It had been a while since the U.S. men's national team had truly been in the role of being the hunted. Sure, it's been favored against Concacaf underdogs in recent friendlies, the Gold Cup and last Friday in the Nations League vs. Cuba. But the Guyanas of the world don't take vocal and public aim at the U.S. before they meet. Canada did. Canada wanted this game badly. Its coach, John Herdman, said it would be treating Tuesday's match like a final. And the hosts backed up that talk with a statement performance.
Alphonso Davies's 63rd-minute goal and Lucas Cavallini's stoppage-time strike sealed a famous 2-0 win for Canada at BMO Field in Toronto, its first triumph over the USA since 1985.
In practical Nations League terms, it gives Canada a six-point lead over the U.S., though the U.S. has two games to go and Canada has just one–a rematch vs. the USA in Orlando in a month. Presuming the USA doesn't lose to or draw Cuba in the match that follows that four days later in the Cayman Islands, then the rematch will determine who wins and advances to next summer's semifinals.
But there are bigger-picture concerns in play. The U.S. isn't in the Nations League to grind out group victories. It's supposed to be one Concacaf's two preeminent powers, capable of taking the challenges from the also-rans and producing professional performances to maintain the status quo, and it's clear that those days can no longer be counted on to happen.
Here are three thoughts on Canada's big night and another dark one for the USMNT:
The U.S.–and Canada–deserved every bit of this result
There have been times when recent poor U.S. results can be given a pass, or at least be explained away with proper excuses, but this isn't one of them.
The U.S. was awful. Full stop. It rarely had control in the attacking half, always seeming scatterbrained, with the default setting seeming to be play it wide, then cross and hope. Nothing ever comes through the center, and the lack of creative runs and the lack of meaningful possession in the final third to even set up those runs is beyond glaring. The old method of being beasts on set pieces at the very least and using that to compensate for off nights elsewhere seems to be a thing of the past, too, given how fruitless each of the five U.S. attempts on corners set up from rare pressure were on the night.
In the back, the desire to continue playing out of pressure no matter the cost came, well, at quite the cost. The U.S. should've been punished for Cristian Roldan's awful backpass in the 15th minute but was spared thanks to Jonathan David's poor finishing. The U.S. was punished when Tim Ream tried to clear from his own box, only to set up Canada's go-ahead sequence.
It's not much of a secret that the U.S. can and will be frazzled by pressure (though Ream's instance was a simple clearance attempt). Its coach and players have welcomed the challenge and seem to want to make mistakes so they can learn from them in an effort to be in sharp shape for the World Cup games in which they think they'll be playing. It's an admirable approach, but not when the result is egg on the face in the form of a loss to Canada.
As for the Canadians, good for them. They needed this game to continue trying to force their way into Concacaf's top six teams in the FIFA rankings–the ones who will play in the World Cup qualifying Hexagonal and have the best shot at reaching Qatar 2022 from the region. They've put all their efforts into making this night a memorable one, and from the start, it looked like they would carry out the task. They didn't blink when influential midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye exited five minutes in with a hamstring injury–they got stronger. With building blocks like Davies and David in the attack and other bright spots behind them, it just might be that Canada is done falling short and may have the pieces to be a player in the region once again.
Davies outshines Pulisic
One of the subplots from the match was the individual showdown between two of the region's brightest lights and rising stars: Bayern Munich's Davies and Chelsea's Christian Pulisic. And in that battle, Davies was the clear winner. The two weren't going head-to-head, of course, but they did have similar matchups: on the wing against players they should be able to dominate. Simply put, Davies did, and Pulisic didn't. Such were the depths of Pulisic's performance, that he was pulled off in the 60th minute for Paul Arriola.
Whether that was the right move is debatable, but it certainly didn't feel like it was at the time. U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said after the match that Pulisic had been battling flu-like symptoms but that he also wanted to continue playing. In terms of how it was impacting the game, it wasn't Pulisic's fault that he was effectively on an island every time he received the ball, and Canada made it a clear emphasis to close down on him to limit his ability on the dribble. He also had the USA's only real chance on the night, a close-range, first-time effort that was parried away by Milan Borjan. He did not cut a very pleased figure on the bench, and losing the game could wind up paling in comparison if Berhalter has lost Pulisic's faith and trust, too. It seemed an unnecessary wound to open on the night.
As for the USA's approach to Davies, if there was an emphasis to close him down, it wasn't executed well at all. The 18-year-old bounced down the flanks with confidence, shook U.S. defenders with ease and joy and was rewarded with his goal, a surging run forward after the turnover of possession.
Pulisic's lack of playing time at Chelsea recently could be used as a crutch here, but the player himself says he feels like he's in the best form of his life. And it's not like Davies is regularly cracking Bayern's starting lineup, either. This was a stage for two stars, and only one of them showed up.
Where does Berhalter go from here?
It could have been significantly worse than 2-0 if David could finish. The 19-year-old Canada and Gent forward missed two golden chances–one in each half–that could have turned the scoreline into a lopsided one.
So what does this all mean for the U.S. manager? His players have seemed to have bought in–at least in their public statements and comments–and he's clearly dedicated to playing a certain way and setting a clear plan for his players and starters. That's a far cry from the team he inherited, but the results just haven't been there when it truly counts. Two losses to Mexico–including one in a cup final–hurt but can be tolerated given where things are in his process. Losing to second-tier Concacaf sides in official competition cannot. Either the manager has to tweak his plan or the federation that hired him has to seriously consider tweaking their choice.