The United States men’s national team played like garbage on Tuesday, as you’ve probably come to expect from it in any game of consequence or difficulty. The evening editions of SportsCenter played clips of ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman yelling “WHAT ARE WE DOING?”, and laughed at the team’s misfortune without even bringing him on to discuss the game.
That’s because to the general sports fan, there is nothing left to say. The USMNT is now synonymous with failure, and no longer needs to be engaged with beyond a quick chuckle at its misfortune.
Tuesday’s game was particularly bad, even for a program that is now devoid of expectations. The USMNT fell 2-0 to Canada, a team it had never lost to in the professional era. While USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter’s players looked like strangers to one another, Canada head coach John Herdman’s team had a clear plan of attack. The USMNT had more possession, but did almost nothing with it. The score was far from a fluke; Canada created the better chances and deserved to win.
Let’s see if the expected goals look as bad as the game on the field…— Paul Carr (@PaulCarr) October 16, 2019
Canada: 2.22 xG on 9 shots
USMNT: 0.77 xG on 7 shots
Berhalter, hired in December 2018, does not have the excuse of needing more time to implement his system. He has coached his team for four more games than Herdman has coached Les Rouges.
Canada did not have more talented players on the field. When star midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye exited the match with an injury in the first half, he was replaced by Liam Fraser, an uncapped player who backs up Michael Bradley at Toronto FC. Berhalter substituted Christian Pulisic around the one hour mark due to an illness, but Canada’s Alphonso Davies exited around the same time. Canada has one player who plies his trade in one of Europe’s top five leagues; the United States utilized five such players on Tuesday.
If you watched the game and thought that Canada played much harder than the USMNT, well, Berhalter agrees.
“The biggest disappointment in my eyes was the desire,” Berhalter said in the post-match press conference. “Desire leads to physical games, desire leads to competing every single play. When you saw the emotion that they played with — [Samuel] Piette, [Steven] Vitoria in the back — these guys were playing with emotion, and we didn’t match that.”
At Berhalter’s introductory press conference, U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro said that Berhalter “will push our men’s team forward and with an identity and approach that will be uniquely and fiercely American.” The USMNT has played 16 games since Berhalter’s hire, and no one is sure what that identity is besides a dedication to passing out of defense instead of playing early long balls. That’s not much of an identity; it’s a tactical component of a system played by hundreds of teams around the world.
There’s nothing particularly fierce about the way the USMNT plays defense, either. There are moments of decent pressing play, but for the most part, the USMNT is a team that falls back quickly after losing the ball and sets up in its own half. If Berhalter’s team has an identity, it’s this.
The USMNT also doesn’t have a ball-winner in the middle to put opponents under pressure when they start to penetrate this defense. Berhalter has cycled among Bradley, Wil Trapp and Jackson Yueill in his defensive midfield role, listed in order from most to least physically intimidating. Bradley hardly has a reputation for getting stuck in. This team could not possibly be less fierce.
If you think the players looked like they didn’t understand what they were supposed to be doing ... well, that’s apparently not the problem. Last Friday, after laying a 7-0 drubbing on a young and shorthanded Cuba squad, Jordan Morris praised the coaching staff for its clarity and level of preparation.
“What’s easy is everyone knows the role expected of them,” Morris said. “When you come in to camp, the coaching staff has done such a great job getting everyone on the same page and understanding your role in the system.”
Berhalter said that the game against Cuba “was another opportunity to rehearse some of the movements we work on in training all week.” But a problem with rehearsed, systematic attacking movement is that your opponent can plan for it. Canada looked like they knew how the USMNT was going to attack before the American players themselves.
All of this is to say that I don’t think Gregg Berhalter is doing a good job coaching the USMNT, and I worry he is unlikely to improve given that the players already feel like they have a good understanding of the system and what is expected of them. The problem is not time or communication style, but rather that Berhalter has implemented bad ideas.
This is the part of the post in which a writer typically makes their case for a coaching change, but honestly, what’s the point?
The man who ostensibly hired Berhalter, Earnie Stewart, was just handed a promotion for no discernible reason. Hiring Berhalter is the only major decision he has made during his tenure, and he’s unlikely to admit that his one big decision was a huge mistake so shortly after his superiors signaled that he is doing a great job. The guy who conspiracy theorists think really hired Berhalter is U.S. Soccer’s Chief Commercial Officer (and one of the leading candidates to become CEO), Jay Berhalter. Yes, Jay is Gregg’s brother. Gregg Berhalter would have to screw up to an enormous degree to get fired.
And even if he did get fired, what reason is there to believe the next coach would be any better? That person would be selected by the same people who concluded Berhalter was their man without interviewing a wide range of candidates. If the U.S. Soccer board did pressure Stewart into giving Berhalter the boot, what reason is there to believe they’d look past the first page of their contacts to replace him?
USMNT fans are stuck with this. There’s enough talent on the team to qualify for the World Cup, and Berhalter proved himself to be a competent enough coach with the Columbus Crew that this team should be able to get a lot better. But under him and current U.S. Soccer leadership, the ceiling is low.
A healthy Tyler Adams will not fix the USMNT. A formation change will not fix the USMNT. A new coach will not fix the USMNT. The USMNT program needs a whole new culture, and that culture change is not coming.