TORONTO -- Just over two years since the United States men's national team failed to qualify for the World Cup, U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter had his own Couva-lite moment.
Sure, the stakes in Tuesday's 2-0 CONCACAF Nations League defeat against Canada weren't nearly as high as that night in Trinidad. We're talking about a spot in the World Cup compared to a nascent regional competition. The disaster against Trinidad and Tobago was also the final chapter in that qualifying run. In the case of the Nations League, the U.S. will have an opportunity to get some payback next month against the Reds when the two teams meet in Orlando, Florida, for the return fixture. On this performance, a strong argument can be made that Tuesday's opponent was more talented, too.
Yet the 2-0 defeat to Canada is another dagger into the heart of the U.S. men's program. The U.S. was beaten by a team that was hungrier, technically adept and executed better in every part of the field. With a bit more sharpness in front of goal, Canada could have run away with the match and won 3-0 or 4-0. As the final whistle sounded, the crowd at BMO Field celebrated its first victory over the U.S. in 34 years, and one that was totally deserved.
It was a sobering contrast indeed for the U.S., though Berhalter chose to focus on his team's lack of fight.
"I think the first thing that stands out to me was desire, the desire of Canada," Berhalter said. "Give them credit, but having said that, the minimum we expect is to match that. We need to compete on every single play in games like this. That's important. I don't think it was lack of effort. I don't think it was purposeful. But I wasn't happy with the desire that we displayed tonight to win the soccer game. Too many 50-50 balls we lost, and that hurt us."
That this was the case is an indictment of both Berhalter and the players.
But this defeat goes beyond desire. On the night, the U.S. could look at Canada and see what it once was, a team that was competitive all over the field, but one that also played to its strengths and used the talent available to it. In attackers Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, Canada boasted two players who can make killer plays in the attacking third and, thanks to veteran midfielder Scott Arfield, the wits to put them in threatening spots, isolated against U.S. defenders. Canada also looked dangerous in transition, and dominated the midfield, despite losing linchpin midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye after just nine minutes. Debutant Liam Fraser replaced him, and the Reds' midfield didn't miss a beat.
At this stage, it's difficult to discern what if any progress the U.S. has been made in the past two years. The visitors once again tried to play out of the back, yet were forced into errors by Canada's withering pressure. Cristian Roldan's errant pass set the table for David to put the home side ahead in the 16th minute, only for Zack Steffen to bail the U.S. out with a sharp save before David missed the target with the rebound. Eventually, it was another poor delivery, this time from Tim Ream, which teed up Davies to give Canada its deserved breakthrough in the 64th minute.
The question stands as to how much longer Berhalter will force his team to adopt this possession-based style while still suffering results like Tuesday's. It's one thing to cough the ball up repeatedly against Mexico. That it suffered equally so against Canada (ranked 75th in the world, according to FIFA) shows the different directions in which the two programs are heading.
The U.S. also remains heavily reliant on Christian Pulisic to provide attacking moments of magic. That looked set to take place in the 51st minute, when good work from Jordan Morris put Pulisic wide open in front of goal, only for Pulisic to weakly shoot directly at Canada keeper Milan Borjan.
Nine minutes later, Berhalter -- in the most shocking move of the night -- pulled Pulisic from the match in favor of Paul Arriola. Berhalter later explained that Pulisic had been dealing with flu-like symptoms for the past few days. Pulisic's distraught reaction toward Berhalter told a deeper story.
"I just had some trouble the last few days, but I was fine tonight," Pulisic said. As for not wanting to be subbed out, the midfielder added, "I still felt like I could help my team. No one wants to come out of the game. I was just frustrated about that."
To be clear, this was not the Chelsea man's best night, even beyond his failure to convert in front of goal. His passing wasn't sharp and he often turned the ball over when dribbling into trouble. But he also got precious little help from his teammates. For instance, in the rare moments when the U.S. won the ball, Pulisic was often left to be a one-man counterattack, with forward Josh Sargent in no position to help because he was tracking back defensively. That said, if anyone was going to help the U.S. grab a goal, it was Pulisic. With him off the field, the chances of the U.S. scoring plummeted.
Watching this U.S. side, it's also clear that the dearth of players in the middle of their international careers is having even more of an impact this cycle than it did in the previous one. In the 2018 cycle, there were still veteran players such as Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard to lean on to help the U.S. push through. Now they're gone, leaving Berhalter to rely heavily on players who are either young or just starting their international careers. Playing their first road game of 2019, the U.S. didn't deal with the atmosphere, which was emotional, but by no means the most intimidating in CONCACAF. Will the return of injured players such as defender John Brooks and midfielder Tyler Adams help? You bet, but outwardly the U.S. needs even more.
Berhalter will have the next month to find ways to instill the requisite intensity in his players, but, more important, find an approach that is more practical and less dogmatic. The players are who they are and would seem to thrive in transition moments. Until then, the U.S. will remain where it has been the past two years, stuck in neutral with no signs of progress on the horizon.