There are a lot of ways to lose a soccer game, each one bringing its own set of frustrations, humiliations, and regrets. Which variety of loss is the worst? Certainly you never want to watch your team receive a 5-0 drubbing, but I would argue that nothing feels quite as bad as the kind of loss the USMNT suffered to Canada on Sunday afternoon. I’ve had more fun itching mosquito bites.
The terms of the contest were set early on, when Canada pounced on a wayward goal kick from Matt Turner in the seventh minute and seamlessly transitioned into a scoring chance that Cyle Larin finished with ease.
From there, it wasn’t too hard to predict how the rest of the game would play out. The USMNT, armed with just about its most potent starting 11 and individual talent advantages all over the field, would spend the rest of the match controlling the midfield, pressing, possessing the ball, and trying to carve out enough chances to level the game. Canada, meanwhile, would do what they had always planned on doing: defending like mad and trying to hit the US on the counter every chance they got. A game like this can only go one of two ways: with the team down 1-0 scoring quickly enough to reclaim its juice and start applying some real pressure, or with the team up 1-0 stopping enough attacks and sapping enough energy and confidence from their opponents that an easy chance to make the game 2-0 eventually reveals itself. Here’s what happened in the game’s final minute. See if you can guess how all the action that came before it unfolded:
The US completed plenty of passes and won plenty of balls and tried hard enough, but they could never find that killer pass or flash of individual skill so often needed to produce a goal. There’s a cliché—they just lacked that final bit of quality—that you’ll encounter a lot if you watch enough soccer, but it’s one that gets thrown around so often because of how true it is. Talented teams win the possession battle, take more shots than their opponent, earn corners, and play between the lines. Teams that are actually good know how to turn all that possession and all those corners and all those progressive passes into the only thing that actually matters: goals.
Today was a reminder that the USMNT has not yet traversed the wide and meaningful gulf that separates Talented Teams from Actually Good Teams. The good news is that the journey becomes easier to complete with added time and experience, and the more time this version of the USMNT spends playing together, the better they’ll get at finding their way through games like the one they lost today. The bad news is that watching a team try to make that leap from Talented to Good can be absolutely excruciating. It’s an experience that’s full of passes misplayed at the worst possible time, chances that were that close to becoming goals, and a whole lot of frustrating performances.
This all assumes, of course, that the USMNT still has plenty of room to grow. There is a darker future, in which it eventually becomes apparent that this team’s ceiling is lower than anyone wanted to admit, and losing games 2-0 after puttering around with a whole lot of fruitless possession becomes the norm. I’d say that we’ll find out more about this team after Wednesday’s home match against Honduras, but that will depend on how much meaningful soccer can be produced while the players are battling frostbite.