USMNT's rudderless ship wrecks in Canada, where a program is on the rise

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Michael Bradley (bottom) and the USMNT hit their lowest point since failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup against Alphonso Davies and Canada. (USA Today)
Michael Bradley (bottom) and the USMNT hit their lowest point since failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup against Alphonso Davies and Canada. (USA Today)

Ahead of the United States men’s national team’s devastating 2-0 CONCACAF Nations League loss in Canada on Tuesday, it felt like no matter how you contorted the word, you couldn’t, in all seriousness, call it a “rivalry.”

Never mind that that’s how Canada Soccer had been promoting the game: “A rivalry renewed.” It was in its social media posts. It was on the boarding all around the field. It looked silly.

It looked silly because Canada hadn’t beaten the United States since 1985. Only one player on the current U.S. roster was alive then, goalkeeper Brad Guzan. Nobody on Canada’s was. And that was a friendly, mind you. The Canadians’ last competitive victory over the USA came in 1980, when none of the current players had been born. U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter was 7 years old. Canadian counterpart John Herdman was 5.

A game can’t be a rivalry if only one team is relevant. And Canada hadn’t been in some time. It hasn’t been to the World Cup since 1986. It hasn’t even been to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying since 1997, even though six teams from the region make it to that stage. Les Rouges, so nicknamed, haven’t been a factor in the CONCACAF Gold Cup since 2007, the last time they reached the semifinals. And last summer, they were upset by little Haiti in the quarterfinals of that event.

Such was the understandable disillusionment of the Canadian people with their men’s soccer team that the game wasn’t even on broadcast television there.

But the notion of a rivalry hardly looked silly when Canada’s players spilled onto the field upon the final whistle, having completely deserved their first competitive victory in almost four decades, albeit in front of a sparse crowd in a newfangled (and questionable) tournament.

Canada celebrates beating the USMNT for the first time in 34 years. (AP)
Canada celebrates beating the USMNT for the first time in 34 years. (AP)

And if this really is to be a rivalry now – a real one, existing outside of the minds of marketeers – that speaks to the fall of the American program as much as the rise of the Canadian one. Certainly, there’s more talent on Canada than there has been in years, highlighted by 18-year-old Bayern Munich forward Alphonso Davies, who gave the American defense fits all night. But all the same, there is no comparison in the abilities of these teams. On paper, anyway.

Yet there was Canada, out-hustling, out-passing, out-tackling, out-defending and out-attacking the Americans all night long. They could have won by four or five. Davies had several good looks before finally scoring the winner in the 63rd minute. And Lucas Cavallini’s second in injury time merely cemented the blundering the American back line had committed all night. The U.S. had nary a chance to score, and when it did Christian Pulisic finished meekly and right at goalkeeper Milan Borjan, before he was subbed off.

What tension existed in this game, a few scuffles, a hard tackle here and there, seemed to stem as much from the Americans’ frustration with their own fecklessness as any ill will toward their hosts.

Perhaps it will be a rivalry now.

But that’s surely the least of Berhalter’s concerns; the least of newly promoted sporting director Earnie Stewart’s concerns; the least of newish U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro’s concerns.

Because they run a rudderless program. Two years and five days on from the catastrophe in Couva, when the Americans failed to even tie with Trinidad and Tobago and missed the World Cup, no discernible progress has been made.

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The national team’s inconsistency will drive its fans to despair. A promising performance or two, like Friday’s 7-0 clobbering of a hapless Cuba and a credible 1-1 tie with Uruguay a month earlier, is always wedged between disheveling ones. The way Mexico took the Americans apart in a friendly in September. The way this Canadian team beat the USA on brawn and heart, the two biggest things it once had going for it. Berhalter hasn’t yet demonstrated that he can impose his ambitious system on a promising young batch of players in the short windows he has to work with.

And so the revolt against him from whatever fans the national team retains has been swift. And the uproar on social media and in comment sections feels similar to that in the last year or so under Jurgen Klinsmann, the last manager to attempt to revolutionize the national team, only to be upended by unreliable results and, at the very end, an unrecognizable team.

But Klinsmann had led the Americans to a Gold Cup title, the semifinals at Copa America Centenario, a first place in World Cup qualifying, and the round of 16 of the World Cup before the fans soured on him and it all spiraled out of his grasp. Berhalter is 10 months into the job, after a protracted search and howls of nepotism regarding his brother’s key role in U.S. Soccer leadership, and time is already working against him.

Because the fans know what they’re seeing. A team that has no identity, no ethos, no spine – whether physical or metaphorical. A team casting around for answers, for ideas, and finding none of either.

Patience has already worn thin. Even Canada has caught up.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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