TORONTO -- Just when you thought the mood music around the U.S. national team might become more upbeat, they produce a performance whose best accompaniment would have been alarm bells.
Two years and five days on from the Americans' calamitous failure to reach the 2018 World Cup, it is hard to detect many signs of progress and to see a way ahead after the embarrassing 0-2 loss to Canada, the U.S. national team's first defeat to their neighbours in 34 years.
It's fair to point out here that the Canadians, ranked 75th in the world by FIFA, are an improving side with two teenage attacking talents in the exciting Alphonso Davies of Bayern Munich and the prolific striker Jonathan David of Gent in Belgium. Davies gave the U.S. defence nightmares, and David probably should have scored twice.
But where now for the U.S.? What's wrong? How long have you got?
Gregg Berhalter, a decent man and thoughtful coach at Columbus Crew SC, is 10 months into his first international job. Over that time, without facing any European opposition, he has lost twice to Mexico and once each to Venezuela, Jamaica and Canada. He is trying to impose his style of play on the team: a dynamic, high-pressing, adventurous and fun-to-watch philosophy. It's great in theory, but so far, it's clearly not working. Against Canada, the U.S. players looked like lost souls unable to remember the plan or implement it against a tenacious Canada team that refused to let them settle.
Berhalter speaks a lot about players' ability to absorb and learn new ideas, but you have to wonder if there is a bit of an information overload for some of them. They look confused to the point where even basic 15-yard passes were going astray. It was a horror show devoid of tempo or purpose. It was not, as some at U.S. Soccer might have you believe, a freak result or a fluke.
In addition, somewhere amid applying this new style, the U.S.'s traditional qualities of grit, character and fight have been lost. The response to Canada going ahead with just under half-an-hour to play was almost non-existent. But for some smart saves by Zack Steffen and interceptions by Aaron Long, Canada would have won even more convincingly.
At this point, Berhalter now faces the possibility of ripping it up and starting again. It has to begin with an awkward question: how many of those players he's selecting are really of international class?
There needs to be an injection of quality, admittedly not easy in this era after the loss of stalwarts like Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Carlos Bocanegra and DaMarcus Beasley. Michael Bradley, a fine servant over 151 caps and 13 years, is sadly not the major midfield presence he was. But where is his successor?
Then there is the Christian Pulisic question. America's new leader was substituted after an hour last night and looked distraught amid what looked to be an angry exchange with Berhalter. Later we were told he had "flu-like symptoms" but in truth, Berhalter made a brave decision to hook his star player based on his ineffectiveness. Pulisic is going through a difficult period, given his inability to command a starting role yet at Chelsea, but he is a good player who will probably emerge stronger for all of this.
The U.S. also needs Tyler Adams, the injured box-to-box Leipzig midfielder, back as soon as possible, while the Bundesliga experience of John Brooks will also bolster the defence. But that's not all; Berhalter, who claims not to read media criticism but can't be oblivious to the fans' disillusionment, has to look at himself too.
Is his message too complex for the players at his disposal? Is he putting style over substance? Does he need a midfield "enforcer" in the No. 6 defensive midfield position? The manager might even have to dust off his files of former players whom he's discarded but might be better than what he has.
What happened to Julian Green, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, Aron Johannsson, Danny Williams and Cameron Carter-Vickers, to name just a few? There are doubts about all of them, but Berhalter has to consider everything, including perhaps fast-tracking youngsters from the U20 team that reached the 2019 World Cup quarterfinals and going for broke in the battle to get Ajax full-back Sergino Dest to commit to the U.S. instead of the Netherlands.
Tuesday night also confirmed that Jozy Altidore, currently injured and rarely available in 2019, is still the best bet up front until Josh Sargent becomes a more rounded striker.
Great managers like Brian Clough kept it simple. Everyone knew why they were in the team and the job they were expected to do. Obviously, coaching styles have become more sophisticated in the modern era but that basic truth remains: don't over-complicate it. Pick decent players and tell them to do what they do for their clubs, which is why they were selected in the first place.
The U.S. are in crisis. Berhalter & Co. need to find answers before the next World Cup qualification matches come round. Events in Toronto underlined that other CONCACAF teams like Canada can make qualification for major tournaments like the World Cup -- something the Americans once took for granted -- decidedly difficult. The rematch with the Canadians in Orlando next month (Nov. 15, ESPN2) suddenly looks a huge game.