Following Wednesday’s lackluster loss to Jamaica, Gregg Berhalter said that the U.S. men's national team was poised to improve, but that “more poor performances” were inevitable en route.
On Sunday in Cincinnati, Berhalter and his players delivered on that promise. The second one.
In its final friendly before kicking off defense of its Concacaf Gold Cup title on June 18, the USA performed about as poorly as possible in the first half against Venezuela. A comical defensive display during the first 45 minutes at Nippert Stadium was enough to seal a 3-0 defeat—Berhalter’s second straight after a 3-0-1 start—that seeds some doubt as the tournament looms.
There are three thin layers of silver lining: The USA was without several important players against Venezuela, including Christian Pulisic and Michael Bradley; the second half was adequate; and the next game isn’t for nine days.
Here are three thoughts from a rough outing in Ohio:
This was not a defensive masterclass
The sturdiest piece of Berhalter’s team against Jamaica was the back line. It was a shambles on Sunday, even though the manager returned to the more customary back four. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen, the USA’s clear No. 1, also struggled, and defensive midfielder Wil Trapp had little impact.
Venezuela’s 16th-minute opener was largely on Steffen, even though it appeared to be offside. The goalie played a pass down the middle instead of simply clearing the ball, and the visitors slammed it back down the Americans’ throat. Salomón Rondón, who spent 2018-19 with Newcastle United, finished off the play.
The second goal came off a Venezuela throw-in and flick that somehow magically vaporized U.S. center backs Matt Miazga and Aaron Long. Real Salt Lake’s Jefferson Savarino took a shot that hit the left post, and then beat three American defenders to the rebound. Six minutes later, Rondón ran onto a long pass and made Long and Steffen look helpless as he became the Vinotinto’s all-time leading scorer.
“I think we gave up three bad goals. I know we gave up three bad goals,” Berhalter understated to Fox at halftime. “When you look at the first one, obviously it’s a mistake. It happens. If you want to build out of the back you have to take those chances. But the other two are careless—really careless. It’s paying attention. It’s being aware, and we lacked that in the first half.”
Circumstances have been difficult, but the schedule is forgiving
Typically, warm-up games come closer to the start of the Gold Cup. In this case, they’re closer to the beginning of a camp that was haphazard in terms of personnel, as U-23 and senior players arrived at different times and at varying levels of fitness. While there’s no excuse for some of what transpired in Cincinnati—they’re all professionals—it does mean the squad we saw against Jamaica and Venezuela likely isn’t the one we’ll see against Guyana on June 18. It also means there’s a week’s worth of training left to work out some of the obvious kinks.
Pulisic trained with the USA for the first time on Friday. Bradley is still recovering from a hamstring issue and didn’t play in either friendly. Tyler Adams isn’t scheduled to arrive in camp until Tuesday. And Jozy Altidore, who remains the top forward, came on as a halftime sub on Sunday for his first international action since Couva. There’s no guarantee this team will get better, but there’s the time and leeway to do so.
"We're going to continue to progress this group," Berhalter said Saturday. "You will see a more representative [team against Venezuela] of what could be a potential [Gold Cup] lineup. We know we're still missing some players, and that's fine. The whole idea of these two games was to build the team. We came in with an [Under-23 and] national team group. We transitioned into more of a national team group, and now we're getting more of the Gold Cup group prepared. It's not going to be our end lineup [against Venezuela], but you have to deal with these things as they come.”
The first Gold Cup game, against Guyana, should be the easiest. If there’s going to be a game the U.S. can use to get a bit more comfortable and build some confidence, it’ll be that one (if not, then watch out). Then, ideally, they get progressively harder, from Trinidad & Tobago on June 22 to Panama on June 26. The expanded Gold Cup, now with 16 teams, spreads the quality among four groups rather than three. So in other words, the USA has every opportunity and no excuse not to “progress this group” over the next couple weeks.
Gold Cup clues and concerns
Besides learning the downside of falling asleep in back and giving up stupid goals, Berhalter and the USA can take a few things away from Sunday. The first is that defensive errors aside, the return to the 4-1-4-1/4-3-3 seemed to suit the Americans, who looked a bit more comfortable and aggressive, especially in the second half, then they did against Jamaica.
Pulisic and Bradley should be significant difference makers. Trapp failed to impose himself in either friendly, and at this point a healthy Bradley is an upgrade at the defensive midfielder position. Likewise, the USA’s inability to create anything through the middle screams for Pulisic’s ability to dribble and pass the ball, set tempo and beat defenders. Pulisic’s backup was supposed to be Sebastian Lletget, who will miss the Gold Cup with an injury.
The USA likely would look quite different with a midfield trio of Bradley, Pulisic and Weston McKennie, who started Sunday and had a couple good looks at goal in the first half.
Berhalter said he wanted to see more penetration and initiative on the wings after the dud against Jamaica, and he got that with debutant midfielder Tyler Boyd and right back Nick Lima. The latter got forward regularly, especially in the second half, and hit several crosses that led to decent scoring chances. The other outside midfielder, Paul Arriola, often was more tucked in and should’ve struck at least once in the late stages. It clearly was not the USA’s day, however.
Berhalter lists Adams as a defender and has tried him at right back before. He may well wind up there in the Gold Cup. But Lima’s decent showing might give the coach some pause before sticking Adams in back. It stands out among the USA’s multitude of problems as the good sort to have.