It’s been two months, almost to the day, since the U.S. national team and Mexico met at Soldier Field with the Gold Cup title on the line.
That night, for nearly an hour, it looked as though Gregg Berhalter’s first tournament as coach of the USA would end in victory.
Only, the goal the U.S. had been pushing for never came and the chances dried up. Then, for the last half hour, Mexico proved that it was still the king of CONCACAF.
"I think that we’re both in a position where we’re battling for supremacy in CONCACAF. We’re both trying to be the top team," Berhalter said at a news conference Thursday. "I think right now Mexico is slightly ahead of us, having beaten us in the last game and performed well in the last few years.”
Friday’s rematch is just a friendly. There will be no trophy handed out at the end of the night, and even if Berhalter’s side takes a comfortable victory, the loss in the Gold Cup final will remain the last match played with any real defining quality in the rivalry.
That said, the showdown at MetLife Stadium on Friday night will carry more meaning than most friendlies.
While the Gold Cup final will be remembered in the history books and Friday’s match is likely to be little more than a footnote, there’s an argument to be made that the two sides on the pitch Friday will, in fact, be closer to full strength than they were two months ago.
For Mexico, Hector Herrera is back in the fold to run the midfield, Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez has returned from his summer off and, maybe most importantly, Hirving 'Chucky' Lozano has put his injury struggles behind him and should be storming up and down the wing for Tata Martino’s side.
As for the USA, Tyler Adams has not recovered from his injury issues and the same can be said of DeAndre Yedlin. A hamstring has kept Tim Weah – who looked set for substantial playing time with new club Lille and likely would have been back in the U.S. side – off the roster as well.
Still others – notably veterans Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore – are fighting for their playoff lives in MLS and won’t take part during the September international window.
Yet, somehow, this USMNT roster feels more complete, primarily for one reason.
Berhalter’s Gold Cup squad, while solid, was short on players who can truly change matches at the international level, even against a Mexico team lacking a number of top stars.
Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie – both regular starters in top leagues in Europe who have Champions League experience – are the obvious exceptions and Aaron Long has the quality to be a real force at the back.
Beyond that trio, however, the ceiling for most of the team Berhalter used in the Gold Cup final isn’t particularly high, even if the floor is.
That’s why the return of John Brooks could prove to be a game-changer against Mexico on Friday.
That’s not to say that there aren’t others – Adams, Weah and Josh Sargent all have high ceilings, and there are young talents like 16-year-old Giovanni Reyna who are showing promise – but in Brooks, Berhalter is bringing arguably the most physically gifted center back in CONCACAF back into his squad.
The pairing of Brooks and Long, along with goalkeeper Zack Steffen – who it should be said also has a very high ceiling – gives the USA a back line that, at its best, can more than hold its own against quality international opponents.
He offers a range of passing few others in the U.S. center back pool can match, a towering presence on set pieces and the pace and range to be comfortable defending even when isolated in space.
Long and Brooks have only shared the backline for Berhalter once, helping keep a clean sheet in a friendly against a talented Ecuador squad.
Friday should see their second time together.
Having his top two center backs on the pitch together should be a seen as a step in the right direction for Berhalter as he continues to build the foundation of his team ahead of the next World Cup qualifying cycle.
And even if El Tri’s does have more talent coming back into the team, they won’t find the USA easy to break down with Brooks back in the lineup.