Why I'm Still Not Convinced that the USMNT Is the Best Team in North America
With Sunday's Gold Cup victory, that's two trophies in two tries for Gregg Berhalter's team this summer. It's progress, but how much?
Alexi Lalas was weeping.
“It’s ... America”, he said, choking out the words as he gestured down from the Qatar Airways commentary table toward the retractable Bermuda grass field that was rolled in before the match inside the air-conditioned dome in the middle of the desert. Elsewhere in the building, an 85-foot tall torch, the largest 3D-printed object in the world, was burning in honor of the late Las Vegas Raiders owner Al Davis.
The US had just beaten Mexico in a competitive final -- again, for the second time in three months. First it was the Nations League final, thanks to a Christian Pulisic penalty late into extra time. Then in the Gold Cup, thanks to a Miles Robinson header, late into extra time.
For once, Lalas was having trouble speaking, so the anchor, Rob Stone, and former US midfielder Maurice Edu, picked up most of the talking. Edu echoed Lalas’s sentiments, struggling to think of a time he felt prouder to be an American, while Stone told us what the pair of trophies showed: the US was back. They were, once again, the best soccer team in North America.
Given the size of the nation’s population and the wealth of the US Soccer federation in comparison to every other country on the continent, that might not seem like something worth crying about. Structural inequality has prevailed one again. It’s beautiful. But given that the US failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and were then beaten soundly by Mexico in the 2019 Gold Cup final, it felt like progress. Plus, it’s been a rough 16 months, man. Do you still have any emotional resiliency left? Pretty much anything can make me cry at this point. Two people holding hands, the thought of those two people potentially not holding hands, a couple raccoons eating garbage out of a dumpster and hissing in unison at a stranger walking by on the sidewalk -- it all gets me.
Anyway, the point of playing soccer is to win, and the USMNT, for the first time in a long time, did that again and again this summer. But really, for a country with the resources of the US, the point of international soccer is to win at the World Cup. Not win the World Cup -- yet -- but at least win some games every four years. While international soccer for the most part doesn’t attract the best managers anymore, those dynamics still make for a tricky gig. You’re balancing short-term victories, both in these secondary competitions and in qualifying to ensure you actually get to the big event, with long-term progress. You’ve got to keep your job in order to get to do your ultimate job. It took a couple years, but Gregg Berhalter finally secured a number of signature wins. As for the second part, the slow and steady improvement of the way the team plays? It’s not so clear.
Think of it this way. In the Nations League final, Christian Pulisic converted a penalty in the 114th minute of the match, and then Andres Guardado missed a penalty in the 124th minute. The outcomes of both of those events have nothing to do with the true quality or ability of either team. Flip those results around, and what are you left with? Mexico wins a match, 3-2, in which they outshot their opponent, 21 to 14. We’re back to where we were in 2019.
While Mexico have a lot of talent and seemingly one of the best coaches in international soccer, the US really might have more talent at this point. For the rosters each side used for the Nations League, the crowd-sourced transfer valuations at Transfermarkt put the US at $310.3 million and Mexico at $230.8 million. For comparison’s sake, on a per-player basis that would’ve ranked the US 13th among all squads at the Euros -- below Austria and above Switzerland -- while Mexico would’ve been 17th, between Sweden and Ukraine. These aren’t precise numbers by any means, but they at least give a comparative sense of the quality of the rosters. Honduras, the team the US beat 1-0 in the semis of the Nations League with an 89th-minute goal, came into the event with a team valued at $16.9 million. The US squad had five players with a higher valuation.
The Gold Cup was different. The US brought a B-ish team, Mexico brought an A-ish team -- although from what I’ve seen those delineations are already starting to shift quickly in the US’s favor. Actually, it was more of a C-team. At the pace it’s moving, in a couple months it’ll be: Remember when the US beat Mexico’s first-choice XI with six feral cats, that lady in the Wonder Woman costume, three of those crisis actors who got paid to be Qatar fans, and Matt Turner? Per Transfermarkt, the US had the third-most valuable squad in the tournament: $76.51, after Jamaica at $77.99 million and Mexico at $143.66 million. Perhaps more impressively, the average age of the US team was 24.5, while Mexico’s was all the way up at 28.1. The kids took down the vets.
All of that considered, the US played reasonably well against Mexico. The “visitors” -- other than the Wonder Woman lady, one guy dressed as an anthropomorphic eagle, and another guy in a cowboy hat, I don’t recall seeing many other US fans -- out-shot the Americans by almost the exact same margin as ub the Nations League final, 22 to 14. That’s a tiny bit misleading, as the US played mostly on the counter and on average generated higher-quality opportunities than Mexico, which is somewhat born out in the equal number of shots on target (five) for each side. Given the overall balance of chances, Mexico wins this same game more often than not, but relative to the talent levels of both teams, the US did well.
That’s not quite as true for the rest of the tournament. The US only conceded one goal in the Gold Cup, but that’s more down to a lights-out performance from the best American shot-stopper, Matt Turner, over the past month than it is a robust team-wide defensive display.
Outside of the 6-1 blowout against Martinique, the 150th-ranked team by the World Football Elo ratings, the US weren’t too convincing in any of their other matches. In the games against Canada, Jamaica, and Qatar, they were outshot by a 41-to-23 margin. The Qatar match in particular, a 1-0 win despite a 17-to-6 shot margin for the visitors, was particularly fortunate. All in all, according to TruMedia’s Paul Carr, the US created 3.18 expected goals and conceded 4.75 in the knockout rounds. They turned that into three goals for and zero against. That’s a recipe for an unlikely tournament run, but not any kind of long-term success.
The summer ends with two trophies and the USMNT on a nine-game win streak. Over the past year, they’ve moved up 20 spots in the Elo rankings -- the biggest leap of any team in the top 30. They’re currently 17th, right between Sweden and the Czech Republic, while Mexico has fallen one spot over the past year, down to 15th. The misguided, mindless toxicity of the Jurgen Klinsmann era is gone, and the new generation of young players certainly seem to play hard -- for whatever that’s worth. The team has more talent than ever before, and most of that talent is only likely to improve over the next five years. At the same time, there’s no special power, no innovative tactics or undetectable chemistry, no in-born national characteristic that allows teams to win an outsize number of one-goal games. And outside of the Martinique match, the US won all of their other seven competitive matches this summer by a single score.
Soccer is a weird, stupid sport, where 99 percent of what happens in a given game doesn’t matter — and all of that gets amplified on the international level. The US still really hasn’t put together a comprehensive, controlled competitive performance since Berhalter took over. Given that they, you know, won both trophies they contested this summer, that could be a positive, or it could be negative. Whichever one it is, we probably won’t really know until sometime next December.