When the Mexican national team took control of the second half of Sunday's Gold Cup final, it was easy to point to tactical adjustments made by El Tri coach Tata Martino as having turned the tide, but the reality is momentum swung in the second half because the U.S. national team ran out of gas.
Gregg Berhalter watched his team attack Mexico's defense relentlessly in the first half, creating chance after chance, but as those opportunities went unfulfilled, there was another worrying trend that continued. The U.S. team's young players kept the pedal on the gas, even as the team's fuel gauge careened dangerously toward empty.
"It cost us a lot of energy to play the way that we were playing," Berhalter said after the match. "We had very quick attacks. You can’t go from your goalkeeper and try to go to their goal 15-20 times a night. You need also to change the rhythm of the game, keep the ball, get them moving side to side, and we didn’t do that."
After dodging those first-half threats, Mexico eventually found themselves facing an American team that started to slow down, which then moved the match into a pace that suited El Tri perfectly.
Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley were clearly worn out after the first 60 minutes, but fatigue wasn't limited to the U.S. team's older players. Even young stars Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, who were all over the field in the first half, faded out of the match, which left the American attack relatively toothless down the stretch.
"As we continue to grow and mature as a team, one of the things we’ll always need to work on is the balance of using the speed and direct attacking ability of guys like Christian and Jozy, Jordan Morris and Paul Arriola," Michael Bradley said. "A bunch more guys as well whose ability to be fast and mobile and on the move in a vertical way towards the goal is quite good.
"We want to use that, we want to take advantage of that, but we also then, in other moments, want to know how to slow things down. Know how to make the first pass or two out of our half, but then be able to manage things and connect passes and drive the other team back a little bit. It’s a balance."
The Americans started out fast in their semifinal win against Jamaica, but the difference was they were able to put an early goal on the board to put the pressure on the Reggae Boyz.
Berhalter's side executed his first-half game plan well against Mexico, but when the match remained scoreless into the second half, El Tri settled down defensively, and began to dominate the midfield by limiting the amount of time Bradley and McKennie operated on the ball.
"We felt like we had an advantage on them with speed, with quickness, and we definitely showed that in the first half," Berhalter said. "Again, as we continually try to have quick attacks it will cost energy in the end and Mexico, they stayed calm. Their experience really helped and they were able to keep moving us around and we lost some power."
Managing tempo was something the Mexican team did very well, and that played out in the second half, when El Tri alternated between patient stretches of possession along with the targeted attacking forays of Rodolfo Pizarro, Jonathan Dos Santos and Andres Guardado.
"In the first half they pressured us a lot, and fouled us a lot, the game was very even," Dos Santos said. "In the second half they didn't have as much, we dominated the entire second half, created chances and we deserved the victory."
"They got tired a little in the second half and we took advantage of the spaces," Mexico midfielder Edson Alvarez said. "We took advantage of our intensity to take the ball from them on their side of the field and that was a turning point."
Berhalter lamented his team's second-half struggles, but sounded like a coach who was optimistic about how his team performed at the Gold Cup overall, chalking up Sunday's loss to an experience his young team needed to go through in order to grow.
"Mexico definitely have an experienced team, but we have a quality team," Berhalter said. "We believe in a lot of the young players and we think at the end of the day we need to gain experience so a game like this is perfect for us. It was a big occasion, a lot of the player’s first time playing in a game like this and we need to learn. We weren’t ready for the step tonight but we will be ready.
"I think the guys will learn a lot from this game," Berhalter said. "There’s a lot of guys playing in their first game like this. For us, the whole month the focus was on making progress and when I look back and evaluate it I think we did make progress. This experience will help us moving forward."