Soul-searching goes on for US after Canada shock

Los Angeles (AFP) –


Two years after the seismic shock of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the United States men's soccer team is struggling to shake off the hangover.

The reign of US manager Gregg Berhalter plunged to a fresh nadir on Tuesday as the Americans were outplayed and beaten 2-0 by Canada in their CONCACAF Nations League qualifier.

It was the first time Canada had defeated the vastly better-resourced United States since 1985, and their first victory over their neighbours in a competitive fixture since 1980.

The loss piled pressure on Berhalter just 10 months into his tenure, the latest in a series of unconvincing performances since the former US international's first game in charge in January.

Although Berhalter appears at first glance to have a respectable record from his 16 games -- nine wins, two draws and five defeats -- the bulk of those victories have come against teams ranked well below the Americans.

In matches that matter, Berhalter's men have been found wanting.

A 1-0 defeat against Mexico in the Gold Cup final in July was followed by a 3-0 hammering by 'El Tri' in a friendly last month.

Although the US comfortably swatted aside Cuba 7-0 last week, they were well-beaten by a sharper Canadian team in Toronto on Tuesday.

It is all a far cry from the heady days under former head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who successfully navigated the USA through the "Group of Death" at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, qualifying for the knockout rounds ahead of a Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal and African heavyweights Ghana.

- Tactical rigidity -

While several stalwarts of the Klinsmann era have retired, Berhalter has faced scrutiny over his tactical rigidity.

The 46-year-old favours a high-pressing, play-from-the-back style, despite mounting evidence that the players at his disposal are ill-suited to that approach.

Berhalter, though, insists that there is no reason to panic, despite a loss on Tuesday that suggests the US team has regressed sharply in the two years since the calamitous 2-1 defeat to Trinidad & Tobago in 2017 that eliminated the US from the World Cup.

"I wouldn't make a statement about the program based on this game," Berhalter said on Tuesday. "The reason why is that these games are difficult. It was never going to be easy to come here and win the game.

"There was no way. When you look at their team, their quality, when you look at where they are right now, it wasn't going to be an easy game. We have to accept that. I think all of us have to accept that."

The sort of patience from fans and pundits that Berhalter is seeking however is in short supply. The dust had barely settled on the Canada defeat before "BerhalterOut" was trending on Twitter.

- Pulisic pain -

For many observers, Berhalter's substitution of Christian Pulisic was emblematic of a national team that has lost its way.

Pulisic, who has struggled to rediscover his best form this season after joining Chelsea from Borussia Dortmund, was yanked on Tuesday after an hour.

The 21-year-old forward, hailed as the biggest talent in US soccer, was later seen looking distraught on the bench, plainly frustrated at Berhalter's decision to withdraw him.

Other critics however wonder if the men's team's problems run deeper than the coach, pointing to the unconventional process that led to Berhalter's appointment.

When the US failed to qualify for the World Cup in October 2017, then coach Bruce Arena resigned just days afterwards.

However a permanent replacement was not appointed until nearly 14 months later.

Berhalter was reportedly only one of two men interviewed for the job alongside Oscar Pareja by US men's team general manager Earnie Stewart.

Several potential candidates -- notably former Argentina coach Gerardo 'Tata' Martino, former US coach Bob Bradley, or Red Bull Salzburg's Jesse Marsch, went ignored.

And even if Stewart soon decides that the time has come to seek a change of manager, any decision to axe Berhalter could end up needing to be approved by none other than the coach's brother, Jay Berhalter, who is in the running to succeed Dan Flynn as the new chief executive of US Soccer.