The Concacaf Nations League, belittled as a
waste of time for the giants of Concacaf, has early on proved to be a tricky competition for the USA.
What's at stake on Friday when the USA hosts Canada in Orlando?
The USA's 2-0 loss to Canada in Toronto on Oct. 15 means it must win on Friday and beat Cuba four days later in the Cayman Islands if it wants to advance to the Concacaf Nations League's final four in June.
The poor showings in the 3-0 loss to Mexico in September and defeat to Canada, which had not beaten the USA in 34 years, cast doubt on the future of head coach Gregg Berhalter if the USA loses on Friday night.
Almost two weeks after the Canada defeat, Berhalter wrote that “only a win will suffice” in the rematch in a letter to the American Outlaws.
But in a media conference call on Tuesday, U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart said Berhalter's job was safe. "When I evaluate Gregg and the coaching staff, and what I've seen today," Stewart said, "I'm a pleased man. An individual result is not going to change that."
That remark from Stewart did not sit well with the American Outlaws, who tweeted, "We are not pleased. This isn't about an individual result. It's about a year (well, years) of poor results. We need a change in attitude and we need to see wins."
As it stands now, the USA will face Mexico, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Honduras and Canada in Concacaf qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, and its record is one win and four losses against the five future Hexagonal opponents under Berhalter if you throw out the 2-0 win over a Costa Rica "B" team at the beginning of the year.
Just how likely is it that the USA will have another poor performance and lose to Canada again?
For one, Sergino Dest, the 19-year-old Ajax defender who picked the USA over the Netherlands, said on Wednesday that "what happened against Canada will not happen Friday."
Berhalter chalked the outcome in Toronto up to a lack of intensity by a young team on which seven players were playing their first competitive match on the road.
"One of our observations after the game in Toronto is that when we're playing these games away from home," he said, "the opponent is playing these games like it's the biggest game of their lives. Canada hadn't beaten us in 34 years and was playing like that. For us to be successful at away venues we need to match that intensity, or exceed that intensity. And that's been a consistent message in this camp."
Even if you buy Berhalter's argument, the focus on intensity doesn't diminish the ongoing concerns about the rigidity of his style of play or the level of the individual talent currently in the team.
Besides Dest, who will be cap-tied to the USA if he plays against Canada or Cuba, the USA gets back defender John Brooks, who has played in one of the USA's 16 games in 2019, and midfielder Alfredo Morales, who also came through the youth system at Hertha Berlin. But the USA lost its most dangerous attacker in Christian Pulisic, who is coming off arguably the best month of his career and is recuperating from a hip injury.
“When you think about his dynamic dribbling, you don’t see players like that around very much anymore.” Berhalter said of Pulisic's recent play at Chelsea. “We’ll have to compensate with other types of skills. But what we do have is speed and physically, and we’ll want to take advantage of that. I think that will be a key component of the game.”
Pulisic's recent success at Chelsea -- five goals in his last three Premier League games -- has been dependent on getting good service in the penalty area from his young teammates. That has been a huge problem for the USA.
“We’ve been working with the wingers, working with the attacking midfielder, having them focused on spaces we need to exploit, and being very aggressive around the penalty box,” Berhalter said. “One thing we weren’t happy with in the game in Canada was our lack of ability to get behind their backline and our lack of ability in the final third to deliver accurate crosses. We got into some good positions and didn’t take advantage of that. So we focused on that during this week and it’s been looking pretty good.”
Despite the criticism of the team and its recent results, Berhalter believes in his players.
"It's a group that's developing," he said on Thursday. "I think it's a resilient, brave group. From Day 1, the players have been focused on every single thing we've asked of them. And for me that mindset is amazing. We're embracing [the pressure]. When you look at the history of U.S. soccer, we've been in situations like this before. This is what builds the team, this is what makes the team strong. We need events like this to help the team grow."