National Writer: Charles Boehm

“Empty feeling” for USMNT after Copa América group stage ouster


It was a moment of truth for the US men’s national team. And at the final whistle, the truth hurt.

Facing a de facto must-win situation, the USMNT crashed out of Copa América with a tight, frustrating 1-0 loss to Uruguay at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City on Monday night, casting into doubt both the future of head coach Gregg Berhalter and the overall progress of the program as a whole.

The combination of the US loss and Panama’s 3-1 win over Bolivia in the other Group C finale, unfolding simultaneously at Orlando City’s Inter&Co. Stadium, left the Yanks in third place, the first host nation in Copa América’s long history to fail to advance out of the group stage.

“We know that we're capable of more, and this time, we didn't show it. It's really as simple as that,” Berhalter told reporters in his postgame press conference. “You look at the stage that was set, with the fans in this tournament, with a high level of competition in this tournament, and we should have done better. And we'll do a review and figure out what went wrong, why it went wrong. But I think it's an empty feeling right now, for sure.”

With no qualifying process for the 2026 event’s co-hosts, this summer’s tournament marked one of the United States’ only competitive measuring sticks ahead of that World Cup on home soil – a test, it can only be said, that they failed.

"Just not enough quality"

For some observers, the cracks were already showing before the Copa began, as the USMNT were embarrassed 5-1 by Colombia in a warm-up friendly in Maryland on June 8. Others saw weakness in the failure to truly put a poor Bolivia side to the sword in the Group C opener, a 2-0 win that could’ve or should’ve ended 4-0 or 5-0.

That inability to stack up some positive goal differential would later compound other problems. A first-half red card to Tim Weah set the stage for a shock 2-1 loss to Panama in Atlanta, which forced the Yanks to hunt a positive result against a potent Uruguay side who still needed to avoid defeat on Monday despite having won their first two games.

La Celeste thus fielded a full-strength XI at Arrowhead and a disciplinary suspension that kept their iconic manager Marcelo Bielsa off the sidelines did little to ebb their famous ferocity. With their backs against the wall, Berhalter’s squad matched Uruguay’s famous ferocity and commitment, with the first half a particularly brutal clash marked by several frightening collisions and extensive delays for medical treatment as a result.

Still, facing a situation in which they would almost assuredly have to score at least once, the USMNT generated a paltry 0.01 expected goals in a rough-and-tumble first half, and ended the night on just 0.58 xG.

“We had a good start, and brought a lot of energy, but at the end of the day, just not enough quality,” a crestfallen Christian Pulisic told FOX’s Jenny Taft postgame. “I felt like we gave it everything, but we just couldn't find the solution.”

A night of raw nerves and chewed fingernails for US fans turned on a dramatic moment in the 66th minute. Mathías Olivera looked to have been offside before he tapped home the rebound after Matt Turner parried Ronald Araújo’s set-piece header into his path, but the goal stood – one more small cut in a series of setbacks that eventually sank the Yanks.

"The result's on us"

Berhalter and the US were clearly infuriated by that decision and the general performance of Peruvian referee Kevin Ortega, who looked tentative and occasionally even overwhelmed by the occasion, and declined to shake Pulisic’s hand after the final whistle. But all of the players who spoke to media left no doubt: That wasn’t the main reason for their tourney being cut short.

“I think just a lack of quality in the final third. I mean, it felt like quite an even game, they had their chances, we had ours, and then when it came to it, they put theirs away, and we didn't. It's just really disappointing for us,” said fullback Antonee “Jedi” Robinson, who called Ortega’s outing “amateur hour” but added, “you can’t really blame the ref on the result. He definitely inhibited the flow of our game at times, but at the end of the day, that result’s on us, and we weren't good enough to get the win today.”

Most of Berhalter’s tenure has been characterized by steady progress with a core group of players who arrived at senior international level quite young, amid optimism about the program’s potential to reach new heights by 2026. Turner sought to connect to that upward trajectory when asked by Taft about the direction of the program.

“I see no issue with the direction that we're heading. I mean, when you have a fight like that on the pitch, in every single game that we were in this tournament, it speaks volumes to how the manager prepares us,” said the New England Revolution alum. “And to be honest, we've been in positions to win in every single game that we played.

“Everything's still fresh and raw, obviously, right now. We'll let the dust settle from it, but yeah, I mean, we can't fault -- we can't look anywhere to blame except for ourselves, us players.”

What's next?

Yet the tone of both the postgame press conference and the FOX broadcast desk’s pointed criticism – led by retired US internationals Clint Dempsey, Carli Lloyd and Alexi Lalas – suggested a marked change in outlook on the coach after this month’s underachievement.

“Yeah, I do,” said Berhalter when asked if he thinks the USMNT have progressed since he returned to his post in the spring of 2023. “In a number of ways. Defensively, we're a very good team, most games we have higher expected goals than the opponent. We create chances, we move the ball well. To me, the whole thing is, you want to keep moving the team forward, and I feel like we have. You think about the depth of the squad, the number of players we have that have played in games, so there's certainly improvement, and we need to keep going.

“In my opinion, it's not something where you say, ‘OK, this program is doomed.’ It's not the case at all. It was a poor performance, we didn't get the results that we expected, and we need to get better.”

Moments later, he was asked whether he was “still the right voice, the right person with this group to push it forward.”

“Yes,” responded Berhalter succinctly. Yet as he’d already noted in his previous answer to a similar question, that judgment will fall not at his feet, but those of U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker and the executives to whom he reports, federation president Cindy Parlow Cone and CEO J.T. Batson.