DAVENPORT, Florida — Gregg Berhalter has been the U.S. Men’s National Team head coach for less than a year, but he already finds himself facing a must-win match on Friday against Canada in Concacaf Nations League.
Even though his job isn’t on the line — which USMNT general manager Earnie Stewart made clear on Tuesday — Berhalter knows how important it is for his team to secure a win and position itself to reach the knockout rounds of the Nations League. He also knows what a loss could do for a program already in a state of transition.
“We’re embracing it because that is our situation,” Berhalter said. “When you look at the history of U.S. Soccer, we’ve been in games like this before. In the pre-hex groups we’ve been in must-win situations, in the hex round we’ve been in must-win situations. This is what builds the team and makes the team strong. We need matches like this.
“We talked about the benefit of the Nations League before and I feel it’s absolutely good for us to be able to play in these type of matches.”
The Americans will be looking to erase the bad taste of last month’s forgettable 2-0 loss to Canada in Toronto, a loss that marked the first time in 34 years the USMNT’s neighbors to the north had defeated the United States. Berhalter was honest about the harsh lesson he and his team learned from that match, and considers it a necessary learning experience that he is banking on helping his team mature.
“As we process from the last game, one of our observations is it’s an away game, the opponent is treating this as the biggest games of their lives,” Berhalter said. “Canada hadn’t beat us in 34 years and was playing like it. And for us to be successful in away matches, we need to match the intensity of our opponents and that’s been a consistent message in this camp.
“You would think that it would go without saying that we know that right?,” Berhalter said,. “That’s the logical thing to think, but when you think of seven players playing in their first away game. When you think about a coaching staff coaching in their first away game together, in a competitive Concacaf match, these are the things that go along with it.
“The message was received loud and clear from our end of understanding what those games are like, and we know what it’s like. We are better prepared, I’ve seen it in this training camp that the intensity everyday has continued to grow.”
While Berhalter and the USMNT have stressed the importance of delivering more intensity, one thing that won’t be changing is the team’s tactical philosophy. Berhalter is sticking with his same system, and believes that criticisms of the team’s failings in its possession-oriented system overlook the progress he sees the team making.
“I think along those lines, we have to talk about the positive moments too of building out of the back,” Berhalter said. “We were able to rip through the opponents like Mexico and Canada as well, which are positives for us. I think if we want to get to a certain point, we can’t be afraid to try and fail because there will be failures at times.
“I don’t consider Tim Ream’s error against Canada playing out of the back, but more of a clearance mistake,” Berhalter added. “We have to be smart, if we are under pressure then we need to clear the ball. What we’re trying to do is draw the opponent out so we can hurt them by getting behind them. We have to create goalscoring opportunities.”
Creating chances against Canada will be tougher without Christian Pulisic, who is missing November’s Nations League matches with a hip injury. It will instead fall to the likes of Jordan Morris, Sebastian Lletget, Weston McKennie and others to help boost an attack that has struggled to create chances in recent matches, with the team’s romp over Cuba the notable exception.
“With Christian not being here, I don’t think we have a like for like replacement for him, I don’t think many teams do,” Berhalter said. “When you think his dynamic dribbling, you don’t see many players like that anymore. We’ll have to make up for his loss with other skills. What we do have is speed and physicality, so we will try to use that.”
How Friday’s rematch with Canada goes will be determined in part by how Canada approaches the match. A draw would help Canada secure first place in the group, so setting up in a defensive block is a possibility for the visitors.
“It’s tough to say how they will approach the game,” Berhalter said. “At the end of the day all they need is a tie and that should play into some of the game planning. You never know, they are a confident group, they have a confident coach, they all believe in each other. They made the last game difficult for us and they have quality in the group.”
“Alphonso Davies has been exceptional for Bayern Munich, Jonathan David is a good player, Cavallini is a tough striker, Arfield from Rangers, Jonathan Osorio, they have quality in their squad. We know it’s an attacking group and we have to be ready for them.”