DOHA, Qatar — Four years ago, the United States men’s national team watched the World Cup from home. This year, they proved themselves to be one of the most promising young teams at Qatar 2022.
Their time in the tournament may have felt short-lived, but emerging from a competitive group containing England, Wales and Iran was a notable achievement. In the round-of-16 defeat to the Netherlands, they showcased a level of talent that should have fans across the country excited for a 2026 World Cup on home soil, while being let down by the sort of lapses in concentration you’d expect from the second-youngest team in the competition.
In short, the US earned a passing grade in Qatar, but left the world wanting more. So, with a few days to decompress and analyze this team and its tournament, ESPN’s Sam Borden, Jeff Carlisle and Kyle Bonagura sat down to discuss what Gregg Berhalter and his team did right, what they didn’t, and where they go from here.
Are the US making progress?
Borden: The question I keep coming back to is this one: This round-of-16 exit does feel different than the previous ones for the USMNT, but is it actually different? Sure, the US roster is younger and more talented than ever before, but lots of teams are younger and more talented than ever before. Top-tier soccer is more global and deeper than it has ever been. So, are the US actually getting better or are they just sort of treading water?
Carlisle: I wouldn’t say the US are treading water, Sam. This cycle followed perhaps the biggest failure in the program’s history, and it was a considerable lift considering how much this team had to be rebuilt with young players. Is it better than some of its predecessors? I think that depends on what part of the field you’re talking about.
Defensively, I think this team was very solid — the Netherlands game notwithstanding — and that speaks well of the entire side. Tyler Adams was immense, as was the backline. Matt Turner performed at a level where no one was pining for someone else to be in net.
The 2022 edition took care of the ball better, too, but as I argued earlier this week, I think chance creation is where the 2022 team doesn’t stack up as well against, say, the 2010 team or even the 2014 team.
As effective at times as the midfield of Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah was, there isn’t really a chance creator in that group. The deliveries from out wide weren’t accurate enough either. That means a new attacking talent needs to emerge in the 2026 cycle, or the same players will be asked to raise their game. Or the manager could opt to go straight defend-and-counter, the better to exploit the skills of the players on board like Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna and Timothy Weah. Given the style employed this time around, one wonders if the players would go for it.
Bonagura: It’s possible that the players could prefer to play the style Berhalter installed, but given the goal numbers, I don’t really think that should matter. Playing this way, with this group of players, just didn’t work in the attacking third.
We’re at the end of the cycle. This is a fact. Given that’s the case, it seems silly to not experiment with other ways to play, especially considering the US don’t have to worry about qualifying for 2026.
“Berhalter can be criticized for not going to the false nine option earlier”
Bonagura: Either way, the lack of a clear-cut striker is still going to be an issue. I’m optimistic Ricardo Pepi can develop into that guy by 2026, but he’s not there yet, and he’s not a sure thing.
The part about the striker situation that has never made sense is that Berhalter never experimented with Weah or Reyna there over the past two years. Part of that is due to injury — and it’s possible they worked there in training — but it has been clear for a long time that the position was in flux. So, with that understood, it made sense even before qualifying began to dip into the winger bucket and see how the team functioned with one of those guys up top. Both Reyna and Weah played striker at youth World Cups, so it’s not like the concept would have been completely foreign for them with the full national team.
Leaving Pepi off for Jesus Ferreira will always seem strange, too, considering Ferreira was Pepi’s backup with FC Dallas (under USMNT assistant coach Luchi Gonzalez, no less) and it’s Pepi’s move to Europe that cost him his spot. Pepi had seemingly found his form in the Netherlands, while Ferreira finished the season poorly in MLS and when he got his shot against the Dutch, it had been well over a month since his last competitive match and nearly three months since he last scored.
Ferreira’s inclusion was ill-fated from the start, but to be fair to him, a guy who was gracious in fielding questions after the game, the way the US played was always going to render the striker mostly ineffective against the Netherlands’ three center-backs. When Reyna entered, he did his best work when he moved out of the high, central areas.
At one point during qualifying, Berhalter was asked why he left Josh Sargent off the roster. He took issue with the question, implying that Sargent was playing on the wing with Norwich City, so it didn’t make sense to call him in and play him centrally. Well, it turns out, just because a club sees a player one way doesn’t need to define how he’s used with the US.
Carlisle: I think in retrospect, Berhalter can be criticized for not going to the false nine option earlier in the tournament, as well as earlier in the qualifying cycle. Berhalter has specific asks of his No. 9, one of which is initiating the press, and that requires mobility. It was the justification for giving Ferreira chances, as well as leaving out candidates like Jordan Pefok.
I think Weah could have filled that role, however. He’s conscientious enough to do the defensive work, and could drop into midfield to help build the attack. He’s also a better finisher than any of the other candidates, although he still needs to grow in this area. It wasn’t until Sargent’s injury and Ferreira’s ineffectiveness that Berhalter played the false nine card, and then only for 20 minutes. All of this would have created space on the wing to get Reyna on the field.
