Imagine you have a Formula One team, and you hire five-time champion Lewis Hamilton with much hoopla. Then you hand him your grandmother’s old station wagon to race.
US men’s soccer coach Gregg Berhalter may not be Lewis Hamilton. But the US men at the moment are, if not an old station wagon, then a machine that needs a good deal of tinkering before it can keep up with regional rival Mexico, let alone make an impact at the World Cup.
The USA’s past successes – the run to the 2002 World Cup quarter-finals, the 2009 Confederations Cup semi-final win that broke Spain’s epic streak, multiple Gold Cup wins – were based on fortuitous timing in which several frequently injured players (John O’Brien in 2002, Oguchi Onyewu in 2009) were healthy and others (Tony Sanneh in 2002, Jay DeMerit in 2009) were in peak form.
Sure, the coach matters to an extent, for better or for worse. Jürgen Klinsmann took grandma’s old station wagon and drove it off a cliff during the doomed qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup. On the other end of the spectrum, Bruce Arena made a stunning tactical adjustment at the 2002 World Cup – coincidentally including the surprise inclusion of one Gregg Berhalter – and went with a 3-5-2 formation that frustrated Mexico in USA’s last-16 win.
But that’s the last World Cup knockout-round win the US men have had. It’s also the only knockout-round win the US men have ever had and the best finish since 1930, when the USA won their group to advance to the four-team playoffs of the World Cup.
Arena couldn’t salvage the World Cup qualifying campaign in 2017 after Klinsmann’s departure. And today’s problems won’t be solved by Berhalter, Arena, Atlanta-turned-Mexico coach Tata Martino or, for that matter, a coach as talented as someone like Jürgen Klopp. The problems are far deeper, and the younger generation of players will require more patience to realize their potential, whatever it may be.
But 2019 is a difficult time for US men’s fans to be patient. The World Cup qualifying failure still stings. The US women’s success, while celebrated by men’s fans and players alike, puts the men’s struggles in vivid contrast, especially when pundits who don’t bother to read collective bargaining agreements unfairly use the men as a punching bag in “equal pay” arguments.
The basic difference between the US women and men is simple. In women’s soccer, no other country has been able to compete with the talent pool that emerges from the tried-and-true Title IX-driven college soccer pipeline. That pipeline will need adjustment in the future, but for the past three decades, it’s been far better than anything else in the world.
In men’s soccer, the rest of the world has a firmly established infrastructure and continues to refine it. The US men have shifted from a developmental system of low-key youth clubs and scholastic soccer to one that throws teenagers into academies and professional environments, and it has not yet produced players better than those of the past.
Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley won the Golden Ball and the Silver Ball at the 1999 U-17 World Cup. Donovan went on to provide some of the US men’s most stirring highlights. Beasley played in the semi-finals of the 2005 Champions League with PSV. Clint Dempsey played in the 2010 Europa League final with Fulham, a club that named a bar after fellow American success story Brian McBride. Steve Cherundolo and Tim Howard were beloved players at their clubs in Germany and England, as were several other US goalkeepers.
The only young US player who seems capable of equalling – or bettering – the achievements of that generation is Christian Pulisic, who established himself as a Champions League player and elicited a $73m transfer fee before being old enough to go to a bar in the United States. By US standards, he’s a once-in-a-generation talent. If he was English, he’d be competing for playing time for the national team with Jadon Sancho and Mason Mount, just as he has in his European club play with Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea.
Berhalter’s task is to redefine the US team for the Pulisic era. The friendlies in the just-concluded international window featured a roster in which more than half of the players had 10 caps or fewer. (US women’s supporters would be shocked to see such a squad, even though the team play many more friendlies and theoretically have more leeway to experiment.)
Such experimentation will be a less frequent option in the future. Concacaf has started its own Nations League, similar to the European model, which means Berhalter’s team will hop rather quickly into meaningful competition for the rest of the year. Cuba might not be the most formidable opponent, but Canadian coach John Herdman is salivating at the thought of the upcoming border battle.
And if the USA can win the group, they’ll once again face their arch-rival – Mexico, who have decisively reclaimed the bragging rights in the teams’ rivalry in the past four years, including two recent wins over the States. This summer’s Gold Cup final, overshadowed by the concurrent Women’s World Cup but still drawing more than 60,000 fans to Chicago’s Soldier Field, was close. Last week’s friendly, a 3-0 victory for El Tri, was not.
Still, the USA can point to some encouraging signs. The youngsters more than held their own with a more experienced – if not quite full strength – Uruguay squad this week, outplaying the visitors in the first-half before settling for a 1-1 draw. Pulisic is a key player in Chelsea’s whirlwind attack. Teen sensation Josh Sargent has had some bright moments for Werder Bremen, and the FC Dallas academy keeps churning out solid players.
So Berhalter will likely have the parts in place to get past Canada and Cuba. But Mexico, after a few broken-down years, have pulled ahead in the race to catch up with the global elite. The USA have plenty of work to do at all levels of the game before they can keep up.