always hates losing to Mexico, but even the most ardent of supporters could find little fault with Friday night's 3-0 defeat at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez opened the scoring with a sharp, predatory effort following Jesus "Tecatito" Corona's cheeky nutmeg of U.S. debutant Sergino Dest to set up room for a well-weighted cross. The U.S. struggled to get back into the game, but well and truly folded after the second-half substitutes began coming on. Zack Steffen's careless giveaway led to Erick Gutierrez's fine, low strike for 2-0, but late on, the the hosts chasing, substitute Uriel Antuna finished yet another counterattack to put the result beyond doubt.
There is little time for reflection as the U.S. travel to St. Louis next, where the Americans will face Uruguay on Tuesday, yet they need to seize what moments they have in order to assess what went wrong against Mexico and Gerardo "Tata" Martino, who remains perfect since taking over as El Tri manager.
Forget the result: It was a narrow defeat, but some players who figure to be vital in the 2022 World Cup cycle got valuable experience against the kind of team the U.S. must match up with in order to reach that fabled next level. Mixing Dest, an under-20 standout, in with the senior side was a nice boost, and it was good to see the continued rapport between Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman at the back. After all, a strong center-back partnership can make a big difference in tournament play.
Beyond that, there was a subtle uptick to the Americans' style of play; it felt like they'd received their homework prematch and set about applying the new principles at every opportunity. Whether playing out from the back -- very much the hip trend for top clubs in Europe -- or applying clever pressure on Mexico in certain areas of the field, it's clear Gregg Berhalter is trying to do something new and different with this squad.
It's always nice to see new things, but the panicked nature of many U.S. possessions when the ball was at Steffen's feet or those of a nearby defender showed there's a way to go. Also, the midfield was constantly bypassed with ease by Mexico from start to finish; the Mexico players were consistently quicker to intercept wayward passes or seize upon heavy touches.
Still, it feels harsh to call these things a negative, because they at least show a willingness to evolve. And that enhancement will be most welcome in the future if the U.S. can strike the right balance.
Manager rating out of 10
6 -- It feels as though Berhalter is moving at a glacial pace with implementing changes, but there is something to his U.S. team that looks a little different even if the end product is just as uneven was it was under his predecessors. Like a good coach should, he won't dwell too much on a handful of individual errors no matter how glaring, given that it's to be expected in a new system and with a new group of players.
Player ratings (1-10; 10=best. Players introduced after 70 minutes get no rating)
GK Zack Steffen, 4 -- Struggled at times with his distribution, looking for risky passes out from the back at times when a more simple approach would have been smart. Failed to recover to deny Hernandez with the opening goal, and then his continued efforts to play it out from the back resulted in a woeful pass from which Gutierrez scored. Needs to be better about knowing when to be adventurous and when to play it safe, else his swashbuckling attempts to reinvent the goalkeeper position will do much more harm than good.
DF Reggie Cannon, 6 -- Held things up well enough on his flank. The best defenders are rarely seen because they just do their jobs. Cannon did well not to stand out.
DF Walker Zimmerman, 6 -- Fine defensive play. Managed to keep his cool in the 25 minutes of the first half following the opening goal when it seemed like Mexico could score four or five.
DF Aaron Long, 6 -- Typically steady but lost Hernandez for the opener. Is cementing himself as a key member of this squad.
DF Sergino Dest, 5 -- A genuine mixed bag. There's obvious potential here given his ascent at powerhouse Ajax, but there are also a lot of obvious edges to his game that will require refining over time. Showed genuine positivity and purpose on either side of the ball, which is a plus. Yet he lacked positional awareness at times with regard to off-the-ball runs. Handled many of his defensive duties well but he was humbled by a Corona nutmeg for Mexico's opening goal.
MF Christian Pulisic, 7 -- Another extremely busy performance from the Chelsea star and undisputed leader of this side. Hurled himself into more than one 50-50 challenge, fought for every ball and showed little restraint when it came to trying to unsettle Mexico on the ball or forcing his opponents to think quickly in transition. Yet he can't do it all alone.
MF Weston McKennie, 6 -- Always plays on the front foot, something that the U.S. sorely needs in midfield against tough opponents. Had a couple of positive, promising moments with the ball at his feet. Unafraid to shoot but rarely caused trouble from 25-30 yards out.
MF Wil Trapp, 5 -- It feels like he's constantly in over his head. I can't put my finger on why that might be. Lost the ball a lot and in dangerous positions, something you can't do as that defensive midfield "pivot" upon whom much of the transition play falls.
MF Alfredo Morales, 6 -- Chaotic but brought the kind of energy that can benefit the U.S. in midfield. Battled hard, disrupted Mexico on more than one occasion and also provided a bit of bite. A real character that this team needs. Seeing him get under the skin of more than one El Tri player brought a smile to my eye.
FW Gyasi Zardes, 3 -- It's time to try some other options up front. There are certainly alternatives to the long-serving Crew striker, who touched the ball just six times in a woeful first half. (Only one of those touches could be judged to be inside the Mexico half, too.) So much of a striker's performance is down to the team play around him, but even then, Zardes failed to find himself in threatening positions or in situations where he could receive the ball and make something happen.
FW Tyler Boyd, 4 -- It seems like an eternity ago that USMNT fans were freaking out over the New Zealand-born striker's FIFA switch to represent the Stars and Stripes. And yet, his brace in the Gold Cup against Guyana might have been misleading. Barely involved in the final third, went searching for the ball a number of times to little avail and failed to link play with his passes, something you can't go without if you're playing with two up front. There has to be cohesion but so far, Boyd looks a bit lacking.
DF Miles Robinson, 5 (on for Zimmerman, 58 minutes) -- The Atlanta United FC product got a well-deserved debut and grappled well enough. Fortunate with one dangerous giveaway close to the U.S. net in his first five minutes of action, but his inexperience showed with Mexico's late goals. Still, when his team is chasing the game as the U.S. needed to, few defenders would fare better when outnumbered.
FW Jordan Morris, 5 (on for Boyd, 58 minutes) -- Hustle and bustle. Worked hard to get in the position to win a late penalty.
FW Josh Sargent, 5 (on for Zardes, 67 minutes) -- Not the best game state in which to show his skills, but he battled gamely all the same. Wasted a late penalty with a weak effort that could have added some shine to a streaky evening for the U.S. men.
DF Daniel Lovitz, 5 (on for Dest, 67 minutes) -- Existed.
MF Sebastian Lletget, NR (on for Trapp, 77 minutes) -- Was on the field.
MF Jackson Yueill, NR (on for Morales, 90 minutes) -- Came on as a late injury cameo.