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McKennie proving as vital as Pulisic as U.S. book Mexico Gold Cup showdown

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For the better part of a month, Weston McKennie has been riding the ups and downs of getting familiar with a new position, new teammates, a (mostly) new manager and a new system. There have been uneven performances, like in the Gold Cup quarterfinal against Curacao when, despite scoring the game's only goal, McKennie was loose with too many passes and looked out of sync defensively with midfield partner Michael Bradley.

But Wednesday's 3-1 semifinal triumph over Jamaica saw McKennie back on a decidedly upward trajectory. The Schalke midfielder opened the scoring in the ninth minute, making the kind of late run -- in this case to latch on to Reggie Cannon's cross -- that has become one of his signature plays.

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"When we play him as a No. 10, it's very specific when we want him getting in the penalty box," U.S. men's national team coach Gregg Berhalter said. "We played him a little deeper today in buildup, and that's him picking those moments -- he's very good at that. He's a very dynamic runner. As the ball is wide, he sees where the space is and attacks it. We've seen him do that for Schalke and that's why we were comfortable playing him in the No. 10 position because we know he can get in the penalty box and arrive."

But there was more to McKennie's game than just the goal. He created a team-high three chances, including one in the 52nd minute to Jordan Morris that resulted in Andre Blake saving a shot, only for Christian Pulisic to put home the rebound. He also did his bit on the defensive end alongside Bradley. All told, it was McKennie's most complete performance in a U.S. shirt, and it speaks to the progress he has made over the past month.

"Learning this system and getting used to it, I think it's gotten better over time," he said. "I think when I first got in, I was a little fresh on the new system that we were playing. [Berhalter] and the coaching staff and the players around me and the players that have been with him before, helped me get comfortable in the system that he plays. I think I'm starting to get the hang of it."

The best piece of advice that he's gotten over the last several weeks? "Be brave and have confidence and have fun," he said.

Outwardly, it looks like McKennie's role has evolved over the past month. It started out with him playing higher up the field, but with Berhalter abandoning -- at least for the moment -- the inverted right-back/center-mid hybrid position, McKennie has been playing more box-to-box, getting into the attack while at the same time helping out Bradley. Berhalter admitted that there have been some tweaks.

"What we're working on with him is the positional play, the smaller movements, the detail of positioning in the way we play," the U.S. manager said. "But what he's teaching us is this raw ability. He made a couple of good runs in the penalty box. He's another guy who can solve things by dribbling alone with his physicality and his ball control."

McKennie insists little has changed in terms of his role, and that it's more a product of gaining familiarity, which has allowed him the freedom to take more risks and have a better sense of where and when to move. It's an evolution that has been noticed by Bradley.

"He's getting better every game, he's getting more comfortable," Bradley said. "I think his personality starts to come out more and more. I think the experience that he and I are getting now over the course of a few games has been good in terms of understanding each other, the partnership, of what it means on certain days, playing to each other's strengths."

Weston McKennie played a pivotal role in the United States reaching the Gold Cup final.

The improvement also can be seen in his passing. According to ESPN Stats & Information, McKennie completed 100% of his passes in the attacking third, and he set up Gyasi Zardes on a breakaway that the forward squandered. It all points to more cohesion all over the field.

"The system that we have, we're all connected and we make it very predictable for ourselves but not the opponent, where our options are and where we can play the next pass," he said. "It makes it easier on us. There were a couple of balls I played one-touch and a couple of balls [like the] one I played to Jordan Morris on the second goal, you know where the players are going to be, and you know in the system that he has that you can play those type of balls."

McKennie's improvement is a critical piece to the U.S. team's success. Pulisic has shouldered an inordinate amount of creative responsibility. The Chelsea player scored two goals against Jamaica, but by his own admission wasn't at his best.

"I don't think I was very clean all night," he said. "My final pass wasn't great. A lot of times when I did make the right decisions in the final third and in the midfield, I lost too many balls."

If McKennie helps pick up the slack, like he did on this night, then that gives the U.S. a badly needed additional channel in attack.

Now McKennie is poised to play in the biggest game of his international career. As Wednesday's game wound down the fans chanted, "We want Mexico!" and McKennie echoed those sentiments.

"It's going to be a fun game," he said. "I think the fans want it, I think we want it, and we're looking forward to it."

If McKennie can offer up a similar performance on Sunday, then he and his U.S. teammates may very well end up as Gold Cup champions.

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