The United States men’s national team got embarrassed on Sunday by a country that has never made the World Cup.
It got booed off at halftime in a friendly.
It lost 3-0 to Venezuela in Cincinnati, in a game that meant nothing and everything. A game that some will surely try to sweep under the rug, pointing to the absences of Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams. But a game that reinforced a concern that, in a strange way, doesn’t get expressed enough: The current USMNT just isn’t that good.
There will be deconstructions of Gregg Berhalter’s tactics. There will be broader questions about his managerial aptitude. But the disheartening reality is that the player pool is as weak and shallow as it’s ever been in the 21st century.
This is nothing new. But on Sunday, for the first time in a while – or for some, the second time in five days – it was laid bare.
Venezuela’s first goal highlighted multiple problems
Venezuela’s first goal should have been disallowed for offside. But that doesn’t detract from how awful it was from a U.S. perspective:
Venezuela capitalizes on USA's mistake to put them up 1-0 in the 16th minute. pic.twitter.com/FQb4LbUDUg
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 9, 2019
This comes four days after an arguably even worse giveaway from goalkeeper Zack Steffen that didn’t get punished by Jamaica:
Zack Steffen of Manchester City showcasing elite composure whilst playing out of the back. pic.twitter.com/zIJL0WEjP0
— Dan (@Dan_shoey) June 5, 2019
Steffen is not currently capable of playing how Berhalter wants him to. He is not good with the ball at his feet. That’s a problem. But it isn’t the only one.
Immediately after the goal went in, Steffen moaned to his midfielders about not checking to the ball. And, although he clearly should have picked a different pass, he has a point.
This, however, speaks to the broader issue. Berhalter wants players who are unaccustomed to playing out from the back, through pressure, to do just that. Players who, for example, don’t instinctually show for the ball when it’s at the keeper’s feet.
Nurturing those instincts takes time. Which is not what fans want to hear right now, after U.S. Soccer wasted so much time before hiring Berhalter and kickstarting the program’s restart. But it’s the truth. Berhalter is going to get time. He should get time. Egregious mistakes are going to be part of the learning process. Berhalter will surely tell his players as much.
“We need to be calm,” Berhalter said postgame when asked whether a performance like Sunday’s would provoke changes.
But – and this is important – it is OK (and rational) to hold that opinion and also hold the opinion that the long-term development of this team negatively impacts its short-term prospects. The U.S. looks very bad right now. Not ready to win a Gold Cup. Fans can, and should, be frustrated by that while simultaneously acknowledging that the struggles are, in a way, necessary.
They’re also not all about Berhalter.
The USMNT’s incompetence was thorough
There’s a tendency among fans starved of success, in search of a turnaround, to pin blame on a head coach who doesn’t immediately bring it. When in reality the main deficiencies should be obvious: The players just aren’t good enough. They weren’t in late 2016 under Klinsmann, or in 2017 under Arena, or in 2018 under Sarachan, or now.
It’s simplistic and harsh and not exactly constructive as criticism. But it’s honest.
Venezuela’s second and third goals were case in point. In the buildup to the third, the U.S. lost individual battles all over the field. It began with Paul Arriola and Tim Ream in the attacking third. It ended with center backs at the other end.
Venezuela makes it 3-0 in the first half 😬 pic.twitter.com/NtH3iyw8Oa
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 9, 2019
Berhalter’s USMNT is often methodical in its approach to the game. It has not yet learned to flip that switch – constantly, hundreds of times within a given game – and go full bore; get physical; play with pace; be explosive, in its movements and its decision-making.
Methodical, in a worrying way, seeps into slow and lackadaisical. Watch Aaron Long on the aerial view of the third goal. He follows Rondon into midfield, but not with any purpose. He essentially makes himself invisible. Then he switches off. And because he does, Rondon is able to get in behind, into the space Long vacated. Of course, Matt Miazga doesn’t cover for him – yet another individual mistake. But he shouldn’t be put in a position where he has to in the first place.
Berhalter’s word of choice in his halftime interview with Fox was “careless.”
“Really careless,” he said. “It’s paying attention, being aware,” he said of his team’s shortcomings. “We lacked that.”
The second goal, off a throw-in and a simple flick, was a similar story:
— Planet Fútbol (@si_soccer) June 9, 2019
So, what to make of the USMNT’s loss?
It’s worth noting that 3-0, in the end, was perhaps a bit unfair to the U.S. The Americans very easily could have had a goal. Jozy Altidore, on as a halftime substitute, came close. Jordan Morris accidentally blocked a goal-bound Christian Roldan header. The second 45 minutes were more or less evenly contested.
It’s also worth reiterating that the Yanks’ two most important players, Pulisic and Adams, weren’t on the field. Neither was Michael Bradley, who will start at defensive mid. And Altidore wasn’t present for the first-half shellacking.
But Sunday was nonetheless worrying. Beyond Pulisic and Altidore, the USMNT’s attacking depth is nonexistent. It has zero reliable playmakers – unless Tyler Boyd, who debuted on the right wing and looked lively against Venezuela, lives up to the hype.
At the other end of the field, with John Brooks sidelined by injury, the center backs are average at best by national team standards. Even goalkeeping, long the American player pool’s hallmark, is not necessarily a strength.
So we can talk about Berhalter’s tactics. We can moan about roster decisions, as many did on Thursday.
But the vast majority of worry about this U.S. men’s national team – whether it stems from Sunday, or from the past three years as a whole – should be that the current crop of players, despite some promise, is as underwhelming as it’s been in a long, long time.
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