At about 7:15 last night, I went to Paramount to watch the opening night of Star Trek Strange New Worlds (Season 2) and they played me a large ad for USMNT v. Mexico. I hadn’t been keeping tabs on what’s going on with the US Men’s team but I did remember that Arsenal forward Folarin Balogun had chosen to represent team USA and wondered if he was playing. So, I ditched the Star Trek and went for the football. Well, ostensibly it was a football match.
I tuned in just in time to watch Christian Pulisic selfishly pass up the chance to pass the ball to an open Balogun and instead blast over the net. For the footballing portion of this post, this would be largely the story: teammates finding Pulisic, Balogun being overlooked and not quite finding where he needed to be to pick up the ball.
Let’s be frank: Balogun had a bad night. I’ve watched him all season for Reims and while he’s sometimes cut a lonely figure I can’t recall a game where he was so clearly out of touch with his teammates. He was not just unable to find space to receive the ball, it felt like his teammates sometimes overlooked him when he was open, and worst of all just pumped in crosses to space, which he was unable to attack because of the close marking of Cesar Montes.
Pulisic would provide the two opening goals, and as if to rub salt into Balogun’s wounds, the man who currently wears the number 9 (Ricardo Pepi) scored a good goal to finish off the Mexican side. Coming on for Balogun, Pepi made a perfectly timed run in the right channel, received a good throughball, rounded Ochoa (who looks too old to be playing starting keeper for a serious national team), and passed the ball into the net. That’s it for the football in this match. The pressing wasn’t serious on either side, and tactically there wasn’t much to offer other than “pass to Pulisic and Weah, they are fast!”
The real “star” of this match was the referee. There’s supposedly a fine line between controlling a game and ruining the contest. Referees are sometimes hesitant to hand out yellow cards or red cards if they will turn a game overwhelmingly in favor of one team and especially hesitant to do so in a big game like yesterday. And I wouldn’t want to be an official in a CONCACAF semi-final between USA and Mexico. But at the same time, I think referee Ivan Barton let too many hard and professional fouls go by Mexico and that is what ultimately led to him having to hand out… four red cards.
Throughout the match, referee Barton let Mexico get away with a number of professional fouls without cards. Time and again, Pulisic, Reyna, and Weah would get free from their defender, only to be hauled down from behind with a grapple or in one case a deliberate slide tackle from behind. The referee would have no choice but to call the foul but his choice not to give out a yellow card in those instances is what led directly to the four red cards.
The match had been percolating up to this point but it was the 56th minute where it boiled over. With USA 2-0 up and cruising, Mexico’s midfielder Antuna pulverized Gio Reyna’s face with an aggressive aerial duel. As we were told by the VAR official, there would have been no complaints if that was a yellow. Reyna was down, blood everywhere and replays seems to show both some deliberation and malice on Antuna’s part. Antuna was already on a yellow card, however, and Ivan Barton chose not to send him off. From here, things just go nuts.
Two minutes later, another player hacks at Reyna, now the ref gives a yellow but it’s sort of too late. Some pushing and shoving ensues and perhaps wanting to look “fair and balanced” he hands a yellow to both a USA player and a Mexican player. This is followed by a yellow for an “elbow” by a USA player and then Cesar Montes is kicked pretty good and close ups show his sock is ripped.
It takes about 7 minutes but Montes gets his revenge: Balogun tracks back and takes the ball from the big center half but gets a deliberate kick from the back by Montes for his efforts. Balogun goes down, the ref suddenly realizes the game is out of hand and gives Montes a straight red. A brawl ensues, Weston McKinney leaves the mosh pit with his shirt torn and kisses the USA badge. Drinks rain down from the crowd (this is being held in Vegas but it looked like the largest portion of the crowd were there to support Mexico) and meanwhile the VAR has a look at what happened in the pit. McKinney can clearly be seen pushing a player away from him by the face and referee Barton gives him a straight red also.
Clyde was watching with me and asked why this was all happening and I have to admit I was at a loss for good reasons. He mentioned that he’d never seen anything like this and I agree with him, probably not since that crazy Brazil Argentina match a few years ago where Brazilian officials tried to get Argentine players thrown in moon jail for bypassing COVID rules.
I get that McKinney shoved another player in the face and that’s bad, he shouldn’t do that. He deserves a red card. I also think that it’s incredibly difficult to just stand there and take it when you’re being shoved by two or three players and someone has a grip on your jersey. I have been in similar situations and have acted considerably worse. So, while it’s easy to say “McKinney needs to be smarter there, he can’t lose his cool like that”, nothing in that statement is easy to actually do when you are being slapped, pushed, and pulled at while drinks are raining down from the stands.
Things settled down for a minute and Matt Turner was forced to make a save after he also made a terrible pass to the DM. But then Pepi scored a third goal and Mexico decided both on the pitch and in the stands that the game was over so they might as well turn it into a Hockey match.
The final scrum was just a disaster of refereeing. Mexico gets away with a clear foul from behind with no yellow card, then a player runs over and kicks Sergino Dest in the chest and then another Mexico player runs over and shoves Dest in the back, and if you’ve ever been in a middle-school fight that’s what it started to look like: random people shoving Dest and yelling “fight fight fight” in order to get him to throw a punch. Dest obliges, referee shows two red cards again followed by a number of yellow cards for various infractions. By not wanting to “kill the game” with a red card earlier, the referee all but ensured that this would be the outcome. You just can’t let a team get away with drawing blood.
The one thing the referee did get right was stopping the game due to homophobic chanting by Mexican supporters. They have a chant whenever a keeper takes a kick where they use a homophobic slur which everyone in the USA now knows is strictly forbidden. There is even a special protocol for this if (when) it happens with the referee stopping the game and giving a warning followed by the referee deciding if he wants to call the game off. Ivan Barton stopped the game after the first chant, the warning was read out, the fans did it again and he didn’t do anything, but on the third time he called the game.
It was a disaster of a way to end a match that was a disaster from about the 46th minute onward. FIFA and CONCACAF really need to fix this problem with homophobic chanting because the USA and Mexico host the next World Cup and this very real problem could derail the spectacle.
Just a final word here, the CBS coverage of the game was a shit show. The half-time show was the most disjointed, weird, uninformed, and nearly unintelligible bit of football “analysis” I’ve seen in years. I know that “Deuce” is a men’s team legend and all and it’s fine to have him on but you can’t have two more idiots in addition. With the exception of the host, the three other guests just didn’t seem to know what they were talking about with one of them just spouting off weird stats and the other one basically saying Mexico needed to come out and kick people (which to be fair, is exactly what they did). They spent most of the time talking about Gregg Berhalter being appointed the coach and yet didn’t seem to have any idea about how that would affect the team other than to say they weren’t sure if Gio Reyna could play, but he really needs to play, etc.
And after the match a CBS reporter interviewed Folarin Balogun and when he said he was “buzzing” to play for the USMNT (mind you this is after coming down from the adrenalin high of just playing in a match where an egregious foul on him was the catalyst for four red cards) she said “sorry, you don’t look like you’re buzzing.” As if, what? Was he supposed to fly around going “buzzz, buzzz, buzzz”? It was just a weird moment in an entirely bizarre football match.
And to cap it all off US Soccer announced that Gregg Berhalter was being reinstated as head coach.
Welcome to the USMNT, Folarin! No, this isn’t a super weird day, this is sort of what it’s like. This is sort of what America is like now.