USMNT analysis

Analysis: Copa America failure leaves USMNT with many questions, few answers

ASN's Brian Sciaretta breaks down the USMNT loss against Uruguay and the big picture of what a failed Copa America means. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
July 02, 2024
10:30 AM

THE UNITED STATES IS out of the 2024 Copa America after a 1-0 loss to Uruguay in Kansas City saw them finish third in Group C. Despite sending its top team. Despite a draw with opponents that included the worst team from CONMEBOL and a CONCACAF team that wasn’t Mexico. Despite hosting the tournament in favorable venues. All of this, the United States will not play in the knockout stages.

The bottom line is that the performances against Uruguay wasn’t great, but it wasn’t bad. It would have taken an upset to pull off the win.

But that highlights two big problems that are bigger than this game.. The first is on the players and the coaches because the team never should have been in such a situation where they needed to beat Uruguay. The loss to Panama saw the team make mistakes that are deadly in soccer. Tim Weah’s red card, Cameron Carter-Vickers not staying with his man, a poor tactical approach while playing with 10-men.

When it comes to major tournaments, the line between success and failure is thin – and it is often decided in very brief moments. Lately, the U.S. team has been coming up short in their moments, while seeing opponents find ways to have things break their way. Unless the opponent is Mexico (who, unsurprisingly, face all the same questions and are often their own worst enemy), the U.S. team doesn’t dominate games it can, and doesn’t threaten to pull off the big upsets.

This U.S. team rarely seems to seize the moment in big opportunities that will define their era. When the stage gets big, they hit their limit of “close, not bad, but no cigar.”

That brings us to the other problem – and this isn’t on the players or staff. The opportunities for the USMNT to play meaningful games outside of CONCACAF is still incredibly rare. There was all the talk about the USMNT or Gregg Berhalter needing a “signature win,” but not enough talk about how rare the opportunities are. CONMEBOL and UEFA teams get to face each other all the time. Generously defining a “signature” win as defeating the top six of CONMEBOL or the top 15 of UEFA in non-friendly games, Berhalter has had that opportunity three times (England and Denmark at the World Cup and Uruguay at the Copa America). Before those three games, the most recent time was the 2016 Copa America Centenario where the U.S. team defeated Ecuador and Paraguay, but also had two losses to Colombia and one bad one to Argentina.

This is a structural problem that comes with the advent of Nations League in UEFA and CONCACAF which tie up the USMNT to the same opponents over and over while limiting who they can play friendlies against next. It explains that this Copa America run will sting longer than it should because the USMNT will now play friendlies against Panama, New Zealand, and Canada in the fall. Even with wins, the Copa will linger.

The number of times when people are fully invested in USMNT games is very few and far between. To fill the void, you have over-hyping, over-analysis, over-anguish, and over-excitement.

CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cups aren’t nearly enough. World Cup qualifying is a race to avoid failure, rarely achieve glory. Now with 48 teams in the World Cup, the intensity will only further be dialed back.

U.S. Soccer needs Copa America (or some sort of tournament outside of CONCACAF) involvement more than ever. The USMNT has historically been invited, but only with a guest-team tag that makes releasing players optional (and thereby any involvement pointless). Is there a way U.S. Soccer can arrange Copa involvement regularly with mandatory releasing? I am not sure of the innerworkings of CONCACAF, CONMEBOL, and FIFA, but this needs to be a priority. The loss of the Confederations Cup still lingers.

Those are some big picture items, Here are more of the specifics with regards to the Uruguay loss and the tournament in general.


The flow of the game


To the U.S. team’s credit, the U.S. team held up well physically against an Uruguay team that was extremely eager to foul and tackle. It was a brutal game and Uruguay probably got the memo that the U.S. team has been struggling with composure. On the balance, Uruguay was better but as an elite team, the U.S. team managed to play with them for stretches and compete well when the game was physical.

Uruguay’s goal looked offside, and a draw would have been a fair result. But a draw was not good enough for the U.S. team to go through.



Weston tops midfield struggles


The midfield was poor in this tournament for the U.S. team. Most of the team’s scoring chances came from plays out of the back, set pieces, or individual plays from the forwards/wingers. The midfield was absent in scoring at the Copa.

But scoring from the midfield has been a problem with the U.S. team for a few years. It was a big surprise when Tyler Adams hit that wonder goal in March against Mexico. But there is not a variety of scoring on this team.

