Are Gregg Berhalter, USMNT in for rude awakening at Gold Cup?
Background photo: Hayden Schiff, CC BY 2.0
It’s startling to consider that the same federation oversees both the United States men’s and women’s football teams.
The latter is run efficiently with a coherent vision and plan. The results are self-evident. The USWNT are the team to beat at every tournament they enter. In seven World Cups, they’ve always reached the semifinals and are 3-1 in finals. In six Olympic Games, they won four golds and a silver. They are also eight-time CONCACAF/Gold Cup champions and ten-time Algarve Cup winners. Yesterday, they posterised Thailand, 13-0. Thirteen. As you would expect, Jill Ellis’ squad are odds-on favourites to win the ongoing World Cup in France.
In contrast, the USSF is all over the map with the men’s team. Again, the results are self-evident. After finishing third in the inaugural World Cup in 1930, the United States best finish was a quarterfinal appearance in 2002. They failed to qualify for Russia.
They have not medalled at the Olympics since winning both silver and bronze in 1904 in St Louis. It was the first Games in which medals were awarded but national teams weren’t yet a thing. Teams from Christian Brothers College and St Rose Parish, both local sides, each represented the United States in the tournament. Since matters became more serious, the Americans have been makeweights in the nine Olympics in which they participated.
The only tournament in which the United States experiences regular success is the CONCACAF Gold Cup which they’ve won six times and are defending champions. Their record may be helped by the fact they’ve hosted the event twelve of the 14 times it’s been staged.
The United States again plays host to this year’s edition of the Gold Cup, kicking off this coming weekend. Recent events don’t bode well for matching Mexico with a seventh title, however.
After replacing Jurgen Klinsmann but failing to qualify the USMNT for Russia18, Bruce Arena resigned from his second tenure as manager. Fan consensus was the team needed to stop looking into the past and embrace the future. The USSF paid lip service to the wave of opinion, hiring former player Earnie Stewart as the USMNT manager and charging him with identifying and hiring a new coach.
The following 14 months were shrouded in mystery until Columbus Crew boss Gregg Berhalter emerged as the favourite to take the job. During the long, allegedly exhaustive search, Arena’s former number two, Dave Sarachan took charge of the squad. In keeping with the edict to look to the future, he auditioned a legion of young talent with predictably mixed results. Without a defined squad and with a lame-duck manager in charge, who could expect consistency?
In the end, Berhalter was appointed and the inconsistency continues as he goes through a similar process to Sarachan, albeit without the luxury of time. Recent results didn't trend the way people who expect more than "trying" and "decent efforts" from their national team would hope. Strong victories over Panama [3-0] and Costa Rica [2-0] descended into knuckle-scrapers against Ecuador [1-0] and two-time defending Copa America champions Chile [1-1]. The trend finally dipped into the negative with a 1-0 defeat to Jamaica in the penultimate tune-up for the Gold Cup before culminating in a match with Venezuela in which Newcastle's Salomon Rondon scored twice as Los Vinotinto played the Americans off their own park, 3-0. The best thing that can be said about the Venezuela result is that there wasn't a '1' in front of the '3'.
Calling either defeat a tune-up is a bit like saying training wheels on your first bike are preparation for F1. Few of the main players in Berhalter’s Gold Cup squad made the team sheet for either match. Christian Pulisic, Jozy Altidore, Jordan Morris, Gyasi Zardes and Michael Bradley were all conspicuously absent against Jamaica. Altidore and Morris made the bench against Venezuela. Zardes started but Bradley and Pulisic, arguably the USMNT's most vital players were intentionally left out of the squad. To be fair, Bradley may still be feeling the effects of a hamstring injury but Pulisic arrived in camp last week two weeks ago eager to contribute.
Tinkering on the eve of a tournament rather than giving your best XI opportunities to settle isn’t encouraging. Nor is Berhalter’s history as a club manager, mostly with the Crew. Preparing for a league campaign differs from a tournament. Games lost early in a season can be made up in the long run. There is no long run in Gold and World Cups.
That said, Berhalter isn’t known for finishing strongly anyway. The gaffer’s record in Major League Soccer is a concern. While his teams always hung around the playoff picture, they never won a trophy. In contrast, Mexico comes into this tournament with Gerardo Martino at the helm. The Argentine came to El Tri from Atlanta United, the franchise he built from scratch and propelled to an MLS Cup triumph in their second competitive season. Ever.
Is a lot of it is due to “trying” players out? Absolutely.
Time for a real XI.
Time for meaningful games.
No more excuses. #USMNT
That title run took place while Earnie Stewart sought a new manager for the USMNT. If his success with Atlanta wasn’t sufficiently compelling, there is the fact that both Barcelona and Argentina can be found on Martino’s CV. Yet, his outstanding work didn’t even rate a telephone call from Stewart to gauge Tata's potential interest in the national team post. Now he calls the shots for the Americans’ chief rival.
Former FC Dallas boss Oscar Pareja was also found wanting despite winning both a Supporters Shield for best regular-season MLS record and a US Open Cup with the Toros. He too went to Mexico, taking charge at Tijuana in Liga MX.
In its history, the USSF has never appointed a Latino or black manager. Not for the men’s squad. Not for the women’s. Not in 46 appointments. Newly elected USSF president Carlos Cordeiro and Earnie Stewart, both minorities, were presented with an opportunity to break new ground with several qualified candidates available to push aside that barrier. Tata Martino, Pareja, Carlos Queiroz and Juan Carlos Osorio to name but four. Heck, hiring Sarachan regardless of his racial status would have been a better decision. He already knew the lay of the land.
Instead, Stewart and Cordeiro unveiled the uninspiring Berhalter, claiming he was the man to forge a “truly American” identity for the USMNT. If they meant a mediocre coach who passes the eye-test for Anglo fans but lacks the technical nous of the ignored candidates, they weren’t lying. If they believed they found a manager who can take the United States to new heights in the world’s game, they’re bound to be disappointed.