The US have fielded weakened teams in their two recent defeats. But even so their performances have lacked intensity, fluidity … and goals
The boos from the stands at Nippert Stadium at half-time on Sunday were the sounds of Gregg Berhalters honeymoon period coming to a screeching halt. The US trudged off the field 3-0 down to Venezuela in Cincinnati, four days after a 1-0 loss to Jamaica in Washington DC. Its not pleasant to be home-schooled on the eve of your biggest games since 2017.
At least there was no danger of these Americans being accused of over-celebrating. But the defeats were morale-sappers ahead of the group stage of the Concacaf Gold Cup, which sees the US kick off against Guyana in Minnesota on Tuesday before facing Trinidad & Tobago and Panama.
The losses were instructive: the team arent competitive without their best four or five players; goalkeeper Zack Steffen needs to cut out basic errors; left-back is a problem position; midfielder Wil Trapp, who flourished under Berhalter with the Columbus Crew, is no Michael Bradley in a midfield metronome role that requires him to create and frustrate.
The games also floated a more general question: can the US realise head coach Berhalters vision of possession-based play that makes use of full-backs as surrogate attackers, with the team pressing hard and high without the ball? It might be a question of time; it could ultimately prove a matter of ability.
Though Berhalter won 44 caps for the US, this is his first job managing a national team, where rosters are fluid and quality time is fleeting with players who spend the vast majority of their office hours in a multitude of leagues across several continents. But the signs are that he wants to implement strategies honed over five years with the Columbus Crew, and he comes armed with two whiteboards and three data analysts.
Its a very detailed system, former Crew and US defender Michael Parkhurst told Pro Soccer USA. It took a while, and so for these guys that are in camp a week at a time here and there some guys, their first camp, some guys first time playing together within the system, its difficult. It takes time.
A restive fanbase doesnt want to hear that the team is still in a learning moment 20 months after the 2-1 loss to Trinidad that saw the US fail to reach a World Cup finals for the first time since 1986.
Still, these were only Berhalters fifth and sixth matches in charge, and hes had very little time with a full-strength roster. Hes entitled to experiment and its not his fault that US Soccer waited so long to appoint a permanent coach, strangely allowing the team to play 12 games under an interim who gave debuts to 23 players.
The line-up against Jamaica bore little relationship to the side well see in the matches that matter, and judging the US without Christian Pulisic is like reviewing the Louvre without mentioning the Mona Lisa.
All the same, the past two performances lacked intensity as well as fluidity. The Americans only mustered one shot on target at Audi Field and were 3-0 down after 36 minutes against Venezuela who are in form and beat Argentina 3-1 in March with a Steffen blunder followed by two segments of dazed defending. That proved the final score.
It was regressive stuff after Berhalter began with clean-sheet wins over Panama, Costa Rica and Ecuador, then a respectable 1-1 tie with Chile. No wonder he stood on the touchline with lips pursed in such a rigid horizontal line that they could double as a spirit level.
Absorbing a new approach is one thing; enacting it, another. Learning your lines doesnt mean youre ready for Broadway. The great strides made by MLS since the 2000s mean its natural to hold higher expectations for the national team, but its not clear that the talent pool is deeper than it used to be.
Most of the current squad are in their mid-20s, so should be in their prime when Qatar 2022 rolls around. But how much better are they likely to get before then? It might be unrealistic to imagine that 24-year-olds such as Paul Arriola, Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris can ascend from good to great. Will Berhalter, in the end, have to adapt his system to the squad, not the other way around?
The US now have the opportunity for a quick rebound, with the presumed toughest opponents in Group D, Panama, up last. It is impossible to imagine the Americans failing to beat the Golden Jaguars on Tuesday: Guyana are ranked equal 175th in the world by Fifa and the countrys population is 800,000 smaller than greater Dayton, Ohio.
As so often in American soccer, the key question will be: can you beat Mexico? The US must also handle the pressure of a predictable past: they have failed to reach the Gold Cup final only once in the last seven attempts (in 2015). The 14 previous tournaments were won by Mexico (7) or the US (6) every time except 2000, when Canada were the victors. This year features 16 teams, up from 12, making it (even) easier to get out of the group stage.
The Columbus captain, Trapp, who has played in all of Berhalters games, needs to show he can boss the midfield at international level. If goals are scarce, Berhalters curious decision not to take the promising 19-year-old forward, Josh Sargent, will be scrutinized.
The viability of deploying Tyler Adams at right-back rather than midfield, where he features for his club, RB Leipzig, is a debate that must wait after the 20-year-old withdrew from the squad on Tuesday through injury.
Go deep into the tournament and Berhalter will have met expectations; an early exit and well, no matter the mitigating circumstances, we live in impatient and intolerant times and the Managerial Competence Scale has only two classifications: genius and idiot.
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