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Christian Pulisic helps make USMNT’s Concacaf Nations League win an epic chapter in U.S.-Mexico rivalry

Just over a week after winning the UEFA Champions League, Pulisic captained the U.S. and scored the winning goal in the 114th minute of the 3-2 victory.

Hershey's Christian Pulisic lifts the trophy after captaining the U.S. men's soccer team to victory in the Concacaf Nations League final.
Hershey's Christian Pulisic lifts the trophy after captaining the U.S. men's soccer team to victory in the Concacaf Nations League final.Read moreJack Dempsey / AP

The grand history of the U.S.-Mexico men’s soccer rivalry saw a chapter for the ages added on Sunday night, and for fans on the east coast on Monday morning.

It was 12:25 a.m. in Philadelphia when the United States’ wild, 3-2 win in the Concacaf Nations League final ended at Denver’s Empower Field at Mile High. The quality of soccer wasn’t always the highest, but the drama was unforgettable.

There was Mark McKenzie’s gaffe that gifted Mexico the game’s first goal just 62 seconds after kickoff.

There was a 24th-minute goal by Mexico’s Hector Moreno that was called back by the replay booth for offside, and Gio Reyna’s equalizer for the U.S. three minutes later.

In the 82nd minute, Reyna served up the corner kick that Weston McKennie headed in for the United States’ second equalizer. It came three minutes after Diego Lainez torched Tim Ream to put Mexico up by 2-1, and Lainez had been on the field for barely a minute when he scored.

There was McKenzie atoning for his error with a crucial, nerveless block in the 57th minute.

There was Zack Steffen suffering a noncontact knee injury in the 63rd minute that forced him out of the game. His replacement, Ethan Horvath, went on to be the man of the match for a slew of spectacular saves.

» READ MORE: After winning the Premier League with Manchester City, Zack Steffen is ready to lead the U.S. men’s soccer team’s quest for trophies

There was Christian Pulisic giving the U.S. the lead in the 114th minute with a penalty kick he won with a trademark charge forward. And there was Horvath, who grew up in a Denver suburb, denying Andrés Guardado from the opposite spot 10 minutes later.

If your head is spinning reading this, so was everyone’s as it all happened. And there was so much more.

Mind games and monitors

In the sixth minute of second-half stoppage time, referee John Pitti stopped the game as a punishment against Mexican fans who chanted a homophobic expletive during a U.S. goal kick. That had never happened in a game of this magnitude.

Nor had the use of video replay in a Concacaf final. It took way too long for Concacaf to start using it, and the final showed what had been missing.

Pulisic scored six minutes after being clipped by Mexico’s Carlos Salcedo. Pitti initially let the contact go uncalled. When he went to the VAR monitor between the benches, Mexico manager Gerardo Martino put his hand on his shoulder during the review. When Pitti turned around, he expelled Martino and gave the penalty kick.

Pulisic, the U.S. captain on the night, slammed the ball into the net and raced away to let out one of the biggest roars of his life.

» READ MORE: For the first time in years, the U.S. men’s soccer team is a big deal again

Five minutes later, a header by Luis Romo in the middle of the 18-yard box hit McKenzie’s right arm, which was unintentionally outstretched. The replay booth called Pitti over again, and after another long review he gave the foul.

Up stepped Guardado, one of Mexico’s grand warhorses, a 100th-minute sub playing in his 13th all-time U.S.-Mexico game. The clock read 123 minutes, 47 seconds when Horvath stoned him.

Six more minutes passed before the final whistle.

The final tally of minutes played was 144:40: two 45-minute halves, two 15-minute extra time periods, and 24:40 of stoppage time over the four sessions.

There were 35 shots, five goals, nine saves, 21 called fouls, eight yellow cards (and there should have been more), a whole lot of trash thrown from the stands, and so many extra shoving matches that everyone lost count.

And there was a climax of joy. Pulisic lifted the trophy on the podium, then fellow star Weston McKennie did so, then the team ran to the U.S. fans behind one of the goals to celebrate together.

Why it matters

“We’re a young side, and we need to learn how to win,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. Indeed, for all the star power at his disposal, his lineup was the youngest ever deployed by the senior men’s national team in a final: an average of 24 years, 206 days.

“For us, it was about having a game plan, executing a game plan, but then it’s also about the fight and the spirit,” Berhalter said. “Give the guys a ton of credit for the way they hung in there, and, you know, really showed the heart of champions.”

That Pulisic finished the night among the heartiest carried extra significance. He wore the captain’s armband eight days after becoming the first U.S. men’s national team player to play in and win a UEFA Champions League final.

» READ MORE: Christian Pulisic, Chelsea win Champions League final over Manchester City

Pulisic told CBS that when he stepped up to the spot, he said to himself, “I’m going to go out swinging.” And as Horvath prepared to face Guardado, Pulisic put a few words of encouragement in his goalkeeper’s ear.

“I knew he was going to save it. I was so confident in him,” Pulisic told CBS.

If he was tired after a long journey from Porto, Portugal, to Denver — not to mention a grueling, pandemic-upended season with Chelsea — he never showed it. Pulisic was subbed out of the semifinal win over Honduras in the 90th minute, then played every second of the win over Mexico.

“It’s just the perfect way to end the year, honestly,” he told CBS after the final. “I’m so proud of this group. We needed everyone today, and it was a phenomenal performance.”

When the Nations League kicked off, many fans in the U.S. and Mexico weren’t sure how much it would matter. But it matters whenever these teams meet, especially when their top stars are on the field. And it mattered that the U.S. hadn’t beaten Mexico in a game of consequence since 2013.

Snapping that skid is a huge psychological boost for Berhalter and his players before World Cup qualifying starts in September.

For fans, it’s a long-awaited moment of celebration. The scars of the 2018 failure to reach the World Cup still haven’t healed, and there haven’t been many bright moments since. This one turned the lights way up. And knowing what’s to come, they could stay on for a while.