EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When Gregg Berhalter was hired to coach the United States men’s national team last December, more than a year after the USMNT failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in over three decades, one of the biggest questions was if the possession-based playing style he preferred was compatible with the players he had at his disposal.
Those questions came roaring back to the fore following Friday night’s embarrassing 3-0 loss to blood enemy Mexico, for good reason. The U.S. had no answer for El Tri’s high press, which forced the Americans into error after error. And had Mexico been a bit more ruthless, the score line could’ve been even worse.
“As you can see,” attacking standout Christian Pulisic said afterward, “we still have a lot to work on.”
Yet in his testy postgame press conference, Berhalter insisted that he was actually happier with Friday’s performance than he was two months ago, when the Americans lost the Gold Cup final to this same Mexican team on a late Jonathan dos Santos goal.
“I see where the narrative is going now, it’s ‘Why are we playing the way we’re playing?’” Berhalter said. “The second is, ‘We don’t have the players to do it.’ That’s what all of you guys are thinking. And to me, it’s about developing players. We’re making progress. That’s not going to be your narrative right now, and I understand that. But internally, we believe we’re making progress.”
Long-suffering fans of the national team could be forgiven for not seeing it that way. For the progress Berhalter was referring to wasn’t about the actual execution of his plan, but rather that his players didn’t abandon it, even after it became painfully clear, in this match at least, it wasn’t working.
Look, it’s admirable that Berhalter wants to stick to his principles. It’s also fair to wonder if it’s the right thing to do. For a program that is desperately trying to restore its reputation as a hard-to-beat team that consistently punches above its weight, getting routed at home by its biggest rival isn’t a sign that things are improving.
Berhalter’s system is complicated enough that players are studying it while with their club teams. “You have to,” said midfielder Sebastian Lletget, who along with Pulisic was one of the Americans’ few bright spots against El Tri. When the team actually gets together, there are only a few days of training to make sure everybody is on the same page. It’s not easy.
“It’s the hardest thing in the world,” Pulisic said after Friday’s defeat. “You have short periods to train, and it’s hard to teach a real system and be very specific with it.”
The cold reality is, it seems to be impacting the Americans’ confidence against Mexico.
“We still play with fear against them,” Pulisic said. “That is what I can’t really live with. So that needs to change.”
It didn’t help that starters such as Tyler Adams, Jozy Altidore, John Brooks, Michael Bradley and DeAndre Yedlin were unavailable because of injuries or club commitments. And Mexico’s roster for this match was arguably stronger than the one that beat the U.S. in the Gold Cup.
El Tri’s all-time scoring leader Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez was back after missing the regional championship, and sure enough an unmarked Chicharito ended up nodding home the eventual game-winner just 21 minutes into the contest. But dos Santos, Marco Fabian and other veterans didn’t even dress for the match, and it was hard to shake the feeling afterward that the U.S. basically beat themselves.
“We could’ve played to our forward a little bit more, play a little bit more direct, change it up a little bit. Obviously the scoreline is what it is, but we played the way we wanted to play,” said U.S. goalkeeper Zack Steffen, whose mixup with midfielder Alfredo Morales led to the back-breaking second goal in the 78th minute. “When I get the ball, I gotta have at least two options. It’s all based off movements and the way the [other] team is pressing. And yeah, at times it’s a little sketchy.”
“It’s a tough system and we’re playing very tough teams right now,” said defender Aaron Long. “It’s easy to just kick long in these games and play direct and maybe get a better result or get more chances, but if we want to be a team that plays out of the back — and that’s what we want to do — then these are the best games to try it.”
This was only a friendly, of course. No points were on the line. But the U.S. program is still not in a position where it can afford to shrug off a lopsided defeat to of all foes Mexico.
Several U.S. players talked this week about how they want to improve the perception of American soccer. It’s clearly a responsibility they’ve discussed and take seriously. But the public will judge this team first and foremost on results.
“I’m not going to say ‘Listen guys, there’s going to be growing pains and you should expect losses,’ because they shouldn’t,” Long said when asked what message the performance sent to already-cynical USMNT supporters.
Something will have to change if the U.S. is to get a better outcome against FIFA No. 5 Uruguay on Tuesday in St. Louis.
“There needs to be a lot more movement and a lot more creativity within the team and just confidence when we go out and play against good opponents,” said Pulisic, who will miss the match against Uruguay as he and five of his teammates return early to their clubs.
“We have to go out there and play like we’re good enough to be out there and be confident and play without thinking twice about it. That's how it needs to be. And that's just not where we're at right now.”
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