Borden: I think there are fair questions about some of Berhalter’s personnel decisions. On the information we have, Reyna was available for selection and, despite being one of the most talented players on the team in my opinion, Berhalter didn’t find a way to have him on the field. Play Weah as a striker and put Reyna on the wing? Play Reyna up top? Whatever. For me, when you’re being judged on such a small sample, you put your best players in a position to make things happen. Berhalter didn’t do that with Reyna, and it’s reasonable to knock him for that.
I think Sargent’s injury was more impactful than it might have seemed. Ferreira had no chance to succeed against the Dutch; the center-backs never followed him when he dropped deep, and so he was just sort of occasionally getting on the ball without ever really drawing the defense out at all. The US needed someone who could get over the top or at least threaten a run behind, and Sargent would have at least offered that. I wonder what Pepi was thinking as he watched the game?
Carlisle: Haji Wright certainly underperformed. Okay, the guy has a World Cup goal to his name and no one will ever be able to take that away from him, but there was a huge slice of luck about it. The rest of his play, especially against Iran and late against the Netherlands, was not up to the standard needed; bad touches, slow to react to things. Berhalter showed a lot of faith in Wright, and it wasn’t repaid.
Borden: I agree that Wright (and that position in general) feels an obvious option. I also think it’s worth mentioning that when I think about injuries, it’s hard not to feel like the US may have wasted a roster spot on Luca de la Torre. There were a few situations where it felt like the game could have used a player like De la Torre, including in the second half against the Dutch, but Berhalter never went to him.
I wonder if his injury recovery didn’t pan out the way the team hoped and, if that was the case, could Berhalter have used that spot on, say, Pepi? Or Pefok?
The best performers in Qatar
Borden: On the flip side, Sergino Dest had an incredible tournament. After Adams, I think he may have been the best US player throughout the group stage and I’m not sure we’ve seen Dest put in consecutive performances of that quality before. The most frustrating part for US fans about the team going out when it did could be how all their best players had tough moments — and paid for them — against the Netherlands.
Carlisle: In terms of surprises, I think there were none bigger than Tim Ream. He was out of the squad for more than a year, and thought to be too old and too slow to hang at the World Cup. But when injury and poor form of some center-back options occurred, Ream upped his game with his club and stepped in to provide stability in the back and leadership off the field. And give Berhalter credit here for keeping him engaged, so that when he called on Ream, the player was ready.
Obviously, this is it for Ream in terms of the national team, but what a way to go out.
Bonagura: You could say the same thing about Berhalter in terms of going out on a positive note if, indeed, he does move on. He didn’t underachieve. He didn’t overachieve. The US went about as far as they should have, and after 2018, that’s a good thing.
Borden: I think it’s important to realize several things can be true at the same time: First, Berhalter did a very, very good job turning this program around. He deserves credit for helping recruit and develop young talent, he deserves credit for winning tournaments (like the Gold Cup and Nations League) and he deserves credit for motivating the group so they can produce results like the draw against England and the win over Iran.
Simultaneously, I think there are fair questions about some of his personnel decisions.
Carlisle: Like Sam said, Berhalter did what was asked. He reestablished the US as a force in CONCACAF, won trophies, went four straight unbeaten against Mexico (three of which were wins), and got them qualified for the World Cup. Once there, he took them to the round of 16. He did all of this by creating a culture that players enjoyed being part of and proved effective when it came to recruiting dual nationals. I think Berhalter got a lot more right than he did wrong.
Frank Leboeuf criticizes USA’s defending as the team crashed out of the Qatar World Cup to Netherlands in the last 16.
Bonagura: Allow me to make an NBA parallel here. When Mark Jackson took over the Golden State Warriors in 2011, they were an absolute dumpster fire. They had finished near the bottom of the Western Conference the four seasons before he arrived and had made the playoffs just once in the previous 17. It was a slow start under Jackson, but after a bad first season, they made the playoffs in his second and third seasons. They were, by any measure, successful seasons for the team, which had a young, exciting group of players about to enter their prime seasons. Sound familiar?
Then Jackson was fired.
At the time, owner Joe Lacob drew on experience from his time in Silicon Valley, where he learned there were different leaders built for different stages of growth in an organization. Jackson did a good job helping the Warriors progress from the basement to the second floor, but they were looking to get to the penthouse. After Jackson’s dismissal, Lacob told the Associated Press: ”We just felt overall we needed a different person to go forward and get to the next level.”
That’s where the USMNT are. This is not the same job as it was when Berhalter was hired. The opportunity to take over this group of players and coach them in a World Cup on home soil is one that will appeal to a much different talent pool of coaches than at any time in history. Maybe they won’t find the next Steve Kerr and mirror the Warriors’ level of success, but the goal for this team should be to reach unprecedented levels of success.