The smattering of boos at the final whistle of the U.S. national team's loss to Jamaica on Wednesday wasn't loud, but it was audible, and you couldn't really blame any USMNT fan leaving Audi Field for wanting to let Gregg Berhalter and his team know their performance wasn't good enough.
The games that matter, at the Gold Cup, are still almost two weeks away, but the 1-0 loss to Jamaica was bad enough to make the most patient fan do a double take. This was, after all, a Jamaica team U.S. fans are used to seeing beaten by their team.
Even though Berhalter tried an experimental formation and a patchwork lineup devoid of many first-choice starters, the performance was as disheartening a showing as the USMNT has delivered on home soil in a long time.
"We lacked speed. We lacked aggression in the final third," Berhalter said. "When you talk about when the ball’s wide there should be four guys in the penalty box and we only had two half the time. Even when we won ball in good positions, now it’s time to counter, now it’s time to really enforce ourselves on the opponent and we didn’t do that.”
The U.S. attack managed just one shot on goal all night, a late-game effort from Josh Sargent. Instead of goals, the Americans generated wayward passes and turnovers in bunches. The team’s defensive organization was solid in the first half, but the second half saw the USA begin to struggle to deal with Jamaica’s physicality and pressure.
Berhalter responded by deciding to have his team switch back to his preferred 4-3-3 system, but Jamaica scored just a minute after Berhalter’s tactical substitutions, and the Americans failed to respond.
“In the end, sloppy giveaways led to their goal and changed the momentum of the game, so we have to be cleaner in that sense,” midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “I felt like I our pressing was a little off. I felt we were just trying to go every time, and you can’t physically do that in a game and so we got tired I think.
“That led to sloppy giveaways. It’s a new group, and you obviously have to be patient, but in the end I think it was just sloppy from us.”
Hanging over Wednesday’s match was the reality that some U.S. players were playing for their places on the USMNT Gold Cup roster
“Some guys you could tell that I think the moment of ‘Okay, am I going to make the team or not’ was wearing on them, and that’s never nice,” Berhalter said. “It’s never nice for it to come down to one game or something like that, so I felt for the guys.”
Teenage forward Sargent was one such player looking to secure his Gold Cup spot. He played the full 90 minutes and managed to take his team’s only shot on goal, but otherwise had a quiet night, in part because of a lack of service.
“It was tough to get on the ball, and it was a difficult game for us to get a rhythm it seems like. So it was a little frustrating for me,” Sargent said. “We have to learn from this experience and move on.”
There were few bright spots, but one was Duane Holmes, who impressed in his USMNT debut. The Derby County midfielder provided some energy and sharp passes, and if he wasn’t already a Gold Cup option, his effort against Jamaica surely boosted his chances, especially in a midfield that will be without Sebastian Lletget, who Berhalter confirmed will miss the Gold Cup.
“Duane performed well. What you see from him is exactly what you saw at Derby County,” Berhalter said. “He has this mobility. He has an aggressiveness, but he also has good technical ability in tight spaces. I thought he performed well tonight.”
Holmes was the exception on Wednesday, and Berhalter didn’t mind admitting his team’s performance wasn’t good enough.
“We know we need to improve,” Berhalter said. “We know we need to get better. We know we need to be, I think, more aggressive in the final third. We had one shot on goal today. That’s pretty poor, and we know that. The guys tried, I think we gave a decent effort. We didn’t play well, and you’re going to have nights where you don’t to play well. I’m not sure it should be that volatile that you turn against the team after one poor performance.
“There’s going to be more, as time goes on there’ll be more poor performances when I’m coach,” Berhalter said. “I guarantee it, and that’s part of it. Are the guys bought in? Are they working hard? Are we executing the type of soccer we want to execute? We’re getting there.”
Right after one of the worst USMNT performances in the past 18 months wasn’t the time for Berhalter to promise U.S. fans they wouldn’t see similar debacles in the future — truth be told, there’s never a good time to make that kind of promise — but Berhalter is right to say that one stinker shouldn’t send U.S. fans into a frenzy, especially when it came without most of the team’s key starters.
That being said, Wednesday felt like the end of the honeymoon period for Berhalter as USMNT coach. A much better showing will be expected on Sunday against Venezuela, when the likes of Christian Pulisic, Jozy Altidore and Weston McKennie should enter the lineup. A packed crowd at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati will be cheering on a U.S. team closer to full strength, and one that should be able to deliver a much better showing than Wednesday’s squad.
That said, if the USMNT has another stinker against Venezuela, the boos at the final whistle will be louder than Wednesday’s boos were, and the loss to Jamaica will suddenly go from being a blip to the start of a worrying trend.