More importantly, the U.S. team was completely outworked in the midfield. Weston McKennie completed 18 passes in 90 minutes. Adams completed 24 passes in 90 minutes. Yunus Musah completed 10 passes in 72 minutes. In other words, the three starting midfielders completed just 52 passes combined in the game.

Ball winning was even more brutal. McKennie was 1/8 in ground duels and 1/4 in aerials. Adams was the best in the bunch at 3/6 in ground duels and 1/2 in aerials Musah was 0/2 in ground duels and 0/1 in aerials.

McKennie had a poor tournament across the board and played far below his potential. In his three games, he won 4/18 in ground duels and was 2/12 in aerials. He was a step slow and was outworked for loose balls.

 When looking at where this team played poorly, midfield is the place to start. When the team went down to 10-men against Panama, they still should have been able to hold the ball more. But then in winning duels and second balls, the team was absent.


Scally, Pulisic, and Balogun were positives


When looking at the positives, Christian Pulisic played well and he continued to show that he is a bigtime player for the U.S. team. It’s similar to Landon Donovan who had a great track record of showing up for the U.S. team in big games. The problem, however, is that Pulisic doesn’t have a Brian McBride or Clint Dempsey to shoulder the load. Instead, everything goes through Pulisic and if he’s shut down, there is a good chance the U.S. team is shut down too.

Folarin Balogun also had some nice moments in this tournament and perhaps he can be the guy who takes some of the offensive responsibilities off Pulisic’s shoulders. The Monaco forward is still not there yet, but this was his most promising step.

Joe Scally also had a good tournament playing in place of the injured Sergino Dest. He wasn’t very effective getting forward, but he defended well enough against teams with good wingers (when you also include the full national team.


Disappointments deep in the pool


Unfortunately, in this tournament, too many players either did not get an opportunity or failed to take advantage of an opportunity to improve their standing. Balogun helped his case the most, but most of the players who have been on the edge of the team for years remained on the edge.

Malik Tillman is one example. He has been with the USMNT for over two years, but is essentially the same player. He had a great year for PSV Eindhoven, but doesn’t appear to be any closer to being a trusted player to generate offense. Luca de la Torre has been nothing more than a distant backup in big games for almost five years. Johnny Cardoso might be making more progress than the others, but it is very slow. When Adams is healthy, Cardoso is still far behind. When Adams is out, Cardoso is fighting with Musah for those minutes.

Meanwhile Gio Reyna and Ricardo Pepi are closer to the core than the other players, but both players showed the rust of not playing much for their club team over the past season.

The net result is that aside from Balogun and Scally, no other players took steps forward in the Copa America or the two preceding friendlies. For everyone else, it was the status quo or a step back.


Berhalter’s future


The big question after the final whistle was the future of head coach Gregg Berhalter.

U.S. Soccer Sporting Director Matt Crocker was non-committal with his statement after the game.

“Our tournament performance fell short of our expectations. We must do better. We will be conducting a comprehensive review of our performance in Copa America and how best to improve the team and results as we look towards the 2026 World Cup,” said Crocker.

Berhalter might be in serious trouble. The biggest indicator is that the Copa America roster was built heavily off the 2022 World Cup team with the addition of a healthy Chris Richards and Gio Reyna, along with Folarin Balogun added to the team.

Taking a young team like that to World Cup was always supposed to be a sign of progress. As if this team would continue to grow and progress together into something even better in 2026. But now in 2024, the USMNT appears to have taken a step backward with the same group of players. If Berhalter was rebuilding a team after the last World Cup, then it would be a different story.

Instead, a team that should have chemistry, should have experience, and should have the advantage of being in their prime years has taken a step back. Some of that is on the players. Weston McKennie’s poor performance was on McKennie, not Berhalter. But should Berhalter have had a “Plan B” if McKennie wasn’t working out? Does he have a Plan B for the core players? More importantly, are the core players too comfortable right now under a coach who relies so heavily on them?

Of course, the question then becomes whether it is smart to fire Berhalter just for the sake of firing him? Or does U.S. Soccer have to know who else is able and willing to take the job? Can it fire Berhalter and then look? Or does it have to have the successor lined up?

No matter what, U.S. Soccer would not be wise to have another extended period where the team is in limbo under an interim head coach. This has happened twice in the last seven years (with the last period having two interim head coaches).

Whatever happens needs to happen quickly.

Post a comment