National Writer: Charles Boehm

Confidence fades: USMNT at crossroads after goal-less World Cup tune-ups


Tuesday’s drab 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia means the US men’s national team finished their two-match September window winless, goal-less and mostly uninspired in their final gathering before the World Cup kicks off in November, with key questions about both tactics and personnel still lingering.

Gregg Berhalter maintained that he took some things away from the camp, though. Literally.

“I think we got some clarity. We talked about it today with the group and with the coaching group. And, you know, I think things became pretty clear,” said the head coach when asked if he’d gained any clarity about the looming decisions before the USMNT’s planned unveiling of the World Cup roster on Nov. 9.

“Things,” was Berhalter’s reply when the reporter asked him to elaborate, in one of the terser moments of a fleeting postgame press conference at Estadio Nueva Condomina in Murcia, Spain that clocked in well under eight minutes in total, with no players involved. Perhaps it was a case of the old ‘if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all’ proverb.

“They [Saudi Arabia] had a compact base, right, and we wanted to get behind them. They held their line, they weren't sagging and there was plenty of space to get behind,” said Berhalter. “So we wanted to take advantage of that. I think, if we're going to evaluate everybody, what I'd say in general, there's not many players that performed up to their normal levels in this camp. And that's just how it is. And it's our job to get them confident that they can perform up to their normal levels.

“So you can ask me about center backs, the fullbacks, forwards, the midfield – anyone you want to ask, I'd say we're below our normal levels.”

Deepening the gloom significantly was the sight of gifted but injury-plagued starlet Gio Reyna walking off the pitch and straight down the tunnel to the locker room less than half an hour into the match, with what looks to be yet another in his long string of muscular issues.

“Regarding Gio, it was a case of, felt some tightness and came out for precautionary reasons,” said Berhalter.

Changing mood (quickly)

If he was eager to turn the page and consign this window to the dustbin of the past as quickly as possible, he was not alone.

Tuesday’s draw was an eminently forgettable performance, a dour match in an echoing, near-empty stadium. Neither side’s expected-goals total approached single digits and the United States failed to seize their last chance to spark confidence – among themselves or an increasingly concerned fanbase – less than two months before the Group B opener vs. Wales in Qatar on Nov. 21.

Confidence, or more specifically his squad’s lack thereof, was a central theme in what little Berhalter did say after the friendly. He used the word or its variations nine times across the press conference and his brief standup interview with FOX sideline reporter Jenny Taft after the full-time whistle.

“I still think we’re not as confident as I'd like,” he told Taft. “We're playing tentative and you see, the connections just are not there like we want. The effort was great today. The intensity was great, especially at the end of the game. We kept pushing, kept trying to score, so I can't fault the effort, but we need to keep improving.”

Later he suggested that “anxiety” about making the final roster had kept the Yanks from expressing themselves as they usually do, particularly in the attack. The USMNT mustered just two shots on goal, after managing not a single one in Friday’s 2-0 loss to Japan in Düsseldorf, Germany.

“I told the guys, I feel for them, it's a difficult situation to be in. Everyone's fighting for roster spots,” he said. “And instead of coming out and really performing like the team we know we are, we lacked a little confidence, and I think that hurt performance. There were certainly spaces to take advantage of today, and we didn't do that enough.”

What now?

It sounds as though any further warm-up games for the US will be closed-door scrimmages, at best. Some World Cup participants are squeezing in additional friendlies in the final days before their group-stage slates begin in mid-November. The Saudis, for example, will play five more of these games before their Group B curtain-raiser vs. Argentina.

They are exceptional, though, in that the lion’s share of their squad is domestic-based, whereas the USMNT and other sides with key players based at European clubs will gather their full contingents barely a week before the tournament. That’s especially challenging for those drawn to play on the first few matchdays, like the Yanks.

“We play the first game on the second day of the tournament, which was normally the first day of the tournament, so there's not a lot of time,” said Berhalter. “The teams that are playing on the back end of that first group game have a ton of time, have the luxury to play a friendly game. We have to see. I think it's going to be pretty tight.”

‘Tight’ may also describe the collective mood around the USMNT camp, in contrast to the good vibes from encouraging results in send-off matches that buoyed the program in the countdown to their last three World Cup appearances (2006, 2010, 2014).

“What I told them was, these next weeks, use them to prepare, go back to your clubs, play your games, get strong, get fit,” said Berhalter of his message to the players, “and come to Qatar with an open mindset and the idea that we want to compete there.”