Twice in the past week, the U.S. men’s national team and coach Gregg Berhalter have earned underwhelming results in international friendlies.
First cam Friday’s 3-0 loss to Mexico in the Meadowlands, a larger margin of defeat than the U.S. suffered two months earlier in the Concacaf Gold Cup final. Following that? A 1-1 draw Tuesday against an Uruguay squad without most of its regular stars, in which the Americans leveled late thanks to an incredibly fortunate deflection off fullback Nick Lima.
Despite those results, Berhalter insisted each match represented progress toward his vision of a team that builds from the back and plays possession oriented soccer. Of particular note, he said the 3-0 loss to Mexico was actually more promising than the 1-0 Gold Cup final defeat, simply because his team tried to use more of those concepts in the latter match, even if they were rarely successful against Mexico’s high press.
It’s clear Berhalter views his tenure with the U.S. as a long-term project, one that is still currently in a preliminary stage where employing concepts is more important than earning results, especially in friendly matches. The emotion of being routed by your big rival aside, it’s an argument that makes some sense for a program that appeared lost for an idenity during the latter sages of Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure.
There’s a big catch, though, namely the new, streamlined qualyfing process for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar that Concacaf unveiled in July.
It’s a near certainty the USMNT will be one of six to qualify directly for a 10-match round robin qualifying stage, with those teams selected based on the FIFA World Rankings. The top three finishers will automatically qualify for Qatar, with the fourth finisher set for a series of playoffs to try and reach the tournament, and the fifth and sixth teams eliminated. (There’s also a separate pathway for the region’s lower-ranked teams to try and reach Qatar, albeit one that offers very little margin for error.)
Previously, even regional giants like Mexico and the U.S. had to play at least one previous round of qualifiers against lesser teams to qualify for the final stage known as “The Hexagonal.” And for teams in Berhalter’s position, those matches against opponents fighting for their World Cup lives were ideal for establishing whether a specific tactical approach was working in live competition.
For evidence, look back at the past failed 2018 cycle. According to Bruce Arena’s book, Arena had been offered the head coaching role six months prior to when he actually took charge of the national team, two matches into “The Hex.” Even though Jurgen Klinsmann had guided the Americans out of their penultimate group of four to reach the final stage, there was enough uncertainty that the federation wanted to make a change. It didn’t happen then, but mainly cause of logistical issues that included an unexpected urgent health issue with one USSF official, Arena wrote.
The delay in Arena’s hire may have been costly. By the time he relieved Klinsmann, the U.S. were already in a two-match hole in the Hex. American fans know the rest of the story, which ended with their national team missing its first World Cup since 1986.
If and when Berhalter coaches his first qualifier, it will be in same the do-or-die Hexagonal stage, possibly on the road, and possibly against Mexico, Costa Rica or Jamaica, all teams capable of dispatching the U.S. to defeat. As many members of Klinsmann and Arena’s squad could tell you, there is very little margin for error at that point.
For that reason, American fans are right to want proof not only that Berhalter’s charges are learning his concepts, but that they are capable of using them to produce results against quality opposition. Going into qualifying without that proof is too big a gamble, given the recent history. Hopefully Berhalter will understand that over the next year, and adjust some of his match preparation accordingly.