There’s a good chance that a significant number of people reading this article weren’t even alive the last time Canada beat the United States in soccer, on April 2, 1985. Thirty-four years later, and almost exactly two years since the atrocity in Couva, the USMNT has once again fallen to our neighbors to the north Tuesday night, in doing so hitting yet another low point for a soccer program in absolute disarray.
Blame for the dismal showing last night is starting to coalesce around manager Gregg Berhalter. And, sure, that’s a fine place to start. Since taking over in December of 2018, Berhalter has done nothing to correct the team’s long-evident tactical and personnel issues. Not only has the team not gotten better since that fateful loss against Trinidad and Tobago, it has arguably regressed. The playing system, such as it exists, doesn’t fit the players, who look unmotivated, unsure of themselves, and checked out. And there are many bad nights yet to come, because Berhalter is both out of his depth and somehow, for now, bulletproof.
The loss against Canada is so damning because of how preventable it should’ve been. Yes, the USMNT player pool is relatively shallow right now with several highly promising younger guys who aren’t yet as good as they will be, and with few-to-no veterans in their prime present to help the transition. It is also true that Canada are more talented today than they have been in ages, and have a very good shot at qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1986. But c’mon, this is Canada. A team with Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Josh Sargent, and Jordan Morris should have no problem dispatching the damn Canadians, let alone getting comprehensively beaten by a 2–0 scoreline that if anything flatters the USMNT.
The flaws on display last night were many of the same ones that have plagued Berhalter throughout his tenure. The team stuck to a possession-focused, build-from-the-back approach that once again the players looked ill-suited for. There was absolutely no attacking fluidity. The defense was regularly left high and dry by a midfield that has next to no defensive ability. Those constants, plus the recurrent strange substitution decisions and the inability to change the approach on the fly when it clearly isn’t working, piled more and more evidence of what was obvious before he even got the job: Gregg Berhalter is simply not good enough to coach the USMNT.
This is far from the only terrible result under Berhalter: let’s not forget the loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup final, the narrow win over Curaçao, the loss to Jamaica, the beatdown administered by Venezuela. For as righteous as all the fury aimed at Berhalter may be, though, the real culprits behind this and every other American men’s soccer failure over the years are the leaders of the federation. Berhalter’s management has let the team down, but the people most responsible for that are those who gave him the gig in the first place. That U.S. Soccer took an entire year pretending to do a deep and thorough search for a new manager—while in reality completely ignoring interested and qualified coaches like Gerardo Martino and Jesse Marsch—before ultimately settling on a man who just so happened to be the COO of U.S. Soccer’s brother is shambolic. It looked bad in the moment and looks even worse now that everyone’s well-founded concerns about Berhalter have borne out.
Not only was the process that gave us Berhalter bad, but the architects of that process are only becoming more empowered. Gregg’s brother Jay is reportedly primed to take yet another step up by going from U.S. Soccer COO to CEO. Earnie Stewart, the USMNT’s GM who oversaw the hiring of the current manager, has already been promoted to the program’s sporting director, where he will answer directly to Jay Berhalter should that CEO promotion come through. U.S. Soccer recently pivoted its approach in an effort to run itself more like a business. That was the reason behind the downgrading of the federation president role, and the creation of middle-manager jobs like the men’s and women’s GMs. With the higher-ups making ruinous decisions and getting rewarded for it with promotions, U.S. Soccer is doing a great job of mimicking the business world.
In sane times, Gregg Berhalter would be on the thinnest of ice today. But the times we actually find ourselves in are far from sane. More likely than Berhalter getting fired anytime soon is him sticking it out at least until 2022 World Cup qualifiers begin next September. Only then could he face realistic pressures to start to perform, or else. That’s a long time for a national team to flounder, but that appears to be in the cards.
Following that loss to Trinidad and Tobago and the subsequent absence from the 2018 World Cup, U.S. Soccer had an opportunity and a responsibility to make some drastic changes in order to right the ship. The election of Carlos Cordeiro as federation president, the year-long managerial “search,” the hiring of Gregg Berhalter, the continued ascent of Jay Berhalter, and the piss-poor play on the pitch all go to show that those in charge had no urgency and no vision for what needed to happen to prevent something like 2017 from happening again.
Two years ago, the USMNT failed to qualify for the World Cup, and the response was “Never again.” Two years later, the USMNT is even worse than before, with no guarantee that it won’t suffer the same fate as the last qualification cycle. Until people realize that Berhalter is a symptom rather than the disease, soccer in America will never get truly healthy.