Sports

Why Does the U.S. Men’s Soccer Team Look Like It’s Careening Off a Cliff?

And only a couple months before the World Cup.

The two players grimace and vie for the ball, which is above their heads
Saudi Arabia’s forward Firas al-Buraikan and U.S. midfielder Gio Reyna during the friendly match at the Nueva Condomina stadium in Murcia, Spain, on Tuesday. Jose Jordan/AFP via Getty Images

The final warmups on the cusp of the World Cup. Last chance to make an impression. Last chance to build momentum. Do you enter the sport’s showcase event full of confidence, swagger, or even menace, or do you “Yoiks and away!” like Daffy Duck into tree after tree, landing face first into the opening game of the tournament?

The U.S. men’s national team took the pratfall option this week, failing to match Japan’s intensity Friday in a 2–0 loss and getting ground into oblivion by Saudi Arabia in a 0–0 draw Tuesday. Neither of those teams is as strong on paper as any of the Americans’ World Cup opponents. To make matters worse, neither were at full strength, either, meaning the U.S. looked this bad against what were essentially their opponents’ B teams. Momentum would seem to be carrying the Americans directly over a cliff.

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But momentum is kind of overrated, particularly when it comes to this team. It does play poorly, far more often than we would hope for on the eve of the World Cup, but it is also capable of playing well, and the two outcomes rarely seem to follow any particular pattern. This makes following the team frustrating, and prognosticating its World Cup chances difficult. Yes, it looks bad. Will it be this bad come November?

Pre-tournament friendlies—even ones held much closer to the tournament per standard procedure, when they don’t get moved to the middle of the global season—are a notoriously poor guide to World Cup performance. Champions France drew nonqualifiers the United States in its last game before the 2018 World Cup. Champions Germany drew a Cameroon team that went winless at the tournament in 2014. Champions Italy drew Switzerland and Ukraine ahead of 2006. (It would beat Ukraine 3–0 in the quarterfinals, so things come around.) Conversely, the French, Spanish, and German champions that all bowed out in the group stages of the 2002, 2014, and 2018 World Cups all won their last games before the tournaments that went so poorly for them, a final triumphant leap over the side of the same cliff.

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The trouble then is not with the latest U.S. results necessarily but the process. Unfortunately this is no comfort. because the process looks broken, much as it did years ago. Remember the U.S.’s first disheartening loss to Canada, in the CONCACAF Nations League way back in 2019? Maybe you don’t. That was several lifetimes ago. Canada, just a couple of years away from rocketing to the top of CONCACAF, outhustled and outfought the U.S. to earn its first win over the men’s national team in decades. It was bad enough that U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter wrote a letter apologizing for the game and for his failure to thank the traveling support. I wrote then: “The book on beating the U.S. has been out for so long that coaches can get it in paperback by now. All they have to do is press and harass the U.S. defenders, clog the center of the field with as many bodies as possible, and wait for the American apparatus to rattle itself apart.”

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Today you can find 20 copies of the same edition of the book at your local used book store from where it was assigned in coaches’ school. Everybody had to write papers on it, on what it means for Tyler Adams’ character that he overreaches with his passing to push the tempo in a way his team needs but that he is constitutionally unsuited for; on the symbolism of Christian Pulisic searching for space in that same pocket just across the halfway line on the left side of the field even though he rarely creates danger from there; on the fairness or lack thereof of all the world’s suffering being transmuted into Gio Reyna’s forever-ailing hamstrings.

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Maybe if we’re lucky, England’s Gareth Southgate only read the summary on Wikipedia, but Japan’s Hajime Moriyasu and Saudi Arabia’s Hervé Renard got A’s for what they turned in. Their teams knew exactly what to do to thwart and disrupt the Americans. Japan pressed and harassed the American defenders. Saudi Arabia clogged vital parts of the field and kept the U.S. passing around rather than through and snuffed out any potential danger early through sheer physicality, with the help of some lenient refereeing. The USMNT finished its September series with just two shots on target. You don’t advance through the group stage of the World Cup with those kinds of numbers.

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That said: Despite what it looked like this past week, the team is not actually stuck in 2019. It is capable of change; in its next game after that Canada loss, the U.S. avenged itself on its northern neighbors 4–1. A Mexico team that was toying with the U.S. in 2019 has markedly not done that in 2021 and 2022. Unfortunately, the solutions to these problems that Berhalter and his players have developed are fragile ones, often dependent on particular personnel. Unclogging the middle of the field has become Yunus Musah’s job, but the 19-year-old with Velcro control missed these two games with a small injury, and his replacement, Luca de la Torre, looked rusty after hardly playing this season for his new Spanish club Celta de Vigo. It’s a similar story with Antonee Robinson, who’s a pressure release valve at left back, forcing opponents to stay wider and deeper and opening up more opportunities for his teammates. None of his backups have his gravity, or his ability to race in behind defenses. When Musah and Robinson return, the team will look better. If for some reason they miss the World Cup, something will have to change.

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It’s an unfortunate truth that some of the team’s biggest stars, names like Pulisic and Weston McKennie, can raise the team’s ceiling but not its floor. Neither of them showed much of anything in their time on the field this month. To play at its best, the U.S. needs them to perform. To at least play well, it needs the likes of Robinson and Musah.

Or for something else to change. Some fans are calling for an entire restructuring, scrapping everything and rebuilding the team around, say, Jordan Pefok’s heading ability, but such a major overhaul is inconceivable under Berhalter. Instead, the coach hinted at a possible tweak to his preferred method this summer, when he played Musah deeper than ever before and next to Adams in a bid to draw up opposing midfields and make it easier for him to dribble through them. This theoretically takes some pressure off Adams, because he’s not the only player tasked with getting the ball from his defenders in the center of the field, which allows opponents to hound him into mistakes. That variant didn’t reappear this month, so either it’s dead or—galaxy brain incoming—Berhalter doesn’t want to give his Group B opponents any more film on it. (He would not be the first coach to attempt to keep a formation change hidden before the World Cup.)

Berhalter said after the Saudi Arabia game that “Things became pretty clear” during this window, and, when pressed for specifics, offered only a repeated “Things.” With less than two months to go before the tournament, presumably top men are working on these things right now. Will their solutions see the light of day in November—or will they be warehoused forever along with the manifold other possibilities for this team?

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