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USMNT wins CONCACAF Nations League in illogical extra time affair

United States v Mexico: Championship - CONCACAF Nations League Finals

DENVER, CO - JUNE 06: Captain Christian Pulisic #10 of United States lift the trophy after wining the CONCACAF Nations League Championship Final between United States and Mexico at Empower Field At Mile High on June 6, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)

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The United States men’s national team just played perhaps its most insane match in an insane confederation, granting instant legend status on heroes familiar and not.

Ethan Horvath came off the bench in the 60th minute for injured started Zack Steffen and made a series of massive saves including an extra-time penalty stop on Andres Guardado after Christian Pulisic smashed an emphatic penalty home in a 3-2 extra-time defeat of Mexico that saw Gregg Berhalter’s Americans come back from two deficits.

[ MORE: Horvath reacts to iconic save | USMNT player ratings ]

There was a red card to Tata Martino, a should’ve-been red card to Hector Herrera, VAR giving the USMNT a penalty. VAR giving Mexico a penalty. Fights between players. A pause for the second-straight game after Mexican fans delivered a homophobic slur chant (during Pride Month). And then there was the physical violence, as USMNT teen Gio Reyna (who had a goal and an assist) suffered a head injury after a projectile was fired into the match-winning goal celebration.

All this fails to mention a calamitous first 60 seconds that saw the Yanks behind 1-0 on a series of errors that would be comical if they weren’t in a final against your No. 1 confederation target in the CONCACAF Nations League Final on Sunday.

Oh, the first CONCACAF Nations League Final, one staged a solid year after it was originally scheduled by CONCACAF because, you know, a world-punching pandemic.

The American mistakes were big. The good news is that the USMNT has some killer young attackers used to big games in big spots.

And the Yanks had a big swing in fortune when Hector Moreno’s snapped header for 2-0 was taken off the board after VAR review and Giovanni Reyna deposited a rebound off a corner kick to level the match at before the match was a half-hour old.

Reyna would then assist McKennie in a game that will never ever be forgotten.

Three Five things we learned from USMNT-Mexico

1. Berhalter’s big-time guys help him get to the break alive: Gregg Berhalter has done a lot of things right as USMNT boss, proving adept at recruiting dual nationals, assembling a good team vibe, and more often than not setting up a quality game plan with the top players from his call-ups (whether he’s calling up his top talents is a question for another day).

But note that “more often than not” because Sunday was a “not.” Berhalter put an inconsistent right back (DeAndre Yedlin) next to a 22-year-old with five caps (Mark McKenzie). He put old hat Tim Ream at left back. That idea can work when Ream either doesn’t have to deal with a speedy talent or if that speedy talent is green and able to be shut down by smarts.

So what happened? Yedlin and McKenzie basically wilted under pressure in the first minute, and Ream was exposed for pace a few times and Mexico delivered the best clear-cut chances of the first 45 minutes.

That’s when Pulisic, McKennie, and Reyna -- a golden generation of attacking talent -- got the Yanks back level on a corner kick. And when the Starting XI’s most baffling inclusion in Kellyn Acosta combined with Ream and McKenzie to let Diego Lainez rip Mexico back in front, it felt like Berhalter’s personnel choices had overrun a decent-enough plan (for different pieces).

So it was fitting that McKennie and Reyna delivered the second equalizer. And also that Berhalter delivered the goods with most of his substitutions... besides Reyna’s!

2. Mexico’s defending as suspect as their rivals (and about that ref...): Tata Martino is going to be scouring his player pool for something to fix a defensive unit that had no answer for the engine and athleticism of Weston McKennie and a few of his cohorts on the USMNT. And, perhaps, he should sign up the referee for his shocking decision not to give a second yellow card to Hector Herrera for a sliding tackle that would probably be illustrated in the referee manual as your prototypical yellow card. What would’ve happened if 97% of extra time was played 11v10 to the U.S.

3. Ethan Horvath makes his case as keeper, becomes a legend regardless: You want to talk about an emotional year or two? Ethan Horvath loses his starting job at Club Brugge because Simon Mignolet decides to move home to Belgium. Then he gets his big Champions League group stage start anyway and overcomes a truly unlucky own goal to star in a win over Zenit-Saint Petersburg. His status as second-choice plus Zack Steffen’s rise then places him from presumptive next USMNT No. 1 to not even a certainty to be called into camps. Next thing he knows he’s coming in for an injured Steffen in a huge game. And he was exceptional even before denied Guardado from the spot to preserve 3-2.

4. Berhalter has good plans but personnel blind spots: Gregg BerhaIter is really, truly good at figuring out the plan to beat an opponent, but he’s looking like a guy with HUGE blind spots when it comes to talent. And it’s not as simple as saying he has a blindspot for MLS in placing Kellyn Acosta over any number of midfielders or Mark McKenzie over El Tri public enemy Matt Miazga (or Tim Ream, who was at left back... or Walker Zimmerman, who last we checked was still very much alive in Nashville). That a very decent center back in Tim Ream started at left back over club and country teammate Antonee Robinson when Fulham coach Scott Parker did not consider that idea a single time over a Premier League season and actually only played Ream twice after January... Yeah. Forget lifting Giovanni Reyna for Sebastian Lletget (who, to be fair, had been very good in a U.S. shirt prior to the Honduras match).

