Whether the United States depart the Middle East having accomplished Gregg Berhalter’s clearly articulated goal of changing the way the world perceives American soccer is an open question.
The overall result following Saturday’s defeat to the Netherlands, which laid bare just how far the Americans have to go before contending with the world’s elite, doesn’t offer a clear answer. After surpassing the tempered expectations of supporters back home by getting out of a tough group but falling short of their own lofty goals, the wholly reconstructed US team made it exactly as far as their previous two appearances at the tournament: to the last 16 and out.
But for all the flaws exposed on Saturday, the United States’ promising core of young players bodes well moving forward. At a time when more American prospects than ever before are spending their teenage years in Europe, more than half of Berhalter’s 26-man squad was drawn from the world’s top five leagues, including Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Sergiño Dest (Milan), Weston McKennie (Juventus) and Tyler Adams (Leeds United). Nineteen of them made their World Cup debuts in Qatar, a record total for a US team.
They started three of the youngest starting XIs in this tournament and four of the youngest five. Eight of Berhalter’s choices for the Netherlands match were 25 or younger – Antonee Robinson (25); McKennie (24), Pulisic (24), Adams (23), Dest (22), Tim Weah (22), Jesús Ferreira (21), Yunus Musah (who turned 20 this week) – and each of them will be highly motivated by the acid memory of Saturday’s heartbreak at the Khalifa International Stadium.
“I do feel like we made some progress,” Berhalter said. “When people look at our team, they see a clear identity. They see guys that go out and fight for each other. They see the talent on the field. We made progress, but on this particular night we came up short.”
What we do know for certain is the next time all those young US players come together for a World Cup match, it will take place on home soil, representing a golden opportunity for what’s been touted as a golden generation of American players who will be in their presumptive primes. Far less clear is whether Berhalter is the correct person to lead them. It’s a decision that will come to a head soon enough with Berhalter’s $1.29m-per-year contract due to expire at the end of the month.
“For the last month-and-a-half, I only focused on the World Cup, only focused on achieving things with this group,” Berhalter said. “Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll clear my head, sit down, and think about what’s next.”
The 47-year-old deserves credit for taking over a program still reeling from the Catastrophe at Couva, ending a string of seven straight World Cup finals appearances, and getting the US back to the sport’s biggest stage.
His 71.1% winning percentage is the highest of any USMNT coach in history, a fact that may surprise even the team’s most dedicated followers. He was instrumental in winning the recruiting battles for Dest and Musah, a pair of dual-nationals who have established themselves as feature players on this journey. He won the inaugural Concacaf Nations League, then the Gold Cup and guided the team through a challenging qualifying campaign for the World Cup, where they got out of the only group in which all four teams ranked in the top 20 of Fifa’s world rankings.
But the brighter spotlight of the World Cup stage brought greater scrutiny of Berhalter’s squad selection, substitutions and in-game adjustments, prompting criticism that he was tactically overwhelmed at this level.
Whoever is chosen to take the United States forward will have plenty on their plate. For all the valid concerns over identifying a goalscoring center forward, squad depth will be a vital issue if reaching the quarter-finals or better is on the cards. A number of key players, including the midfield trio of Adams, McKennie and Musah, were clearly exhausted after leaving it all on the field during the group stage. Not only will the US require more players able to spell them at their standard, but a manager capable of pushing the right buttons.
There’s also a question of keeping the team’s match-toughness sharp during the long four years ahead. The three-week Gold Cup starts at the end of June 2023, with most Europe-based players expected to be in the mix. But the United States’ status as automatic qualifiers for the next World Cup will deprive them of many opportunities for competitive matches. US Soccer should look to play in Copa América as a guest nation and to schedule more friendlies against elite opponents to test themselves, preferably away from home and in hostile environments.
The cycle will start again in January when the United States start running it back with a pair of friendlies against Serbia and Colombia. The Americans have plenty to take pride in after their return to the World Cup after an eight-year absence, but the real work has only just begun.
“We didn’t qualify for the last World Cup and here we are in the round of 16. We’ve definitely come a long way,” Pulisic said on Saturday. “There’s moments that we can be proud of. But we don’t want to feel like this again, and we want to put ourselves in a position to win tournaments like this.”