Gregg Berhalter had to be happy with his team walking into the locker room at halftime. His emotions at the end of the match were another story altogether.
The U.S. national team played a very good first half against Mexico in Sunday's Gold Cup final, creating the more dangerous chances and neutralizing El Tri's attacking players. What the Americans didn't do is finish their chances, which ultimately spelled doom for them when the second half wore on and Mexican began to take control.
As the Americans faded, the Mexicans grew stronger. Rodolfo Pizarro, Jonathan dos Santos and Raul Jimenez began to impose themselves while Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley tired and Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie saw their influence on the match diminish. Without that quartet, and with Berhalter's substitutes failing to provide any sort of impact, a Mexico victory grew more and more inevitable as the second half went on.
The frustrating part for the USMNT is that Mexico was ripe for the taking in the first half, with Altidore missing a clear early chance and Pulisic having his own chance denied by a Guillermo Ochoa save. Paul Arriola also found himself with an opportunity to open the scoring after racing in to beat Ochoa to a ball, but his chance floated wide of the mark.
As the misses piled up, the window of opportunity began to close for the Americans, because as strong as they were in the first half, maintaining that level was never going to be possible. Altidore and Bradley were outstanding in the first half, but the work they put into that first 45 minutes was always going to be impossible for them to duplicate in the second frame.
Berhalter didn't have much of a choice but to replace Altidore with the ineffective Gyasi Zardes, who never found the game, but his next two subs did little to help the U.S. cause. Cristian Roldan replaced Jordan Morris just after the hour mark, a move Berhalter explained after the match as being driven by the need for his team to gain more possession. The Americans didn't get more of the ball though, nor did they generate chances.
Berhalter's decision to leave Tyler Boyd on the bench was a surprising one given the fact his team needed a goal, but the decision to use his final substitution on Daniel Lovitz felt like a concession of defeat rather than a last gasp attempt to snatch an equalizer.
Berhalter pointed to a need for some service, and the hope that Lovitz would provide it, but that substitution also missed the mark.
Instead, the final 20 minutes of Sunday's final felt more like a coronation for El Tri, rather than the even and competitive final we were treated to in the first half. That half of action was entertaining and both teams showed an eagerness to attack. The pro-Mexico crowd at Soldier Field was treated to good battle, at least for a half. The second half was all Mexico.
That Mexico won the Gold Cup wasn't all that surprising. El Tri entered the tournament as favorites, and boasted the more experienced and stronger team, even with so many of its stars missing. What makes Sunday's loss disappointing for the Americans is the reality that they put together an outstanding first half that could have paved the way for a win, but they didn't deliver.
Sunday's final was a harsh, but needed lesson for a young team, and a relatively young coach. Both left Soldier Field knowing they could have done better. The hope for the USMNT is that those lessons lead to a better prepared team the next time they play in a big game, and the next time they face their arch rival.