The scoreboard at the end of the United States men’s national team’s loss to Canada Sunday may have read 2–0, but the gap in vibes is nigh-infinite.
With the win, Canada is on the verge of qualifying for just the second World Cup in its history, and could conceivably do so Wednesday with three games to spare. After losing, the U.S. dropped to within one point of having to play New Zealand in a one-game playoff in Qatar for a spot in the 2022 tournament after fourth-placed Panama’s 3-2 win over Jamaica.
To be fair, the vibes game was decided well before Sunday afternoon. While the U.S. has slogged through World Cup qualifying, with injuries to key players, the Weston McKennie suspension, and a roller coaster of form that sees every encouraging performance followed by a poor one, Canada has soared. It has been playing great soccer, going undefeated so far in the final round of World Cup qualifying. It has three tremendously exciting young attackers—Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies, Lille’s Jonathan David, and Club Brugge’s Tajon Buchanan—complemented by ruthless 26-year-old forward Cyle Larin. It sits in first place despite having played a difficult schedule: Mexico twice, the U.S. twice now. It does have three tricky trips to Central America left, but it passed its first test there Thursday with flying maple leaves:
No one would use “magnificent” or “fun” to describe the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying campaign, not even before Sunday’s game, back when just one point separated the two teams. The Canadian confidence stands in pretty sharp contrast to the incessant neurosis that has accompanied the American campaign. “How are we this good?” feels a lot more satisfying than “Why aren’t we better?”
So how did Canada get this good? In the parlance of our times, it understands the assignment. The team is capable of both grinding out results and sending that quartet of attacking stars flying forward when necessary. On Sunday, it was more of the former. Much as Canada did in Nashville in September, it spent much of the game making itself as difficult as possible to play against, ceding the ball to the Americans in favor of gumming up the works. Canada checked the U.S. from behind at nearly every opportunity, and probably should have earned more scrutiny from the referee for the fouls it committed behind the ball whenever the U.S. was in its half, dumping American players on the turf after they passed it off multiple times.
That said, the Canadians were able to execute this gameplan so well because they scored just seven minutes in. The goal was a ruthless exploitation of a pair of American mistakes. The American defense was slow to advance in the wake of Matt Turner’s long goal kick, allowing Jonathan Osorio to flick on to Larin before Miles Robinson was in position to challenge him. Larin ran a simple give-and-go with David, but Robinson lost his footing on the turf trying to keep up with him, allowing Larin to shoot past Turner unimpeded.
The U.S. spent 83 minutes chasing the game but had few chances to show for it, even in the final minutes when it got behind the Canadian defense multiple times. (Canada would score its second in the final minute of extra time, with the U.S. chasing an equalizer). The best American opportunity came when it finally, after what feels like years, hammered a set piece chance on target, but Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan made a tremendous save to scoop Weston McKennie’s header off the crossbar and out of his goal just before halftime.
This more than anything is the difference between these two teams, what explains Canada’s success and this sense that the USMNT is just treading water. The U.S. looks for patterns; Canada hunts space, and its opponents’ mistakes. The U.S. plays in pursuit of an imagined ideal; Canada plays for what it has to do on the day. Canada coach John Herdman’s realism has paid fantastic dividends this qualification cycle. At every asking, his team has managed to find what it needs to come away with at least one point. (Perhaps only its opening draw against now-last-placed Honduras feels like a disappointment.)
For the U.S., even its wins can feel like disappointments, as Thursday’s 1–0 victory over El Salvador showed. In the three years of Berhalter’s tenure (granted, 2020 was something of a lost year), his team still hasn’t mastered his ideas of using the ball to unbalance opponents. It’s fair to wonder now whether that mastery will ever come. The team has played 10 games together in the past five months, and it doesn’t appear to be executing any faster or cleaner than it did in the first one. There have been moments—the 2–0 win against Mexico in November was a worthy highlight—but little consistency in terms of creating or finishing chances.
Despite this, the U.S. has mostly managed to grind out positive results. That’s likely because of changes made in the wake of its last disappointing 2–0 loss in Canada, during the CONCACAF Nations League in October 2019. That defeat jump-started the Americans’ best run of form under Berhalter. In the 23 games played between that game and its first loss of World Cup qualifying in Panama almost exactly two years later, the U.S. won 19, drew three, and lost just once, to Switzerland in a friendly. The 2019 game against Canada seemed to prove to Berhalter that his midfield balance was out of whack; he adjusted and won the return in November 2019 4–1. The U.S. has rarely lost the midfield battle when both Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams are available since then.
Now, instead, the team’s problems are in the offensive third. Once again, Christian Pulisic underwhelmed, serving mostly as a damage sponge to absorb Canadian fouls. Brenden Aaronson was more proactive but produced little to show for it. Neither Gyasi Zardes nor substitute Ricardo Pepi produced much in their shifts at center forward. The only American attacker who seems to produce a steady stream of dangerous moments lately is Tim Weah, who didn’t travel to Canada due to differences between France’s and Canada’s vaccination rules.
Outside of rotating center forwards this window and giving Jesus Ferreira and Zardes a chance to displace Pepi, Berhalter has been reluctant to make changes. Pulisic has remained the starter on the left, performing mostly the same unhelpful patterns of play where he drifts in front of the defense. The team still can’t play fast enough to get the ball to an American player in front of the goal one step ahead of the defense; so many of its chances end up ricocheting off a defender in position to make a block or else skewed wide off an awkward bounce.
Maybe this loss to Canada will finally provoke the sorts of changes the team’s offense needs. Maybe Berhalter will finally move Pulisic to see whether he might provide more in another area of the field. Maybe he’ll allow his team more license to improvise on the ball, hunting the sorts of spaces from which they can cause more danger. Maybe he’ll let them be a little bit more like Canada.