The final of the Concacaf Nations League did not have the most auspicious build-up.
Delayed for several months due to the Covid-19 pandemic – and awkwardly wedged between the end of many club seasons and the beginning of more noteworthy summer tournaments – the culmination of the newly-formed competition initially appeared to be something of a forced assignment. Coupled with both Mexico and the US limping into Sunday’s final with questionable performances in the semis a few days beforehand, there was also reason to believe that the championship game could prove to be a let down.
Instead, what proceeded was an unforgettable (and at times controversial) contest in Denver’s Empower Field at Mile High.
Following a frenzied 130-plus minutes of soccer that included two contentious penalties, two intense halves of extra-time, a red card for Mexico manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino, fans throwing projectiles on the field, a fan running on to the field, fights between players, and back-up goalkeeper Ethan Horvath coming off the bench to secure the trophy for the Americans, it’s tough to pick the highlight (and, indeed, lowlight) of the chaotic 3-2 win for the USMNT.
First and foremost though, we have to discuss the sheer spectacle of it all.
The modern day USA-Mexico rivalry is often criticized for lacking the same bite and passion of memorable encounters from the 1990s and early 2000s, but Sunday’s game was a throwback, with heated arguments, gutsy challenges and dramatic goals. Perhaps more importantly, the final was also a fantastic advertisement for both teams as they prepare to co-host the 2026 World Cup alongside Canada.
And when you keep in mind that collaborations between Liga MX and MLS are building – such as an All-Star game that will be announced this Wednesday, according to the LA Times – there’s no doubt that matches like the Nations League final will help bring in more eyes and investment into North American soccer.
All that said, in order for the growth to continue, those in charge will need to work on stopping some of the disgraceful scenes that tarnished an otherwise thrilling match.
After what proved to be the game-winning penalty from Christian Pulisic in the second-half of extra time, the Chelsea player celebrated in front of Mexico fans, some of whom pelted the player with cups and drinks. During that celebration, his teammate Giovanni Reyna was hit on the head by a projectile. This wasn’t a lone incident either: Mexico striker Henry Martin was also hit on the head during the match.
Sadly, this is nothing new in games on both sides of the US-Mexico border, and neither was the return of the vile homophobic “puta” chant. Although it’s noteworthy to recognize that campaigns have helped significantly to quiet the chant that once rang out in unison from Mexico supporters during every goal kick for opposing teams, they were still loud enough for the referee to follow through with an anti-discrimination protocol that momentarily paused the action after the 90th minute.
Sunday’s chants also prompted a response from the Mexican Football Federation (FMF). On Monday afternoon, the FMF put out a statement that urged supporters to avoid “the discriminatory chant” and “acts of violence from the stands, such as throwing objects to the pitch.” Five people were also arrested during the game, including one person accused of hitting Reyna with a projectile.
Nonetheless, the match will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest in the Mexico-US rivalry.
For the USMNT, although Pulisic has been given numerous plaudits for his winning goal, it was Horvath who was the true hero. Initially on the bench, the 25-year-old was unexpectedly thrust into action in the 69th minute when starting goalkeeper Zack Steffen suffered an injury.
Horvath not only spectacularly saved a number of shots that could have won the game for Mexico during regulation, he also stopped a late penalty that would have sent the game to a shootout.
The match nearly tipped in Mexico’s favor as well, with stand-outs like Jesus “Tecatito” Corona, Hirving “Chucky” Lozano and Diego Lainez all coming close to sealing the title for El Tri.
And yet, it was the US with a youthful roster that found a way to cement the win. Boosted by a golden generation of exciting up-and-comers, it was the first competitive victory for the United States over Mexico since 2013.
A new chapter has begun in the rivalry, and more meaningful tournaments, such as the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifiers, are on the horizon. Sunday’s fireworks could be a mere appetizer in an intriguing year for both teams.