Thursday marked two years since the day everything changed for the U.S. men’s national team.
On October 10, 2017, the USMNT fell 2-1 to Trinidad & Tobago in Couva, Trinidad, failing to qualify for a World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Two years on, and the program has yet to fully recover. A lost year under interim manager Dave Sarachan has been followed by an indifferent 10 months under new boss Gregg Berhalter.
Berhalter’s reign has been punctuated by flashes of excitement and a few complete performances but recently, that same familiar feeling of dread that has carried over from Couva has started to creep in.
The USMNT fell to Mexico in the Gold Cup final in July before losing again to El Tri last month, this time in a comprehensive 3-0 result in New Jersey. That defeat, which was followed by another indifferent performance in a 1-1 draw with Uruguay, has brought fan discontent and unease to a new level ahead of the USMNT’s Concacaf Nations League debut against Cuba on Friday.
Despite the heavy defeat last month, Berhalter insisted at a press conference on Thursday that his team did gain something valuable from the Mexico game.
“Anytime we play we want to compete for results, that’s our goal,” Berhalter said “Along the way we have some tactical objectives that we want to accomplish.
“The Mexico game in New York, it was very important for us to try and play through a high press. You don’t get those opportunities very often and this was a good learning experience for our group.”
As important as that experience may end up proving, the Nations League is a tournament in which it will be imperative for the U.S. to get results.
The brand-new tournament provides the U.S. with games that at least nominally count but more importantly, they will be a chance for Berhalter to show that nearly a year into his reign, the program is making strides in the right direction.
U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie, however, denied that his side is under any added pressure.
“If we would have gotten a result against Mexico these six points would still matter the same as it does now,” McKennie said.
The USMNT will take on both Cuba and Canada twice over the next month, starting with a game against Cuba on Friday at Audi Field in Washington D.C. before a trip to Toronto on Tuesday.
That game against Canada, in particular, will be a massive test.
The USMNT has played 14 games under Berhalter thus far but Tuesday’s match will be the first Berhalter has coached outside of U.S. soil. A hostile environment will await the USMNT, with an up-and-coming Canada side expected to provide a major challenge.
A poor performance in Toronto will only ratchet up the pressure on Berhalter ahead of the USMNT’s return fixtures against the same two sides in November.
It’s unclear if the USMNT has really made progress since that fateful night in Couva but should they fail to top their three-team Nations League group, it would appear increasingly likely that they have actually gone backwards.
“We want to be playing in the semifinal and eventually the final of the Nations League,” Berhalter said, “so it’s important for us to win the group.”