On a conference call with the media on Tuesday, U.S. Soccer Federation sporting director Earnie Stewart had a Chip Diller moment. Despite some poor results by the U.S. men's national team, including a humbling loss to Canada, Stewart said Gregg Berhalter's job as manager is safe no matter what the results of the next two games are, and that the U.S. was making progress.
It's Stewart's duty to back the work of Berhalter, of course. He hired him, after all. But Stewart's assessment flies in the face of reality. Even if the U.S. gets the wins it needs against Canada on Friday (7 p.m. ET, watch live on ESPN2) and Cuba four days later, and thus advances to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Nations League, the team has at best treaded water and more accurately taken a step backward in 2019. The insistence on playing out of the back seems misguided. The competitiveness that was once the U.S. team's hallmark has nearly evaporated.
Most sobering of all is the fact that while the U.S. roster has plenty of good players, outside of Christian Pulisic, there are few -- if any -- great players. There aren't any Clint Dempseys or Landon Donovans coming to this team's rescue. That last aspect isn't Berhalter's fault, but it does magnify mistakes, and there have been a few.
Here are 10 questions that need answering for the U.S. as it goes forward.
1. Is Berhalter the right man for the job?
It's looking more and more like he isn't. New England Revolution manager Bruce Arena was right when he said in October that Berhalter was running the national team like it was a club team. Berhalter has been stubborn in terms of his style despite the scant time he gets with the team, but Stewart is clearly intent on keeping him on board for the foreseeable future.
The U.S. manager's chances of survival hinge on his willingness to find a pragmatic streak. Soccer is a results-driven business; Berhalter needs to win any way necessary rather than insisting on his ideal way of playing. Sure, the U.S. reached the final of the Gold Cup, but that was a case of the Americans dispatching teams that they should beat on a regular basis. Against the likes of Mexico, other than the first 25 minutes of the Gold Cup final, the U.S. has come up well short, and last month's defeat to Canada revealed that his side continues to lose ground to its regional competitors. Berhalter needs to accept the realities of what the player pool is handing him and regroup.
2. What have we learned about Berhalter's approach?
So far Berhalter has been too rigid in his tactics and squad selection. The September friendly against Mexico was a case in point, when he praised his side for continuing to play out of the back even as it became evident that the U.S. didn't have the ability to play through El Tri's press. There needs to be a mix of playing direct and indirect, depending on what the opponent gives you. Against an Uruguay team that was content to sit back, the U.S. wisely engaged in a patient buildup. Against Canada, the U.S. was guilty of some brutal giveaways in its own half that led directly to goals.
Then there's the broader question of whether the U.S. has the personnel -- and perhaps more importantly, the time -- to implement what Berhalter is asking of his players: to control the game by way of long spells of possession and unbalancing opponents to create goal-scoring opportunities through the individual brilliance of Pulisic and utilizing the wings. Against run-of-the-mill CONCACAF sides, it does. Against better teams, it doesn't. This isn't a surprise. It sums up the state of the U.S. team going back 40 years. Berhalter and the U.S. need to show more flexibility in terms of their style.
3. Does Berhalter know what his first-choice XI is?
Only in bits and pieces. I'd say roughly half of the starting lineup in his preferred 4-3-3 has solidified, while the remaining positions are open with varying degrees of competition. Some of that is health-induced, with the absence of Tyler Adams especially problematic. Here's a stab at a starting XI assuming Berhalter has a full complement of players to choose from:
4. Which players form his core?
Steffen is the entrenched starter in goal. Brooks, health permitting, will take up one of the center-back spots, while Yedlin has reclaimed his position at right-back. McKennie, Adams and Pulisic have to be on the field in some form or another, although they haven't all been in camp together enough for Berhalter to settle on how that will be done.
McKennie thrives as a No. 8 with his box-to-box running. Adams is the midfield engine adept at breaking up plays and his passing has improved to the point of him being able to link defense and attack. Pulisic is the creative linchpin, although he could use some help in this area.
5. Which positions are still unsettled?
Left-back remains a sore spot, with Dest looking to be shoehorned into that position even though he plays on the opposite flank for Ajax. The center-back situation is more solid, with Long, Tim Ream and Walker Zimmerman in contention to play alongside Brooks, although why Matt Miazga did to not get called in this time -- despite playing regularly for Reading in England's Championship -- remains a mystery.
