USMNT embrace the chaos to take down Mexico in historic Nations League victory

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Someday, years from now, there may be a time when we look back at the moment the young U.S. men's national team (USMNT) grew up.

We'll look at the turning point when a team of potential talents became a team of winners. We'll look back at a game that was, in some ways, unexplainable, but one that showed that this group had the heart and soul to match their seemingly limitless potential.

That day may have been Sunday and that moment may just have been the one when Christian Pulisic raised the CONCACAF Nations League trophy high above his head.

As Pulisic let out a scream, as confetti poured and fireworks exploded around him, as the U.S. celebrated their triumph following a pure street fight with their fiercest rivals, the moment was clear for all to see: this was the night that the kids stopped being kids and became champions.

Pulisic and the USMNT got their hands on what was, for most of the team's young core, their first international trophy and, if all goes to plan, it won't be their last. On Sunday, they out-brawled and outlasted rivals Mexico, winning a 120-minute dogfight 3-2 in a game that had everything you could ask for and plenty of things you wouldn't.

It had choke-holds and melees. It had momentum-shifting goals and a heroic penalty save from a back-up goalkeeper. There was a stoppage for a homophobic slur, projectiles thrown from the stands and streakers. The good, the bad and the ugly, they were all on display.

When it came to the action on the field, though, this was old school USMNT grit mixed with new talent. For years, this group has been criticised for failing to merge their ability with the heart and fight that defined the program.

No longer. In addition to all of their promise and despite all of their self-inflicted mistakes, this USMNT finally showed that it also has it, whatever it is.

"It was important. I think for this group, it's really important," said head coach Gregg Berhalter. "We're a young side and we need to learn how to win, and these games are very difficult.

"For us it was about having a game plan, executing the game plan, but then it's also about the fight and the spirit, and when you think that we went down in the second minute of the game and all of a sudden now we have to push the game a little bit, it was challenging.

"Give the guys a ton of credit for the way they hung in there and really showed you know the heart of champions and it was good to see tonight."

Just moments into the game, it looked like that those championship hopes would amount to little more than a pipe dream. After building his philosophy around the 4-3-3 and a possession-based tactic, Berhalter showed perhaps too much respect for Gerardo 'Tata' Martino's Mexico by emerging with a five-at-the-back system.

It backfired almost immediately, as Mark McKenzie, the young centre-back starting his first game against Mexico, flubbed a sideways pass straight to Jesus Corona, giving Mexico a gift of a goal two minutes in.

That moment was the USMNT's first test of the night, but it wouldn't be their last. In the minutes that followed, the U.S. played like a staggered boxer that just barely beat the referee's count, one clinching for dear life to avoid being knocked down again. They struggled to pass the ball let alone create with it as Mexico turned up the pressure.

It nearly resulted in a second goal, with Hector Moreno's heading home from close range only to be ruled offside, but that moment provided all the momentum the USMNT needed for Gio Reyna to push forward and level the score heading into half-time.

At that point, the game was just starting, both in terms of time and eventfulness. The second 45 brought chaos; the USMNT embraced it and, in a way, thrived off of it.

They conceded again, this time to Diego Lainez, who came off the bench to score in the 79th minute, but once again, they battled back, with Weston McKennie heading home three minutes later to force extra time. Just moments after, he was choked for his efforts, as the two teams collided for one of several brawls in stoppage time.

"It's a lot of crowds, a lot of pushing. I don't know what it is but they seem to like to grab my neck," said McKennie, who also was the victim of a choke in a prior clash with El Tri.

"It's a rivalry that's been there for generations and it's a rivalry that will still carry on and we just got the upper hand this time and, and hopefully it stays that way."

In getting to extra time, the U.S. lost a key piece in Zack Steffen, who suffered an injury and was replaced by Ethan Horvath. In the end, it was Horvath, the substitute goalkeeper, who would prove one of the night's heroes.

The first would be Pulisic, the Chelsea star who still might have been a bit tired from post-Champions League celebrations, even if he'd never admit it. It was Pulisic who drew what turned out to be the penalty that changed the game, prompting a VAR review that eventually saw Martino issued a red card for interfering.

Pulisic buried his spot kick, smashing it into the upper right-hand corner before darting towards the crowd with his shirt in hand. He and his teammates were pelted by projectiles from the crowd, with Reyna suffering an apparent facial injury after being hit.

Then came Horvath, who had already made several key saves in the second half. After a handball call in the box, it was the USMNT's second-string goalkeeper that parried away Andres Guardado's penalty kick, sealing the win and the trophy that came with it.

"Oh my goodness. It's hard. It really is," Berhalter said reflecting on the game. "Think about a final, giving up a goal in the first minute of the game or second minute of the game, and then the way we came back, got level at half-time then to go down again and come back again late in the game.

"Overtime was just a complete, complete mess, to be honest with everything that was going on in the game, but the guys still stayed cool."

Now it's up to the rest of us to figure out what to make of Sunday's result. In some ways, it means little in the grand scheme of things. It's the inaugural final of a brand new tournament, one with no history to offer context.

It's nowhere near as important as World Cup qualifying, which is set to begin this fall and will offer a truer picture of who really lords over this region, but in some ways it was exactly the sort of moment that the USMNT needed. It put a dent in Mexico's recent dominance and gave the U.S. a true defining win in a rivalry that has had plenty of them over the years.

From Dos a Cero at the World Cup to Mexico's triumphs in the Gold Cup to the duels in the Azteca, this was a game that, improbably, will rank among the best and most memorable.

"It's a huge step for this group," said midfielder Sebastian Lletget. "I think it just gives us more belief that we can really move forward and we can play with the big teams like Mexico. Even though we beat them today, they're a very good team. We know that, but it's about who wants it more.

"I think today we showed that and it's got to go down as one of the best USA-Mexico games I've ever seen or I've ever been a part of."

There will be plenty more clashes between these two in the coming years. The Gold Cup is around the corner, even though the shine is taken off that due to the weakened squad that will likely head to it.

World Cup qualifying promises a few more of these meetings, including a trip to the mighty Azteca, and, if Sunday was any indication, the CONCACAF Nations League may prove to be yet another battleground for two teams that no one will ever get tired of seeing face off.

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From a USMNT perspective, Sunday's win wasn't perfect. There were moments where the U.S. showed their inexperience, exposed their flaws. They made mistakes, too many of them to be honest. They showed that this team is still one with a lot to learn.

They also showed that they have the guts to learn those things and the heart to survive those moments that are more about will than skill. It's thriving in those moments that truly define teams and it's that ability to battle that leads to trophies.

So it's one down for this group of young stars. How many more to go?