Weston McKennie celebrates after scoring a goal during the CONCACAF Nations League Championship Final against Mexico on June 6, 2021 in Denver, Colo.
The U.S. men’s soccer team started Sunday night’s Concacaf Nations League Final in just about the worst way possible, conceding a goal to Mexico within the first minute of the match.
But that was merely the first twist on a night full of them at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver.
The U.S. came back from a losing position twice to force extra time, where star midfielder Christian Pulisic scored from the penalty spot in the 114th minute to complete a U.S. comeback and give his team a 3-2 lead. But it nearly evaporated minutes later as Mexico earned a penalty of its own. The hero for the U.S. turned out to be goalkeeper Ethan Horvath — pressed into action in the 69th minute to replace an injured Zack Steffen — who saved the penalty to preserve the victory.
While the U.S. back line did improve following its first-minute disaster, it was the talented group of young U.S. forwards and midfielders that was aggressive in creating chances which turned the tide. It took 26 minutes for the U.S. to respond the first time, scoring through 18-year-old Gio Reyna. Off a corner kick, Weston McKennie hit the post only for Reyna to tuck home the rebound, delighting the crowd that included his father, U.S. legend Claudio Reyna.
It took the U.S. only three minutes to respond the second time. After Mexico’s Diego Lainez scored in the 79th minute, McKennie and Reyna worked together again, but in reverse. Reyna sent in a corner kick that found the head of McKennie, who rose high to bury the equalizer. Meanwhile, Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and Steffen and Horvath made some huge second-half saves.
For just the third time in history, a U.S.-Mexico match went to extra time. A majority of the chances in the first 15 minutes went the way of Mexico, with Horvath making a couple key saves. The match’s key moment came when Pulisic was fouled in the box in the second half of extra time, a foul that had to be confirmed by the video assistant referee (VAR). VAR also awarded Mexico its penalty attempt, which Andres Guardado took well but couldn’t get past the outstretched arm of Horvath. The U.S. was able to see off the last few minutes of added time, then launched into a huge celebration.
Winning the inaugural Nations League trophy is a great prize for the U.S. men, but the victory helped answer a lot of questions facing a team playing its first competitive matches since the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The U.S. starting lineup Sunday had an average age of 24 years, 206 days. But while young and relatively inexperienced internationally, the lineup also boasts players on the world’s biggest clubs like McKennie with Juventus and Pulisic with UEFA Champions League winner Chelsea. They’re all expected to play key roles in much bigger cup finals in the years to come. U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter will no doubt be encouraged by the result as his team kicks off World Cup qualifying in September, seeking to return to the tournament after missing out in 2018.