CHICAGO -- Throughout this Gold Cup, United States manager Gregg Berhalter spoke of nothing less than winning the tournament. Given the strength of Mexico's side -- even one shorn of players such as Tecatito Corona, Chicharito Hernandez, Carlos Vela and Miguel Layun -- the odds of that happening seemed long.
So the Gold Cup was always going to be about more than winning. It was going to be about gaining experience for the younger elements of the U.S. squad, as well as a manager new to the international game. It was also about absorbing tough lessons, and boy did the ones delivered in Sunday's 1-0 Gold Cup final loss to Mexico hurt.
One of the lessons is as old as the game itself: A team playing a more talented opponent simply has to take its chances, and the Americans didn't, especially early in the match. Both Christian Pulisic and Jozy Altidore failed to convert clear breakaways in the first 10 minutes, with Mexico keeper Guillermo Ochoa saving Pulisic's effort and Altidore failing to put his attempt on target. Paul Arriola darted through and beat Ochoa to a ball in the 31st minute, but could only roll his tight-angled effort wide. Jordan Morris had a header cleared off the line by Andres Guardado in the 51st minute.
It was at that point that the game turned irrevocably, and it was time for the U.S. to be handed some different lessons, most notably in terms of game management, both on the field and on the sideline. Berhalter never did have an answer for the tactical adjustments made by Mexico counterpart Tata Martino, in particular Martino's moving of Rodolfo Pizarro to the right flank where he could run at Tim Ream, a center-back attempting to play left-back.
Pizarro had already been a huge presence in the first half, teeing up Andres Guardado for a 16th-minute chance. Pizarro's influence only increased in the second half, and the same was true of his teammates. Mexico's grip on the game tightened. The U.S. proved incapable of keeping the ball. And after pounding on the door -- with multiple shots going right at U.S. keeper Zack Steffen -- Mexico finally carved out a goal of quality. Of course it was Pizarro in the middle of it, and his pass to Raul Jimenez was back-heeled to Jonathan dos Santos whose bending shot beat Steffen in the U.S. goal.
So just how did the game get away from the U.S.? The assessments varied.
"It became a very vertical game, and it opened up a lot of space," Berhalter said postmatch about the second half. "We needed to avoid that by being able to keep [the] ball, being able to move the ball side to side, moving more horizontally rather than vertically.
"We were rushing attacks in the second half, much too direct, and it cost us energy."
Berhalter added, "I think what we lacked was I think some of the confidence, some of the composure. We knew it was going to be a big event, we knew it was going to be a semi-hostile crowd. And I think what I'd say is the confidence is what we lacked. Mexico certainly had it."
Both Bradley and Altidore spoke of how the U.S. struggled to find the first pass when it regained possession.
"We've got a young team, and I think there's moments of growth there," Altidore said about the second half. "I think if you look at that 10-15 minute period, we lost the game a bit. We were trying to play out of the back and stick to our guns and try to get up the field a bit, get in their half and try to change the momentum a bit."
The team's inexperience in some parts of the field was evident as well, and was especially true for Weston McKennie. The Schalke midfielder was handed the captain's armband, a surprising move given the presence of more experienced players such as Altidore and Michael Bradley. Whether it was the armband or the strength of the opponent, the occasion proved to be too heavy for McKennie. His passing was labored, and he lost dos Santos on Mexico's goal.
Berhalter's attempts to combat the game's change in fortune were mixed. Bringing on Cristian Roldan for the struggling Morris in the 62nd minute made some sense. Gyasi Zardes coming in for Altidore two minutes later, not so much. Both substitutions conveyed a message of being defensive in posture and playing to get to extra time.
The introduction of Daniel Lovitz for Tim Ream was a head-scratcher given that Tyler Boyd was available, though Berhalter explained himself in his postmatch news conference.
"When we brought on Cristian, the idea was to help us keep possession," he said. "It was to help us overload the center of the field. I thought we had a difficult time in the center of the field tonight. We felt like he was going to give us the help that we needed centrally, and I think he did well.
"With Gyasi, it was a case of legs, just getting fresh legs. It's very hard to press Mexico if you don't have the stamina, if you're not ready to spring really hard. Jozy put in good shift. We were using him a lot, and I think he did a good job. But we needed some legs there.
"In Daniel's case, at the end of the game we wanted width, we wanted to move our wingers inside and get some crosses into the penalty box. We were willing to risk more staying with a two-and-one on the back line, getting our fullbacks high, tucking our wingers inside and trying to create pressure that way."
Berhalter's moves regarding Altidore remain perplexing. The drop-off in play by the U.S. in each of the last two matches when Altidore departed was clear. At the least, Altidore could be counted on to occupy the opposition center-backs better than Zardes. Altidore was at a loss to explain it as well. Speaking to English-language media for the first time in weeks, he insisted that he felt fine when he was subbed out.
"I felt really good, I felt strong. I felt like I was affecting the game," the U.S. forward said.
When asked about how his minutes were managed in the tournament -- he was the first player subbed in each of the last two games, and prior to that saw Zardes start most of the matches -- Altidore said, "I don't know. I felt good, or else I don't think I'd be here."
The extent to which the U.S. can parley the experience of Sunday's final, as well as the whole tournament, into continued growth is the big question going forward. Certainly the team looked more cohesive as the tournament went on. And while McKennie struggled in the final, and Pulisic's finishing touch went missing on the night, it should be noted that both players showed progress over the last several weeks. The same was true of a back line that conceded just two goals in the entire tournament.
"We have a quality team, and we believe in a lot of the young players," said Berhalter. "We think that at the end of the day, we need to gain experience. A game like this is perfect for us. It was a big occasion, a lot of the players' first time playing in a game like this, and we need to learn. We weren't ready for the step tonight but we will be ready."
The U.S. is still the beneficiary of lowered expectations as well as mediocre competition in the tournament. Given how many players Mexico was missing, it's clear that a significant gap between the two sides remains. But the U.S. needed to start this cycle somewhere. Reaching the Gold Cup final isn't a bad first step.