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The USMNT’s Loss To Colombia Was A Comprehensive Embarrassment

LANDOVER, MARYLAND - JUNE 08: Tim Weah #21 of the United States reacts during the second half against Colombia at Commanders Field on June 08, 2024 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)
John Dorton/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images

On Saturday afternoon, three hours before they made a different, ignoble sort of history, the United States Men's National Team announced a historic starting XI: every single starter played for a Big 5 club team, marking the first time the USMNT has ever started such a lineup. That's a marker of the high level of talent in the program, as well as the level of ambition the team should be operating with. How would the U.S. look with their spiffy lineup? As overmatched as they've looked in most games against good teams under Gregg Berhalter.

The U.S. lost 5-1 in a pre–Copa America friendly against Colombia, who represented one of the best and most relevant tests ahead of the tournament. Los Cafeteros haven't lost in more than two years, and they've beaten Brazil and Spain within the past seven months. This was the sort of friendly that felt, somehow, as if it had real stakes. Colombia is the perfect measuring stick for the USMNT's supposedly tremendous progress over the past eight years. The USMNT had a respectable Copa America in 2016, winning a knockout round match and finishing fourth after dropping the third-place game against Colombia. They played that tournament with mostly MLS veterans, and they did not come close to troubling Colombia or Argentina, who smoked them 4-0 in the semifinals. How would they perform eight years later, with the USMNT fielding a significantly more prestigious lineup?

The U.S. looked outschemed and overmatched for the duration of the game, and Colombia needed just five minutes to seize a lead after Antonee Robinson inexplicably played a ball that was headed out right into the path of Jhon Arias. There were isolated moments of competence, and Tim Weah did score a goal. It didn't matter. Colombia was not only deadlier in front of goal, they seemed to be the only side who knew how they really wanted to play. They allowed the U.S. to have their meaningless little spells of possession, they let their cool, skilled players cook in space, and they applied pressure to the weaker parts of the U.S. build-up and ruthlessly pounced on the inevitable mistakes.

Subject as each goal is to innumerable weird moments of chance, a scoreline as gaudy as 5-1 is not always indicative of a complete ass-kicking. The U.S. looked like they belonged on the field. Their good players won the ball back in the midfield. They strung together some great sequences of passing. Christian Pulisic looked wily and clever out on the wing. In a way, though, 5-1 is almost more disappointing because of how normal the U.S. looked. Colombia is arguably the more talented team and they had the best player on the pitch, but this should never have turned out as ugly as the 4-0 loss to Argentina in the 2016 Copa America. This was a matter or organization and intensity, with the U.S. suckered into playing a way they should not have been playing by a team who knew exactly how to punish them for it.

It's easy, and I think ultimately correct, to blame Berhalter, though the players blew this too. Coaching had nothing direct to do with Robinson's boo-boo, nor Rafael Borré's overhead kick 13 minutes later. "It just felt like they were waiting for us to make a mistake and then kill us in transition," Pulisic said after the match. “That’s just what happened over and over again. We were nowhere near the level we need to play at if we want to win games coming into Copa America." I read that primarily as him calling out his teammates, though I would point out that the U.S. has never been at Pulisic's desired level under Berhalter.

The team has gone 5-7-6 against top-20 teams in Berhalter's six-year reign, with four of those wins against Mexico and one against Iran at the World Cup. Outside of the CONCACAF nursery, this is not a serious team, and they don't really seem to have made much progress since that 2016 Copa America, or arguably the 2009 Confederations Cup. The last time they surrendered five goals was the 2009 Gold Cup final to Mexico, and the time before that came in 1990, when they lost to a nation that doesn't exist anymore (Czechoslovakia). When the arc of your failure extends back that much further than that of your success, something is busted. Berhalter has survived so much that I doubt he'll get fired even if the USMNT get rolled in the Copa America. He will point out how young his team is, and frame it as a work in progress, and the U.S. will kick off the next World Cup having learned nothing.

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