Well, that was better. But don’t take too much from it.
The U.S. men’s national team beat Canada 4-1 on Friday at a CONCACAF Nations League game in Orlando, turning the tables after a historic 2-0 loss last month in Toronto. But the parameters of Friday’s game were always going to be unbalanced. If the U.S. had lost again to its less-heralded northern neighbor, first-year coach Gregg Berhalter might well have resigned and the USMNT program would have had to start over again.
But a win? A win over a team you’re supposed to beat isn’t that big a deal. Nor should it be. It’s that kind of perspective that you have to view this game through. Berhalter’s standing with U.S. fans may have improved slightly, but only by a small bit, and he and his team will be under significant pressure over the next year to show that real improvement is taking place, the kind that would have the U.S. qualify for the World Cup with little worry and then perform well at Qatar 2022.
Let’s just say there are still a lot of questions on those fronts.
But in Friday’s game there was never much doubt, not least because the Canadians were poor in a first half that saw the U.S. go ahead in the second minute (on a Jordan Morris set piece goal) and build a 3-0 halftime lead on additional goals by Gyasi Zardes and Aaron Long. Morris, who has had a very good year, was particularly effective as a wide-left midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 using his speed and positional savvy—and he even used his weak left foot to serve an assist on Zardes’s first-half goal.
On a night when only an announced 13,103 people showed up at Exploria Stadium—a reflection of just how low the USMNT’s standing has fallen domestically—Steven Vitoria scored for Canada in the second half, followed by Zardes’s second goal of the game in the final minutes.
Playing without Christian Pulisic and Zack Steffen, the U.S. was surprisingly out-possessed 64% to 36% by the Canadians. But Canada made little use of that possession, and the U.S. was able to make the most of counter-attacks and set-pieces (which provided two of the goals). The five-man U.S. midfield—Weston McKennie and Jackson Yueill behind Paul Arriola, Sebstian Lletget and Morris—was effective in breaking up Canadian possession and pushing transition in the other direction.
The presence of John Brooks on the back line was also a welcome return for the U.S; when Brooks is healthy, he brings a mix of strength and Bundesliga experience that the Americans need. Newly-committed Sergiño Dest was also useful at right back, though the omission of DeAndre Yedlin from the starting lineup makes you wonder if perhaps Berhalter should use Yedlin higher on the right side as a wide midfielder to get his best players on the field.
There was still a sense that with Yedlin, Josh Sargent and Alfredo Morales starting on the bench and Arriola, Zardes and Yueill in the starting XI that Berhalter is still giving too much time to MLS players at the expense of guys who are playing regularly in the Premier League and the Bundesliga.
Meanwhile Canada, sloppy and chippy, was nowhere near as sharp as it was in Toronto last month. In fact, the Canadians reverted to the Canada of old, a team that was always less than the sum of its parts. Whether John Herdman’s team will have a high enough FIFA ranking to make the Hexagonal remains to be seen, but the Canadians still have a ways to go, too.
The U.S. will meet Cuba on Tuesday in the Cayman Islands, and barring a huge surprise the Americans will get the victory needed to win the Nations League group and clinch a berth in next June’s semifinals (for what it’s worth). But the real work lies ahead during the FIFA window in March and when the Hexagonal starts next September.
Berhalter’s tenure could have ended on Friday night. But really it’s still just beginning.