Denver -- The U.S. men's national team and Mexico renew their rivalry Sunday night when the two sides face off in the final of the Concacaf Nations League on CBS Sports Network and Paramount+. Both teams struggled to narrow victories against inferior competition in the semifinals. It took the U.S. until the 89th for their breakthrough goal from substitute Jordan Siebatcheu against Honduras while Costa Rica took Mexico to penalties before Memo Ochoa's crucial save put El Tri through.
Here are three questions that are likely to decide who will emerge victorious when Concacaf's two best teams take the field.
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1. Who will tire first?
In the semifinals both Mexico and the USMNT saw significant drop offs in their performance from the first to the second half. While neither team managed to break through and score a goal in the opening period, both of the favorites clearly dominated their opposition. Then the situation changed after the break.
Over the course of the match, the USMNT dominated Honduras. The side had 64% of the ball, attempting 477 passes to Honduras's 255. They took 10 shots to Honduras's seven, but more importantly their expected goal total was 1.43 to Honduras's 0.19, suggesting that the U.S. used all that passing to not only outshoot their opponents but take significantly better shots as well. But break down the U.S. production by half and a scary pattern emerges. Six of the team's 10 shots came in the first half, and 0.92 of their xG did as well. In fact until Siebatcheu's goal the team created only 0.19 xG, a steep drop-off from their first half domination. Rather than asserting their dominance as the game went on, the U.S. faded badly, and were largely stymied by Honduras for long stretches of the second half.
A similar thing happened to Mexico. Over the course of the game El Tri won the possession battle, 58% to 42%, outshot Costa Rica 13 to six and had more xG, 0.99 to 0.35, but similarly to the United States their dominance waned as the match progressed. Fully 10 of Mexico's shots came in the first half, and 0.86 of their xG tally was accrued before the break. Mexico, like the United States, dominated in the first half and limped to the finish line.
These matches are being played at altitude in Denver, and they come after a long and busy season with an unusually crowded schedule thanks to the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps it's understandable that coming out flying in the first half leads to a slower second half. That said, if either of these two teams can manage to find a second wind (or hang onto their first wind longer) they'll likely be able to dominate in the second half and win the match. Whether that means managers should be looking to make early substitutions or play an energy saving more conservative first half, or just leave it up to their players to find more left in their legs, the second half of this match will be where it's decided.
2. Can the United States win the possession battle?
There was a time when the U.S. was a counterattacking team. They defended low, were hard to break down, and looked to invite opponents onto them in order to use superior athleticism to break at speed and catch more skilled opponents with their guard down. That approach meant that occasionally the team was able to pull off surprising upsets but also that they could struggle against less skilled opponents who were uninterested in taking risks to break them down. Those days are gone.
Over their last ten matches the United States has had more possession in nine of them and those nine matches have resulted in eight wins and a draw. The only match they had less than 50% possession in was their friendly against Switzerland, last week, a match they lost 2-1.
Now, that's not to say that winning the possession battle guarantees a victory. The last time the U.S. faced Mexico, in fact, the team had over 52% of the ball, but lost 3-0. You might argue that the reason the U.S. had so much possession in that match is that they were so unsuccessful while chasing the game. And the fact that they only had six total shots would suggest you'd be correct. Still, broadly speaking, the current version of the USMNT, with Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna as influential attacking pieces, likes having the ball. If they can control possession against Mexico (which has the added benefit of keeping El Tri away from their shaky back line) they'll be in position to win.
3. Will Mexico be patient?
One thing that the USMNT is not particularly good at is forcing teams to shoot from distance. Only twice in their last ten matches has the United States managed to force opponents to take more than half their shots from outside the box. This isn't the end of the world for the U.S. because they also manage to keep teams from generating many shots against them, only conceding more than 10 twice in their last ten matches.
Mexico, meanwhile took seven of their 13 shots from outside the box against Costa Rica. Hirving Lozano, who looked like Mexico's most electric attacker on the night, only managed to take one of his three shots from close range. For all that Mexico were dynamic in wide areas they struggled to turn those attacks down the wing into good looking attempts in the middle of the box. Those opportunities are there to be had against the U.S. and if Mexico are going to continue their dominance of their northern rivals, they're going to have to take advantage of them.