Before any anger or frustration ahead of this World Cup boils over, American soccer fans need to ask themselves one serious question: what is the goal for THIS team at THIS tournament right NOW?
Some would say, ‘well, we’re at the World Cup, so the goal would be to win it, right?’ and sure, they’d be right. Any team that makes this tournament whose goal is not to win it all should be questioned on their desire to be an athlete in the first place.
But let’s be frank and honest with ourselves, the United States lifting the trophy is not likely to happen.
If the USMNT finishes second in their group, they most likely play Holland in the round of 16. If they somehow win their group consisting of England, Wales, and Iran, the odds say they’d end up playing reigning champions France in the quarterfinals.
In his first ever World Cup appearance, Christian Pulisic hopes to lead the team to better days
Any possible path is full of landmines and superpowers in the sport, so while Americans may all want to see the men’s team finally do something the women’s team has been able to do four times over, it’s not likely.
So again, let’s return to the question: what is the goal for THIS team at THIS tournament right NOW?
If you listened to USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter’s press conference in Brooklyn after the roster for Qatar was revealed, he’d give you an answer to that question.
‘Do you guys really want to hear my answer again on expectations? I felt like I’ve told this a million times,’ Berhalter told reporters.
‘There’s two tournaments, right, that’s the way we’re really looking at this. There’s the group stage tournament – and we have to finish second to earn the right to play in this other tournament which is the knockout tournament.
USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter has generated controversy over tactics and player selection
‘And then from there, anything can happen. And for us it’s just about, how do we… play the best possible game that we can in the knockout stages to keep advancing? And if we don’t advance but we play the best possible game, we’ll leave the tournament with our head held high.’
It was a slightly glib response that reads worse on paper than it sounded at the press conference – where Berhalter injected some humor in his inflection at the beginning.
For a man who comes off as even-keeled, kind, and generally a good person, it’s a shame that his tactical and personnel decision making has been lacking.
Fans of the USA have never been able to agree on who should and shouldn’t make the roster throughout this qualifying cycle since about September – with arguments mostly centering around the striker position.
Fan favorites Jordan Pefok and Ricardo Pepi were both left off the roster for the World Cup
When the roster was revealed, there was anger that Ricardo Pepi was absent, even though he hasn’t scored for the USA this year. There was also anger that Jordan Pefok was absent, even though he too has experienced a scoring slow down.
The issue is, most can’t agree on who should be playing. If someone stays at home, then who would you replace them with?
Not everyone can answer that question, and sometimes, the answers to those questions don’t match up with the statistics.
That reality was reflected at the roster announcement event at the Brooklyn Steel music venue earlier this month – when the crowd of fans directly in front of the stage served as the only loud part of the gathering.
The inclusion of Ethan Horvath and Haji Wright over other players generated shock and awe
When they did make their voices known, it was never for the same reason. Some outbursts were joyous when they saw certain MLS players walk on the stage. Others were yells of anger directed at Berhalter due to his exclusion of certain players – especially Pepi, leading to a few American Outlaws fans getting heated.
Inclusions saw ridicule as well. There was an audible gasp in the room when Shaq Moore was revealed as a member of the roster. A small amount of ‘boos’ popped up when Aaron Long was named (though that was met with cheers as well for the New York Red Bulls defender). Shocked ‘oh!’s’ broke out when Ethan Horvath and Haji Wright were shown to the crowd in the absence of Zach Steffen and the aforementioned Pepi and Pefok.
But even with the player selection out of the way, fans still feel uneasy about what awaits them when the games kick off.
That brings us back to the coaching. In the friendlies played after qualification was confirmed, Berhalter has changed tactics and play style so much that it’s hard to remember what the core American soccer identity is.
We can pick out players who are key cogs in the system – Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic, Sergino Dest all come to mind – but how they’ll operate and be used on the pitch seems to be a slight mystery.
This core of Tyler Adams (4), Weston McKennie (8) & Pulisic is crucial to USMNT success
And that’s what’s concerning. It’s not that American fans feel Berhalter will put the United States in a position to fail, it’s that Americans don’t know what position Berhalter will put the United States in to begin with.
For a man who many believe was put in charge solely because his brother was a higher-up in the US Soccer Federation at the time, that lack of consistency and identity won’t ingratiate yourself with the fans. Berhalter didn’t have a lot of success in MLS before he got this job and since he’s been in charge, the USMNT has looked equally great and awful.
More recently, the team has been appearing to be more of the former thanks to CONCACAF Nations League and CONCACAF Gold Cup title wins over a still-struggling Mexico team.
An American coach hasn’t been fired or resigned from the USMNT at the World Cup since Steve Sampson in 1998. If you ask most American fans, they’ll feel that Berhalter is more likely than not to be next on that list.
1998 was the last time an American coach was fired or chose to resign at the World Cup
Which leads us back to the same question at the beginning, but it demands a rephrasing. Gregg Berhalter has told us what IS the goal. But what SHOULD be the goal for this team at this tournament right now?
In short? An audition.
The United States should go into this tournament looking to get the team great experience on a much bigger stage than what CONCACAF provides. Crashing out could even provide a chip for them to place on their shoulder for future tournaments.
If the US doesn’t succeed in Qatar, this team can regroup for a better shot at home in 2026
If the US fails to go far in this World Cup, this is the positive framing they should use. It’s the youngest team at the tournament, and playing them now in a high-pressure situation like this should pay off in the future.
In doing that, the USMNT will build momentum and team bonding towards a more likely scenario: domination at home in the 2026 World Cup. By then they’ll likely be free of Berhalter, core players will be in the midst of their primes, and it’ll be a squad that knows each others strengths and can work together as a team.
Though it’ll help that team building and morale even more if they just don’t embarrass themselves in the process.