CINCINNATI — The U.S. men are young and loaded with talent. Loaded with confidence, too, and it’s that swagger that could carry them far in next year’s World Cup.
The Americans beat archrival Mexico by the familiar “Dos a Cero” scoreline Friday night, their fifth 2-0 victory over El Tri in home World Cup qualifying since 2001. All in Ohio, oddly enough, though the first four came in Columbus.
But it was the way they played that impressed even more than the result. After weathering a sloppy start, the Americans never took their foot off the gas. They gave every bit as good as they were getting in the chippy game. Yunus Musah, playing against El Tri for the first time, showed an edge that normally takes several games in the rivalry to develop.
And after Christian Pulisic broke a scoreless tie with a header five minutes after coming on as a substitute, he pulled up his jersey to reveal a T-shirt with “Man in the Mirror” written on it. It was a not-so-subtle clapback to Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who had said that “Mexico is the mirror in which the United States wants to see itself.”
“I think you guys know the message,” Pulisic said afterward. “I don’t need to speak on too much. It’s not a big thing, I’m not trying to cause controversy.”
Oh, it’s too late for that.
The Americans took offense to what they saw as a lack of respect from Mexico, despite the USMNT beating El Tri twice over the summer. In games where titles were at stake, no less.
It’s the first time in the rivalry that either team has won three games in a row in a calendar year since 1937.
“Before the game, Mexico was talking a lot of smack,” said Tim Weah, who set up Pulisic’s goal with a perfect cross. “We had to shut them up.”
Good for them.
This is the most talented team the U.S. men have ever had. Of the 25 players called in for this round of qualifiers, 15 are playing in Europe. And that doesn’t count Sergino Dest and Gio Reyna, who are out with injuries.
These aren’t small teams, either. Pulisic is at Chelsea. Weston McKennie, who had the second goal, is at Juventus. Musah is at Valencia. Weah is at Lille. Dest is at Barcelona. Reyna is at Borussia Dortmund.
But talent will only carry a team so far.
The Germanys, the Frances, the Argentinas, the Brazils of the world, they go to the World Cup with the belief that they can make deep runs, if not win it all. It helps that they’ve done it before, sure. But they have a belief, a swagger, that puts them in a class above the Americans even before the tournament begins.
In the modern age, or since the USMNT ended their 40-year absence from the World Cup in 1990, their best finish is the quarterfinals, in 2002. Most of the time, it was considered a success just to reach the knockout rounds.
There’s no shame in that and, honestly, it was probably the best the Americans could manage with the talent they had.
But this group has the talent to go deeper and, despite their youth, they’re not going to be satisfied with squeaking into the knockout rounds or even going out in the round of 16 yet again.
“When we step on the field, we have certain expectations for our performances. I think that’s what’s most important,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. “It’s a young group. It’s a group that’s fearless, it’s a group that will go out and play against anyone, play hard against anyone, and I think that’s really good.
“To me, the most important thing is to keep our focus and how do we focus on our own expectations every single game,” he added. “If we do that, we’ll be fine.”
The U.S. men have to get to the World Cup first, of course. The top three teams in Concacaf advance to the World Cup while the fourth-place team goes to a playoff, and the Americans are atop the standings at the midway point in qualifying.
But just three points separate them from Panama, which is in fourth. There are tough games left at Canada and at Mexico, and the Americans will have to put this win behind them quickly so they can bring the same intensity to Tuesday’s match in Jamaica.
Should the Americans make it to Qatar, however, do not count them out. They might not be ready to win a World Cup just yet, but they’re closer than they’ve ever been.
“We’ve come a long way in the last couple of years,” said Pulisic, one of the few players left from the team that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. “To win three in a row (against Mexico) is obviously amazing, but it doesn’t mean it’s time to be complacent or think, ‘Oh we’re the best.’
“We want to continue to prove what this team is about and start to show the world what this national team is about.”
The world can consider itself warned.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USMNT defeats Mexico, shows that Americans can make World Cup run