Commentary: Gregg Berhalter and U.S. Soccer are in trouble after embarrassing Copa América loss

Uh oh.

In less than two years the World Cup is coming back to the U.S. and we’re not ready. Not even close.

That was obvious Monday, when a 1-0 loss to Uruguay knocked the U.S. out of the Copa América after three games. It was the first time in 20 global or continental tournaments that the national team has gone out in the group stage and the first time a Copa América host had failed to advance.

The next tournament to come here will be the 2026 World Cup.

Moving the Copa América, South America’s quadrennial championship, to the U.S. was meant to be a dress rehearsal for 2026. The plan was to expose problems with the stadiums, the training facilities, transportation and infrastructure.

What was exposed instead were the failures of the national team.

“Bitterly disappointed with the results. We know we’re capable of more, and in this tournament we didn’t show it,” coach Gregg Berhalter said.

Asked if he’s still the right man to lead the team, the long-embattled coach answered yes. That may not be the right answer though. A couple of hours later Matt Crocker, U.S. Soccer’s sporting director, issued a statement that was far from a show of support.

“We must do better,” he said. “We will be conducting a comprehensive review of our performance in Copa América and how best to improve the team and results as we look towards the 2026 World Cup.”

When the World Cup first visited a generation ago, the U.S. didn’t have a first-tier professional league and had qualified for the tournament just once in the previous 44 years. Expectations for the team were non-existent, so making it to the round of 16 was considered a success.

World Cup matches in the U.S. drew an average attendance of nearly 67,000, which is still a record. The tournament turned a handsome profit and it gave birth to MLS, which played its first game two years later. It’s now the largest first-division league in the world.

The 1994 World Cup was a watershed moment for soccer in the U.S., one that set the foundation for the sport’s growth in this country. The next World Cup, we were told, was going to the turn the U.S. into a soccer nation. Sponsors and stakeholders, U.S. Soccer chief among them, have been building to this moment since the country was awarded the rights to host the tournament, alongside Canada and Mexico, six years go.

The blueprint called for the national team to return to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002. The semifinals weren’t out of the question and, you know, once you’re there, anything can happen. A run to the World Cup semifinals — or final — would change the trajectory of soccer in the country forever.

But that won’t happen unless something changes.

The current team is the deepest and most talented in history. Twenty-three of the 26 men on the roster play in Europe, many on major clubs such as Juventus, Milan, Borussia Monchengladbach, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth. Most have played together on the national team for years.

Yet the team is regressing, not progressing.

“If this is as good as it gets, it’s not good enough,” Alexi Lalas, who played on that 1994 team, said on the Fox postgame show Monday.

Since exiting the last World Cup in the round of 16, the U.S. won two Nations League titles, but it also failed to reach the final of last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. And it’s won just three of eight games this year.

During the past eight months, Berhalter’s team has lost to Panama, Slovenia and Trinidad and Tobago, in addition to Uruguay and Colombia.

Aside from Mexico — which also exited the Copa América after three games, leaving its own World Cup plans in tatters — the U.S. has beaten just one team ranked inside the top 20 since 2015 and is 0-5-5 in the Berhalter era against non-Mexican teams ranked in the top 15 by FIFA.

And because the U.S., as a co-host, gets an automatic bid and won’t play in a qualifying tournament to earn its spot in the 2026 field, it will face little serious competition between now and its World Cup opener at SoFi Stadium in 23 months.

Sure the U.S. lost forward Tim Weah to a red card in the 18th minute of its loss to Panama and lost goalkeeper Matt Turner to an injury at halftime. In the loss to Uruguay, Mathías Olivera was clearly offside before scoring the game’s only goal, just one of many head-scratching calls from referee Kevin Ortega.

Christian Pulisic, who was repeatedly fouled during the match, waged a running battle with the Peruvian official all night, then appeared to motion for Ortega to join the Uruguayan victory celebration after the final whistle. Ortega responded by refusing to shake the U.S. captain’s hand, ignoring a longstanding custom.

“I saw things I’ve never seen before right in front of my eyes that I truly can’t believe,” Pulisic said of Ortega, who at one point pulled a yellow card from his pocket, then signaled for play to continue when Uruguay played the ball forward. “It’s not why we lost. We’re not out of this tournament because of officiating.

“[But] he gives no explanation. He’s doing things I just can’t accept.”

Still, good teams don’t make mistakes like Weah’s and they overcome poor officiating. This team did neither.

“There’s plenty of excuses,” Lalas said. “But they don’t matter.”

What does matter are results and those aren’t coming for the U.S. The players need to own these dismal performances, but it’s Berhalter who will likely take the fall.

The coach is immensely popular with his players so on Monday, after failing him on the field, they rushed to defend him off it.

“I don’t think we have a problem with the direction we are going,” Turner said. “When you fight like we have in this tournament, it says a lot about how the coach prepares us. We can’t blame anyone but us, the players.”

Through his first four years, Berhalter had the best winning percentage of any permanent manager in national team history. Since then the team has gone 7-6-1 and late Monday it appeared as if the long knives were being sharpened.

His team scored just one goal and took just 12 shots in its two Copa América losses; the most talented team in U.S. history has become about as offensive as a grade-school librarian.

If Berhalter goes, the challenge becomes finding someone better to replace him. If he stays, the gamble is hoping he can turn the team around quickly because the World Cup is coming fast.

And it would be rude if we had to leave our own party after the first round again.

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