In the absence of Adams, Berhalter is still looking for the right balance in midfield, especially in terms of which player (or players) sits in front of the back line. Michael Bradley remains an option, but his advancing age (32) demands that Berhalter look at other possibilities. Alfredo Morales, who plays with a bite that in large part is missing from this team, could be a solution, but he's not exactly youthful at age 29. That merely highlights the fact that Adams can't return to health soon enough.
Altidore is still the best option as the lone striker, but health remains an issue for him. Based on the Gold Cup, he also doesn't seem to have the faith of Berhalter, leaving Josh Sargent as the heir apparent. On the wing, Morris has made steady progress this season, while Arriola and Tyler Boyd are still in contention.
6. Is Berhalter getting the most out of Pulisic?
Not yet he isn't, and it's still not clear what Pulisic's best position is in Berhalter's setup. Pulisic has excelled playing out on the wing for Borussia Dortmund and now Chelsea, looking dynamic when he cuts inside from wide positions. But for the U.S. there's a question of whether he can get the ball with enough frequency in that spot and whether the USMNT can afford to have him so isolated. Playing as one of two advanced central midfielders, Pulisic has looked promising at times, and this approach ought to be looked at again. It gives him a bit more freedom within the U.S. side to find space, whether its centrally or out wide.
There's also the question of how much Pulisic is chafing at how he's being used. He showed visible frustration when he was subbed against Canada. No player wants to come out, ever, but against Canada, Pulisic's insistence that he wasn't feeling ill -- as Berhalter stated -- hints that player and coach aren't always on the same page.
7. Which players should be shown the door?
In many ways, this process has already started. Wil Trapp, as good as he is on the ball, hasn't shown the necessary physicality to excel with the national team, and his playing time has decreased as a result. Gyasi Zardes is everyone's favorite whipping boy, and his playing time has largely been a function of Altidore's injuries. But at this stage, he should make way for others.
8. Which players should get more chances?
There has been plenty of clamoring to see more of the U20 squad that reached the quarterfinals of last summer's FIFA U20 World Cup. Berhalter has established a standard whereby players have to be getting minutes with their first team in order to get called up. I have zero problem with this. Too often in the past, players with minimal club achievements have been called into the national team, often to their detriment.
Despite fans' enthusiasm for a youth movement, a better development path for these players is to cut their international teeth with the U23s and focus on qualifying for the Olympics. It's a tournament that is often derided as being far down the totem pool in terms of international cachet, but it's still international experience, and can provide an important step in terms of the international game.
However, one player who should be exempt from the above line of thinking is Paxton Pomykal, who has shown in 2019 that he's deserving of additional opportunities. Injuries late in the season meant he hasn't been able to build on his initial call-up in September, and he recently had surgery to repair a core muscle injury. But his skill on the ball would seem to suit what Berhalter is asking for. The potential, composure on the ball and playmaking ability of the Philadelphia Union's Brenden Aaronson makes him another to watch.
If the likes of Ulysses Llanez and Alex Mendez break through at Wolfsburg and Ajax respectively, by all means call them into the senior squad. The same can be said for Richie Ledezma at PSV. Until then, they should be left to develop with their clubs.
In the absence of Pulisic, Sebastian Lletget is one player who ought to get some more looks. He's crafty on the ball, and can pop up for the occasional goal, although there wasn't enough of that last season for the LA Galaxy. So far, he hasn't gotten all that many minutes when Berhalter has had first team available. If the U.S. manager is really intent on playing Pulisic out wide, Lletget may be the key to making that work. If Pulisic and Lletget are installed in these roles, Sargent could be suited for being the connection in front of goal given his skill set.
Sargent is one player who needs to see the field more often given his all-around game and Altidore's health issues.
9. What's the U.S. team's most glaring deficiency?
Depth or creativity, take your pick, although one tends to bleed into the other. The biggest problem with the attack is that there is no one to take the creative load off of Pulisic. If no one emerges to provide a secondary attacking outlet, then the Pulisic can expect a steady stream of tactical fouls.
10. What must Berhalter and the U.S. do better in 2020?
Besides everything? First, find the aforementioned pragmatic streak. The U.S. has historically been at its best when it has known its limitations and played within them. That's not to say that playing a more expansive style can't be tried, but it shouldn't be the only club in the U.S. team's stylistic bag.
Find a dedicated place for Pulisic to play and then build the attack from there. And pray that Adams returns to health.
The U.S. also needs to rediscover its competitive streak. The Canada game in October was embarrassing in terms of how badly the U.S. was outworked. If the U.S. is to make any progress at all in 2020, that trait needs to return in abundance.