Differing paths, same expectations: Winning all that matters for USMNT & Mexico in Gold Cup final

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It has been just 56 days since the last time the U.S. men's national team and Mexico faced off with one another in what was a classic that seemingly ushered in a new chapter in one of international soccer's great rivalries.

But, in those 56 days, the two rivals have gone down different paths.

The USMNT sent its stars home, giving them an extended vacation to rest up and recover as the program looked to deepen its player pool.

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Mexico, meanwhile, looked to strengthen what was already there as they licked their wounds and vowed to fight back after suffering defeat in the CONCACAF Nations League final that night in Denver.

And here both teams are, 56 days later, meeting in another tournament finale as they collide once again in Sunday's Gold Cup final.

But this game will have an entirely different look, as the two programs approached this tournament with two different philosophies.

Still, despite all of the things they have done differently over the last month or so, both teams enter with the exact same expectation: to win.

While the USMNT may only have that expectation now having reached the final, it is safe to say that, at times, winning was a secondary goal. Instead of calling in his A-Team, Berhalter allowed stars such as Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna to rest, turning to a young group who are eyeing spots in the team when World Cup qualifying begins in the fall.

Early in the tournament, Berhalter said his biggest goal was to "collect information", and he has gotten plenty so far.

USMNT Jamaica GFX

To date, he has learned that Miles Robinson and James Sands have the makings of legitimate international centerbacks. He has learned that Kellyn Acosta may just be the backup No.6 this team needs and that Gianluca Busio is every bit the young star everyone says he is.

He has learned that Matt Turner may just be his No.1 goalkeeper and that players like Matthew Hoppe could be ready for a big step forward.

But, while Berhalter has learned plenty, the most important part of this exercise was making sure this team's young stars learned along the way too. And, after grueling wins over the likes of Qatar, Jamaica and Canada, it is safe to say they've been tested.

So that brings us to the big question: what can they expect from this final against Mexico? Should the U.S. simply be happy to have made it this far, to have maximized the chances to learn about these players? In a world where the U.S. still has to prove it can qualify for a World Cup, is winning one final and making it to another progress?

In some ways, yes, but Berhalter says that this team does not believe it has met or exceeded expectations this summer. At least not yet.

"I don't give much credit to that school of thought," Berhalter said. "I think it's a disservice to our guys and a disservice to our team.

"The guys want to win this game. We're going to do everything we can to win this game, and if we don't win this game, I can guarantee you we're going to be bitterly disappointed.

"We've been together now for four weeks and the guys have grown so close together. There's nothing better than to win this title, and that's where we'll be 100 per cent focused on."

"The only thing that has exceeded our expectations has been the mentality of the group," he added. "You never know exactly how the group is going to come together when you name the roster and I've been absolutely amazed at the cohesiveness of this group and how players are responding to challenges and how the team itself is focused on our goals."

Mexico, meanwhile, only has always only had one goal. As it so often is with El Tri, there were two options heading into this tournament: win the whole thing or total and complete failure.

This Mexico team, which included most of the team's household names, was selected with that mentality in mind.

With El Tri, a coach is only as good as the team's last performance, so even the slightest misstep could have been enough to put Gerardo 'Tata' Martino right onto the hot seat.

Funes Mori Herrara GFX Mexico

So far, though, he has played it well. Despite the controversy surrounding his selection, Rogelio Funes Mori has fit in perfectly. The loss of Hirving Lozano was a bad one, for sure but, so far, the team has coped well enough to make the final.

To get there, they even had to overcome heartbreakm as star midfielder Jonathan dos Santos took the field hours after his father's passing in an emotional win over Canada.

And they enter Sunday's game as clear-cut favorites against their rivals, which Martino is well aware of.

"First of all, the peace of mind that comes from being in another final, it's what should be happening often with Mexico," he said. "We know it isn't easy, even being favorites. We have the chance to be in another final tomorrow.

"We'll be facing the USMNT, the team the coach decided to pick for this Gold Cup. The reasons behind those choices are not our concern, nor even worth analyzing, we simply have the U.S. shirt against us in another final and we will be out to beat it."

And so the stage is set for what could be another classic encounter. It is one that is missing some of the big stars, but one that still has all of the meaning baked right in.

A USMNT win gives Berhalter's side another leg up on their rivals heading into World Cup qualifying, while also giving the U.S. a very legitimate claim to being the team to beat in this region.

A Mexico win eases any concerns of that fact, repositioning El Tri right back atop CONCACAF.

From the youth level right on up, every time these two teams meet, there is a similar belief on both sides that every game is a must-win. No matter the stakes or scenario, losing is something that cannot be tolerated.

That is what makes these games so special. That is what makes these games often lose control.

And that is why Sunday night's Gold Cup final still means so much to both teams, despite the different paths taken to get there.