Canada came into Sunday’s Nations League final eager to prove it belongs among the region’s soccer royalty. The U.S. came in looking to polish its crown.
And when it was over the king was still ensconced safely on the throne, with Chris Richards and Folarin Balogun each scoring their first international goals — both off assists from Gio Reyna — in a 2-0 victory at a half-empty Allegiant Stadium.
In the third-place game, Mexico beat Panama 1-0 on Jesús Gallardo’s goal in the fourth minute.
Canada, playing in a final for the first time in 23 years, is riding a huge wave of momentum under coach John Herdman. It won last year’s World Cup qualifying tournament, going unbeaten in four games with the U.S. and Mexico. And though it didn’t do well once it got to Qatar, losing all three group-stage games, it hadn’t lost since — until Sunday.
A win over the U.S. would not only have brought the team its first trophy in a generation, it would have earned Canada a place in the debate, alongside the U.S. and Mexico, over which country is CONCACAF’s best.
“If you look at us over the last four years, I think we’ve already put messages out there that we’re here now, and we’re here to stay,” midfielder Atiba Hutchinson said. “Now we want to start winning trophies.”
“I think that we’ve earned the respect of everyone in this region,” added defender Alistair Johnston. “They don’t view us potentially how they previously viewed us.”
Team USA’s response?
Whoa, Canada. Your time may be coming, but it’s not here yet.
The U.S. proved that with a comfortable if not resounding victory that ran its unbeaten streak to six games and gave it wins in three consecutive regional finals, two in Nations League play and the other in the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
The game unfurled at a breakneck pace, with both teams getting good looks in the first 10 minutes before Richards put the U.S. in front in the 12th, running on to an out-swinging Reyna corner and heading a one-hop shot under Canadian keeper Milan Borjan.
That made Richards the only American to score his first international goal in a final. But that distinction lasted just 22 minutes before Balogun joined him, doubling the U.S. advantage.
Reyna, who came out at the half with a calf injury, took a headed pass near midfield and dribbled through traffic before pushing the ball ahead for Balogun. The U.S. striker used his body to shield the ball from Canadian defender Scott Kennedy long enough to set up a right-footed shot into the bottom right corner of the goal.
That gave Reyna a goal and three assists in two CONCACAF Nations League title games, the most goal contributions in championship finals of any player in U.S. history.
Tim Weah nearly made it 3-0 just before the half, but a diving Borjan got a hand on Weah’s curling right-footed shot from distance and pushed it wide.
The U.S., which was without World Cup veterans Weston McKennie and Sergiño Dest due to red-card suspensions, kept the pressure up in the second half and was nearly rewarded in the 57th minute. But Borjan, who finished with five saves, turned away headers by Richards and Antonee Robinson and a right-footed shot from Balogun just seconds apart to keep Canada in the match.
On the other end, U.S. keeper Matt Turner made four stops to record his 19th shutout in 28 appearances with the national team.
In the third-place game, new Mexican manager Diego Cocca, missing center back César Montes and outside back Gerardo Arteaga to red cards, made six changes to the lineup he used against the U.S. on Thursday. One of those additions was former Galaxy defender Julián Araujo, who was starting for the first time in a competitive match.
And he needed less than four minutes to make an impact by contributing to the build-up on the game’s only goal.
It started with Araujo, who was active all afternoon, slipping a pass to Uriel Antuna, rushing into the penalty area on the right side. Antuna, another former Galaxy player, then delivered an errant cross to the front of goal that eluded both Santiago Giménez and Ozziel Herrera, rolling instead to Gallardo, who was unmarked on the other side of the box. He had an easy left-footed finish from there, scoring before many in the matinee crowd had found their seats.
Mexico’s performance was underwhelming after that, however, with Panama dominating just about everywhere but on the scoreboard.
Luis Chávez nearly doubled Mexico’s lead eight minutes into the second half, bending a left-footed free kick over the wall and toward the near post. But Panamanian keeper Luis Mejía leapt to his left and got enough of a gloved hand on the ball to push it wide. That nearly proved costly minutes later when Panama’s Aníbal Godoy scored a spectacular goal on a bicycle kick, chesting down a chipped pass from Fidel Escobar, then flipping a left-footed shot over his head and into the goal at the far side.
But after Godoy led a long, choreographed celebration with his teammates at the corner flag, the goal was erased by an offside call. Panama lost another goal 10 minutes later when Ismael Díaz scored from inside the six-yard box, then was also ruled offside, allowing Mexico to hold on for its third win in seven games under Cocca.