TORONTO — They emerged one by one from the American locker room Tuesday night in stony silence after the worst defeat of the Gregg Berhalter era, the European-based players first, en route to Pearson International Airport for overnight flights that couldn’t jet away fast enough from the eyesore that continues to be the U.S. men’s national team.
Just over two years after the unfathomable defeat in Trinidad that ended a streak of seven consecutive World Cup appearances, the USMNT suffered another historic defeat, this time 2-0 in the CONCACAF Nations League to Canada, a regional minnow that hadn’t beaten them in a competitive match in almost 40 years. And just like that, after all the talk about progress and process and trying to change the public perception of a team that has gone from global up-and-comer to irrelevant in its own backyard with breathtaking speed, the program appears to be in as bad a place as it was then. Maybe even worse.
First, some perspective. There was no World Cup berth on the line this time. Ugly as Tuesday’s defeat was — and to be clear, it was hideous in every way — it doesn’t compare with that fateful night in Trinidad. But it was awful nonetheless, not least because it seemed to reinforce the idea that this USMNT, for all its promising young players, simply doesn’t possess the will and the fight that was the hallmark of the American teams that for two decades punched well above their weight in the planet’s most competitive sport, reaching the last 16 in consecutive World Cups in 2010 and 2014 before an aging squad finally came crashing back to earth last cycle. Two years later, on this night anyway, that never-say-die attitude was nowhere to be found from the next generation.
“The biggest disappointment in my eyes was the desire,” Berhalter said afterward. “[Canada] were playing with with emotion, and we didn't match that. And then they carry that into being physical on every play, sometimes on the borderline of being a little bit dirty, but that's soccer. That's how the game is played sometimes, and we have to come to terms with that side of the game.”
Instead, they failed miserably, losing a competitive match to Les Rouges for the first time since 1985.
“We didn't have the same energy that they did,” said U.S. headliner Christian Pulisic, who Berhalter pulled from the match after 60 ineffective minutes despite the Chelsea attacker’s unique ability within the U.S. player pool to make a result-changing play, even when not at his best. “That's very disappointing. I mean, that's the one thing that we can control, and we weren't able to.”
It wasn’t the only thing. The U.S. couldn’t make a pass. They couldn’t keep the ball. They certainly didn’t play like anything resembling a team, not against a cohesive and determined Canadian side that was superior in every way, both individually and collectively, despite being ranked 75th by FIFA compared to the USA’s 21st.
“They treated it like it was a Cup final,” said U.S. veteran Michael Bradley, probably the best American player at BMO Field, the stadium he plays in with MLS club Toronto FC, even if he had his pocket picked by Canadian captain Scott Arfield on the sequence that led to Alphonso Davies’ 63rd minute winner. “They stepped up harder, they reacted quicker to every loose ball. In all the little ways in a game like that, they were on top of things. When you have a team that has the upper hand in all those ways over the course of 90 minutes, the bar swings in their favor.”
As he was in last month’s 3-0 friendly loss to Mexico, Pulisic was left to do everything himself on the rare occasions the U.S. was able to break out of its own end. He’d battled flu-like symptoms over the last couple of days, Berhalter said, influencing the decision to remove him. He wasn’t happy about it. “I was fine,” Pulisic said, his voice barely above a whisper. He still managed to have the best chance of the match for the visitors, a wide-open look at goal after being picked out by Jordan Morris early in the second half that, had he converted it, would’ve given the U.S. a 1-0 lead against the run of play.
“I should have scored,” he said. “That's on me.”
Maybe it would’ve changed the outcome. Maybe not—not that the visitors deserved anything from this match. Where to lay the blame for the result — and what this setback says about the state of the national team overall — is harder to quantify.
“I wouldn't make a statement about the program based on this game,” said Berhalter, who struck a far more contrite tone than in his defiant press conference following the September drubbing by El Tri. “It was never going to be easy to come in here and win the game.”
The U.S. gets another crack at Canada next month in Orlando, a match that suddenly takes on outsized importance for the Americans in terms of both the Nations League and in rebuilding their shattered confidence ahead of World Cup qualifying next year. Right now, Qatar 2022 seems further away than ever.
“It’s a young team and a relatively new group,” Bradley said. “And by group I mean coaching staff, pool of players, backroom staff — everything. We're still working every day to push things along in the right way.”
“Hopefully we're going to keep improving,” added Berhalter, who’s now lost five times against nine wins and two draws in his first year on the job. “Hopefully we're going to start winning games on the road.”
Hope is in short supply for national team supporters after the indignities of these last two years, though. A few more performances like Tuesday’s, and it’s in danger of evaporating completely.
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