Soccer in the States: U.S. Men’s National Team shows unsurprising inconsistency
The last three games were trademark United States Men’s National Team play. A simple 2-0 win against Jamaica, followed by a dreadful 1-0 loss to Panama and a scrappy 2-1 win over Costa Rica has the U.S. in second place with 11 points in the Octagon, trailing only Mexico. Welcomed optimism and absolute rock-bottom pessimism evened out to the usual feeling by the end: I’m unconvinced.
It starts with the guy in charge. It’s time to talk about Manager Gregg Berhalter.
Berhalter is in the midst of his first World Cup Qualifying campaign in charge of the USMNT. His success in the summer had fans really excited to see what the team could do in its revenge tour after missing out on the 2018 World Cup. While the U.S. certainly isn’t in a bad spot by any means, we really should be closely examining whether Berhalter is the right guy moving forward.
First, let me set the record straight: Berhalter is a good dude. He brings passion and emotion to the sidelines every game and takes accountability when the team is underperforming. When I see the way he makes adjustments during the game and yells out commands to the players, it really does give me the impression he knows what he’s doing and is a good leader. But the results on the pitch just aren’t matching my outlook on him as a person.
What stands out most is Berhalter’s inability to pick starting lineups, a flaw glaringly apparent against Panama. It’s important to note his mind was in the right place — he made seven changes to the previous starting 11 in the name of squad rotation because the team played three games in one week. But despite his good intentions, he went way, way overboard.
The team against Panama was basically a second-level side, with the likes of Gyasi Zardes, Sebastian Lletget, George Bello and Kellyn Acosta starting (I picked those names for their uninspiring performances — do better next time lads). I’ll admit I have a bias against MLS players on the U.S. team, but it’s no secret that these guys just don’t match the level of talent we should be fielding, with stronger options like Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams starting the game on the bench.
But much worse than the lack of talent on the team was the lack of cohesion. And what did Berhalter expect? You simply can’t change out more than half the team and expect things to gel on the road in CONCACAF games. It was a mistake that, if we’re being real with our expectations, shouldn’t be acceptable in the long term.
The funniest part about Berhalter’s team selection was the Costa Rica game, where he chose to start MLS winger Paul Arriola over Ligue 1 winger Timothy Weah. Arriola was scratched before the game with an injury, giving Weah the chance to start, and what do you think he did? That’s right, he created the winning goal with a shot that hit the post and bounced off of the Costa Rican keeper for an own goal. Do I think the goal was a little lucky? Yes. Do I think Arriola would’ve created the same chance? Absolutely not. Taking a step back, a draw in that game would’ve put the U.S. in third place, 5 points off of Mexico in first place. I don’t think it’s unfair to say Berhalter is quite lucky that Weah ended up playing instead of his preferred Arriola.
I had high hopes for Berhalter. I didn’t think I would be writing about him in a critical manner this early into World Cup Qualifying. This competition is unforgiving, and the U.S. cannot afford to waste time with a manager who can’t unlock the full potential of the team.
It may sound premature, but the day of reckoning could be upon Berhlater. The next match is easily the most important of perhaps all of World Cup Qualifying for the U.S. — Mexico at home Nov. 12. A loss could send the team spiraling, and with a few other games going the wrong way, the U.S. could end up as low as fourth in the table (outside of the automatic qualification spots). This is the worst case scenario, and I’m jumping the gun a bit speculating this, but we’ve seen in the past how everything can go wrong for the USMNT very quickly. Berhalter should be on thin ice right now, even if fans want to hold on to the successes of the past summer.
To be clear, I have high expectations for this team. I want the USMNT to qualify for the 2022 World Cup by any means necessary, of course, but scrapping in via the playoff would be disappointing. I would even go as far to say that failing to finish in the top two would be a failure in some regard. My expectations for the team rest mostly on the manager. We have the personnel to place first in the Octagon, but I’m not sold that Berhalter is the right guy for the job.
Time will tell, as it always does, and I’m hoping I’ll be wrong for doubting Berhalter. Until then, speculation will be rampant because there’s no team more dramatic than the U.S.
Adam Jasper is a sophomore providing updates on the U.S. Men’s National Team and its road to qualifying for the World Cup as well as general soccer news. He is also a sports editor at the Daily Trojan. His column “Soccer in the States,” runs every other Thursday.