Win or lose, these promising prospects will proceed through an informative gauntlet on Sunday night. They will face their biggest rivals in front of a capacity crowd at Estadio Cuauhtemoc with meaningful and tangible stakes on the line. They must grapple with the hostility that awaits them and thrive under difficult conditions against a heavily favored opponent.
It is exactly the sort of trial these young players require as they attempt to establish a foundation for further growth within the national team program, according to US under-20 coach Tab Ramos.
“I’m very happy that our players are going to have that experience,” Ramos said after his team completed a regeneration session on Saturday. “If you look at some of these guys, hopefully, they’ll be involved in important qualifiers down the road. I think getting this experience in Mexico against Mexico with a full stadium, it’s really something they can get something out of.”
Despite the promise of those future benefits, the Americans remain focused on securing instant gratification and winning this competition for the first time. The odds may favor Mexico, but the visitors enter this match with plenty of reason for optimism. They have improved in each successive match in the competition – including the 2-0 victory over Cuba in the semifinals on Friday night – and have justified their place in the final with their knockout round performances.
None of those encounters, however, presented the type of daunting challenge offered by Mexico. The home side labored a bit by its own lofty standards in the 2-0 semifinal victory over El Salvador two days ago, but it still enters this final in stirring form. It has scored 12 goals without conceding a reply in its four matches in this tournament.
Most of the success stems from a considerable ability to dictate terms in possession. The collective strength of the side – from Richard Sánchez between the sticks through Marco Bueno up front – allows for patience on the ball until the right moment arises to carve apart the opposition. And, as defensive lynchpin Antonio Briseño displayed in the scrambled opener against the plucky Salvadorans, this group can also rely on threatening set pieces to provide an alternative route to goal if those avenues never appear.
“They’re a great team,” US midfielder Wil Trapp said. “They’ve done extremely well in this tournament and tournaments past. We just think that we need to play our game, keep the ball on the ground and just go at them.”
Coping with Mexico requires a different approach than the rather charitable mindset the US employed against Cuba. In order to keep themselves in the game, the Americans must find a way to operate occasionally in possession and push out of their own end at points to avoid soaking up pressure for 90 minutes.
“I think one of the things we can’t do is just come out and defend,” Ramos said. “It’s not going to work. Against Cuba, the game was a little bit different because we thought that if we gave Cuba the ball, they couldn’t beat us with it. That is definitely not the case with Mexico. The more we give Mexico the ball, the more chance they have of winning the game.”
The inclusion of Daniel Cuevas and Jose Villarreal would boost the Americans’ chances of emerging with a victory significantly, but both players must recover quickly in order to claim a place in the starting XI. Cuevas injured his ankle on a poor tackle and exited during the second half against Cuba. Villarreal watched that match from the bench after he sustained a right ankle injury during the first half of the 4-2 victory over Canada on Tuesday. Ramos said he would wait until gameday before deciding whether either player would feature.
Even if Cuevas and Villarreal miss out entirely, the Americans must still enter this match with ample reserves of ambition and belief to keep hope alive. Recent results should supply plenty of inspiration, but they cannot afford to let the occasion overwhelm them or prevent them from playing to their strengths.
“It is a very good challenge for us,” US midfielder Benji Joya said. “Mexico is a hard team, honestly. It is a good challenge for us and a good chance to prove what we are made of and show people what we’re capable of.”
Those answers could provide harsh truths or hopeful signs at full time on Sunday night. Either way, this tense encounter against a seasoned and talented opponent will aid all of these players as they continue in their careers and march onward toward this summer’s World Cup.