Sunday was going to be a full day of celebration for soccer fans in the US. The USWNT was playing in the Women’s World Cup Final against the Netherlands and was expected to defend their title. Once the evening rolled around, the USMNT would play Mexico in an attempt to defend their Gold Cup crown. The day got off to a perfect start with the USWNT defeating the Dutch 2-0 to win their fourth Women’s World Cup title. But after that it was all downhill as the US fell to Mexico 1-0 in the Gold Cup Final. The loss to their arch-rival, the way it played out, and most of the tournament leading up to it, prove that US Head Coach Gregg Berhalter is in way over his head.
On the surface that may seem like an outrageous claim. After all, his record is 8-3-1 for a win percentage of 70%. But only paying attention to the surface is how you repeat what happened in 2017 to the US over and over and over again (the US was unbeaten in 14 straight and won the Gold Cup before going winless in three of their last four and failing to qualify for Russia 2018). The simple fact is that Gregg Berhalter did not call his best players up for this camp. Josh Sargent being sent home after one friendly (and therefore being unable to go to the U-20 World Cup in Poland) was utter stupidity and was especially galling when Berhalter came out and called him the striker of the future. Tyler Adams was sent home prior to the Gold Cup and replaced with an MLS afterthought. And of course he brought his boy Gyasi Zardes who might be able to score with his face but can’t hit the back of the net from inside the six yard box if his life depended on it.
Poor player selection is one thing. Every manager has made mistakes before. But then the results started to get ugly. First it was a 1-0 home loss to Jamaica. The US had one good chance the whole game and looked totally hapless against a Jamaica team comprised of mostly USL players (which is even more amusing given that Berhalter’s apologists rushed to his defense after the loss saying that the US rolled out a mostly MLS side). But what was more shocking was in his post game press conference when Berhalter came out and said that losing to Jamaica was fine and not a big deal. He then took it more than a step further and guaranteed more losses and poor performances. He followed through on that promise immediately as the US was demolished in their next game at home by Venezuela to the tune of 3-0. That’s right, US Soccer’s grandmaster visionary had his team so prepared and dialed in that they got waxed 3-0 at home by a country who has never been to a World Cup, and a country where law and order are on the verge of total collapse. But not to worry, Berhalter again assured fans that losing was perfectly acceptable and that all was not lost.
The Gold Cup began and the US initially struggled against a Guyana side ranked 177th in the world but wound up winning 4-0 thanks to two goals from Tyler Boyd (who US Soccer wasn’t even aware existed until they stumbled across him on YouTube and who now has a deal to play with Turkish giants Galatasaray). Up next was a game against the team that kept them out of Russia 2018: Trinidad & Tobago. Again, the US struggled early on but the floodgates finally opened and the US ran out 6-0 winners. The third and final group game was against Panama, and in typical Gold Cup USA/Panama fashion, it was an ugly rock fight and the US was able to grind out a 1-0 victory (thanks to Jozy Altidore finally scoring a goal that mattered). But the quarterfinal game against Curacao was a shocker. Not only did the US only win 1-0, but they got out-possessed, out-shot, out-hustled, out-worked, and out-fought by a country the size of DeSoto County, Mississippi who was making their second ever Gold Cup appearance. After the game, the media finally decided to ask Berhalter a tough question or two and he immediately became prickly and defensive saying that it was not right to expect the US to win handily because it was going to be a tough game. Seriously, he said that the five time Gold Cup champions were in for a tough game against a country with a population of 161,014. He then added a “gem,” saying that despite the media and fans not being satisfied with a 1-0 win over a Dutch protectorate, he and the team were very pleased. That’s how you get stuck on the treadmill of low-end mediocrity for a generation.
However, the tough questions and fan displeasure seemed to have sparked something because for the game against Jamaica in the semi-final the US came out with their collective hair on fire and were up 1-0 inside of 10 minutes and had several other excellent chances before Mother Nature intervened. A nearly two hour weather delay sapped the verve right out of the US attack and after the restart it was a much more even game that the US was able to see out 3-1, thanks to a pair of goals from Christian Pulisic. It set up a dream final against arch-rival Mexico and with it an opportunity to show the US fans that they could get behind this team and be excited again. It was not to be.
The US came out in the first half and was the much better side, though the finishing was shockingly wasteful (and that was with Gyasi Zardes on the bench). Paul Arriola missed two or three solid chances and Jozy Altidore missed the best of the bunch after he’d gotten into the area and past the defenders. He didn’t even force Ochoa in the Mexico goal to make a save; instead it went out for a goal kick. After halftime Mexico was a completely different team. While Tata Martino (who you’ll remember US Soccer passed on because he speaks Spanish, despite managing in the last three Copa America Finals, managing at Barcelona, and winning an MLS Cup) made a few tweaks that allowed Mexico to completely and totally dominate the US in the second half Berhalter sat there and tugged at his sweater. Mexico’s pressure finally paid off and they won their seventh Gold Cup by a score of 1-0. (And by the way, Tata Martino now has 5 wins, 0 losses, and 1 draw against Gregg Berhalter and has outscored him by a combined 11-2)
If there was any doubt prior to the final against Mexico that Berhalter is in way over his head, then that game surely removed all of it. Here’s a dirty little secret about Gregg Berhalter: he cannot or will not alter his game plan during a game. That is managerial suicide. Mexico made tweaks and completely overran the US, yet Berhalter did nothing. The substitutions he made were quite baffling. Cristian Roldan for Jordan Morris? Whatever, Morris was poor on the night anyway. Gyasi Zardes for Jozy Altidore? Altidore was gassed sure, but why in the world is Gyasi Zardes coming into the game? He’s proven time and time and time again that he’s not good enough for the international level. But then, he is one of Berhatler’s former Columbus players isn’t he? Asked and answered. But the most shocking, appalling, and confounding substitution came with less than 10 minutes to play and the US down 1-0. Tim Ream came off and most sane people expected an attacking player to come on and were surely hoping for Tyler Boyd. Instead they got Daniel Lovitz. That’s right folks. Down a goal with almost no time left in the game, US Soccer’s greatest visionary brought on another defender. That is coaching malpractice of the highest order. It was a fitting crystallization that Berhalter has no clue what he is doing.
None of this should be a surprise to anybody however. Prior to taking the US job, Berhalter had proven himself a loser at two different clubs. In the Swedish second division with Hammarby, he posted a record of 18-11-17 (W-L-D) for a 57% win percentage and won zero trophies. Once he came to MLS, it got worse. In five seasons with the Columbus Crew his record was 75-71-47 for a win percentage of just 51%. As was the case in Sweden, he won zero trophies in Columbus. And now with the national team, he whiffed badly on his first chance at winning a trophy. For a guy being held up as a savior and a genius and a man with a plan, he sure doesn’t seem to have accomplished much of anything that would suggest he’s capable of coaching a high school team to a state championship, let alone winning at a high level internationally.
But of course, he can lose many more games while he’s in charge of the US. He needs to be fired but he won’t be. The job is basically his until after the 2026 World Cup. He’s already said that losing is fine and he’s guaranteed more of it. With his brother Jay about to become the new CEO of US Soccer, he has more job security and a longer leash than maybe any manger in history. So the fans better enjoy being mired on the treadmill of low-end mediocrity. It’s going to stay that way for a very long time.