Gregg Berhalter, giving instructions to captain Michael Bradley, had an underachieving team in 2019. (Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports)
On the surface, it looks like the U.S. men’s national team enjoyed a highly successful 2019.
After all, it reached the Concacaf Gold Cup final and qualified for the Concacaf Nations League semifinals.
But that only scratches the surface for this young team, which still can’t beat Mexico — the Americans lost in the championship game to their southern neighbors in Chicago and dropped a game to their northern neighbors, Canada, for the first time in 34 years.
Like it or not, the specter of the 2017 elimination from the 2018 World Cup in Russia at the hands and feet of Trinidad & Tobago still haunts this team.
In his first year as head coach, Gregg Berhalter adopted a play out of the back strategy, which wasn’t suited to the players at hand and it showed in key games.
The USMNT finished the year with a 10-5-2 record but showed an inability to beat Mexico and teams from outside of the confederation. The Americans’ record against those foes was 1-3-2.
In the group stage of the Gold Cup, the USA dispatched Guyana, 4-0, Trinidad & Tobago, 6-0, and Panama, 1-0, before getting past Curacao in the quarterfinals, 1-0, and Jamaica, 3-1, in the semifinals. But Mexico prevailed in the final, 1-0 and then again in a friendly on Sept. 6, 3-0.
The nadir of the year came in a 2-0 defeat against Canada in Toronto Oct. 15, four days after registering a 7-0 rout over Cuba.
The USA bounced back from that setback with a 4-1 victory in Orlando Nov. 15 and booked a spot in the Nations League final four with a 4-0 win over Cuba in a rather dodgy field in the Cayman Islands with the injured Christian Pulisic.
But that isn’t enough.
World Cup qualifying for Qatar 2022 kicks off and the USA goes directly into the hexagonal.
There are so many questions:
Can the Americans not only play with, but defeat the big boys — Mexico and Costa Rica — in games that count?
Can the USMNT find someone else to complement Pulisic on a regular basis (remember the tandem of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey?)
And most importantly, can the squad qualify for the 2022 World Cup?
Failing to reach the world’s biggest stage for two consecutive cycles would be devastating and embarrassing, especially since the USA will be co-hosting the next competition in 2026 with Mexico and Canada.
Saturday: National story No. 3