It was the US men’s national team’s first competitive match away from home under Gregg Berhalter, and it might just have been the low point of his tenure to date.
When Canada ambushed the Yanks in a well-earned 2-0 Concacaf Nations League win at Toronto’s BMO Field on Oct. 15, 2019, it ended Les Rouges’ 34-year winless streak against their southern neighbors, handed CanMNT boss John Herdman a watershed result and posed serious questions of Berhalter and his players at the end of his first year in charge.
For Sebastian Lletget, it marked an inflection point in the USMNT’s trajectory.
“It was definitely a turning point, for all the individuals that were there and as a team,” the New England Revolution midfielder, an unused substitute that night, told reporters from the United States’ January camp in Arizona on Thursday. “The message from that point on was intensity is the starting point.
“Because we took a lot of pride in how we wanted to play and how we wanted to do things attacking-wise – we had the structure all down, but the mentality, I think that's where we were lacking on that day. And I think Canada sort of opened up our eyes to that.”
Spearheaded by Alphonso Davies, Scott Arfield and Richie Laryea, Canada were comprehensively superior as the USMNT spurned their scoring chances and failed to match the pace and intensity of their hosts, a collective faceplant capped by a distraught Christian Pulisic’s obvious frustration with being subbed off at the hour mark.
“We were eventually going to go away and lose somewhere,” recalled US and New York Red Bulls defender Aaron Long, “and it was one of those moments when we go back to the locker room like, ‘Guys, this is going to happen, it's not always going to be easy. There’s going to be tough moments, it’s all about how we respond.’”
They did indeed. Berhalter and his team regrouped to produce a 4-1 win in the reverse fixture at Orlando City SC’s Exploria Stadium a month later, eventually pushing them past the CanMNT into first place in their Nations League group on goal differential and on to the knockout phase. There they defeated Honduras and – quite memorably – Mexico to hoist the first CNL trophy.
All in all, the USMNT have won two pieces of hardware and lost just one competitive match since that night at BMO Field, shoring up the players’ belief in Berhalter and his approach.
“After the team wins in Gold Cup and wins the Nations League, there's a different confidence about the group,” said Long. “It's not like ‘This is how we want to play;’ it’s ‘This is how we're going to play.’ I think those moments in those tournaments and that success always breeds a different confidence within the group.”
Now Canada and the USMNT are sitting first and second in the Concacaf Octagonal World Cup qualifying standings, separated by one point heading into their faceoff at Tom Horton’s Field in Hamilton, Ontario at the end of this month, the second fixture of a three-match window that will also see both sides meet El Salvador and Honduras.
On Friday Herdman & Co. were hit with the news that Davies will miss this international window as he recovers from what his club, Bayern Munich, terms “signs of mild myocarditis” (inflammation of the heart muscle) after he contracted COVID-19 earlier this month.
But the CanMNT earned a canny 1-1 Octagonal draw in Nashville when they visited the United States last fall and will surely aim to extend their undefeated mark in the Ocho as they welcome the Yanks in the dead of the Canadian winter come Jan. 30.
“We obviously weren't aware of [Canada],” admitted Lletget of the 2019 clash in Toronto. “They've come a long way as a team as well. You know, it's not the same Canada. They're a good team, we respect them. We obviously know what we can do against them, which we hope we can do in the game coming up.”