The plan to win the match with immense attacking talent against shaky Mexican defending and trusting his center defensive mids and back four to handle its business was solid. And if he picks better fits for those last two gigs the Yanks might have been up 3-0 by halftime.

5. Christian Pulisic was already a USMNT. Now he’s a legend: He was marked out of the Honduras game by hard fouls and Mexico tried to do the same thing to the Chelsea star. But he still delivered a corner kick for USMNT goal No. 1. And he won the winning penalty before it was the winning penalty via his smashing upper-90 conversion. Pulisic metaphorically and physically silenced the pro-Mexico portion of the crowd and, well, that’s what we call iconic.

Man of the Match: Weston McKennie

Giovanni Reyna was marvelous, John Brooks the main reason Mexico didn’t have three at the break, and Ethan Horvath an especially wonderful surprise in an awkward spot. But McKennie is the spirit animal for what the American soccer fans want the men’s program to be and he was so much fun.

CONCACAF Nations League Final: USMNT-Mexico recap

The clock read 1:00 when the first goal went up on the score board, a nightmare start for Gregg Berhalter in his first final as USMNT coach.

Josh Sargent slipped. DeAndre Yedlin left his feet in a desperation move to snap the ball out of bounds in a 1v1 with Jesus Corona, but Tecatito kept his cool and eventually fired a rocket into the top of the goal after Mark McKenzie gave him the ball in the U.S. box.

Giving up a goal after a minute is never good, but it’s especially harmful when two of the players making mistakes were questionable starters in the first place.

Yedlin entered the game with 63 caps and plenty of big-game experience but had played nine minutes for the USMNT since Nov. 20, 2019.

And McKenzie was collecting his fifth cap and just his second coming outside of a friendly. None of that is his fault of course.

[ MORE: Nations League schedule, scores, stats ]

And Moreno then buried a header to make it 2-0 but thank Heaven for VAR -- wasn’t expecting to say that -- as the Mexican veteran was just offside in his bid to snap the set piece home.

It wasn’t long after that Reyna got on the board.

The 18-year-old Borussia Dortmund phenom and son of USMNT legend Claudio Reyna kept his cool when Weston McKennie’s header of a Christian Pulisic corner kick smashed off the post, settling the ball and rolling it past Guillermo Ochoa, the hero of Mexico’s semifinal win.

The second half began with a lot better stuff from the United States and the first sub was Timothy Weah for an ineffective Sergino Dest.

The Yanks almost instantly claimed a lead through some really pretty football, though Weah didn’t have much to say about it, as Pulisic picked out a surging McKennie with a perfect pass that led to Sargent’s bid to solve Guillermo Ochoa stymied by the El Tri living legend.

But it was another goalkeeper in the headlines when Steffen pulled up while trying to release an outlet pass. The Manchester City man got treatment from the trainers but could not continue and Ethan Horvath would have to enter relatively cold.

Berhalter was soon under the spotlight, anxious to keep play going before colliding with Nestor Araujo outside his technical area -- just outside. He was given a card reprieve by the referee.

Mexico went in front again in the 79th minute when Hirving “Chucky” Lozano spotted Diego Lainez and the youngster cut a shot through Ream, Acosta, and McKenzie, but McKennie was there to put Reyna’s pass home three minutes later.

But don’t worry, the drama wasn’t over and the next bit was vile, as Mexican fans’ chant of a homophobic slur saw a game suspended after 90 minutes for the second time in a week.

Tata Martino would soon see red after seeing red. The Mexico coach was given a red card for touching the referee during the actual video reviewing point of a VAR decision that became the U.S. game winner after Pulisic was pretty clearly fouled in the box.

The Chelsea star smashed his penalty into the camera in the upper 90 to defy an exceptional Guillermo “Memo” Ochoa, an El Tri legend and hero of the semifinal via a penalty save versus Costa Rica. As a shirtless Pulisic raised his finger to his lips in front of Mexican supporters, the crowd fired projectiles onto the field and one caught Reyna on the head, felling the teenager who required medical treatment.

Then VAR went against the U.S. when a cross was headed onto the arm of Acosta from about a yard at best. The stunning penalty award turned karmic went Horvath went right to deny Andres Guardado an equalizer and deliver the U.S. a win, one that allowed Pulisic to hoist his first USMNT trophy as captain and give Berhalter his first bit of silverware as national team boss.

When’s the next game? We’ll need some time to recover but also to get hyped for the Gold Cup and, hopefully, a final without homophobia, fan violence, and pitch invaders but with two massive border rivals.

Follow @NicholasMendola