Column

CONCACAF Chronicles: The unholy matrimony of U.S. Soccer and the tenth of October

What a history of disappointments means for Gregg Berhalter’s future

A photo of US men's national soccer team head coach Gregg Berhalter

“CONCACAF Chronicles” is a column by Sam Reno about North American soccer.

Anibal Godoy’s header in the 54th minute gave Panama a 1-0 lead they would not relinquish on Sunday against the United States. The win was Los Canaleros first-ever World Cup Qualifying victory over the U.S., and it came four years to the day they qualified for the FIFA World Cup for the first time.

Of course, a certain match in Trinidad and Tobago also on Oct. 10 paved their way to qualification in 2017, and Sunday’s game was arguably the Americans’ most disappointing performance since that match.

We’ll revisit the USMNT’s performance, specifically manager Gregg Berhalter’s showing, against Panama. But first, let’s take a trip back to exactly six years prior to Sunday night’s defeat and the beginning of the 10th of October curse.

Oct. 10, 2015. The American U-23s are set to take on Honduras in Salt Lake City with a spot in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics on the line. Six and a half hours later, the senior team would meet Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup in front of 93,000 at the Rose Bowl.

The U-23s came out flat, and a brace from Alberth Elis fired Honduras to a 2-0 win and an Olympic berth. What was just a blip in 2012 became a second consecutive failed Olympic Qualifying campaign, and confirmed a systemic problem with youth player development for the United States.

Those fears could be swept under the rug, however, with a strong showing from the senior team that night— and the U.S. looked up to the task. They had a near-instant response for everything Mexico threw at them and were just minutes from surviving to penalty kicks.

As it often does, disaster struck again. This time in the form of a Paul Aguilar winner in the 118th minute as Jürgen Klinsman’s men fell 3-2 to El Tri. Klinsmann would not keep the job long enough to see the next tenth of October.

Oct. 10, 2017— Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago. Bruce Arena has taken over for Klinsmann during the World Cup Qualifying campaign and needs just one point on the final day in Trinidad to clinch their spot in the 2018 Russia World Cup.

If you’ve read this column before, you likely know all too well the details of how that match played out. For those who haven’t, I’ll spare you the brunt of it. American players put two balls in the back of the net that night. One of those just happened to be on their own end.

An Alvin Jones heat check put the second on the board for Trinidad, and a teenage Christian Pulisic only managed one goal leaving us with the greatest embarrassment in American soccer history.

Arena stepped down from the managerial post just three days later.

Enter Gregg Berhalter and Oct. 10, 2021.

The U.S. is leading CONCACAF qualifying after back-to-back wins over Honduras and Jamaica in spite of poor showings in their two opening matches. Berhalter decides to make seven changes to the starting 11, believing his team can come away with at least a point and some rest.

They did not.

They didn’t even put a shot on target.

The set pieces were poor. The midfield showed no attacking ambition. They were thoroughly and unequivocally outplayed. As a result, the USMNT will now be behind the tried and true “win at home, draw on the road” qualifying pace at the end of this second window.

The talent is there. Berhalter just won’t use it.

Gyasi Zardes has played more minutes than Ricardo Pepi. Sebastian Lletget has played more minutes than Luca de la Torre. Paul Arriola has started twice while Matthew Hoppe hasn’t seen the field.

Their replacements are more talented and, most importantly, younger. They can handle the significant workload brought on by these short, three-match windows.

The lack of attacking creativity was glaringly obvious, so much so that Berhalter even noted it in the postgame press conference as if the personnel and tactical responsibilities were not his own.

I will concede that in spot minutes and not together, Zardes, Arriola and Lletget can each play a role in a well-functioning 11. However, Berhalter continues to place unearned amounts of trust on the trio in the form of starts and key substitute appearances despite their clear lack of attacking desire and ability.

Even with the poor team selection, this U.S. team is more than talented enough to at least earn a point against Panama. That is, unless they are tactically unequipped which, of course, they were on Sunday night.

Panama sent all six of their first-half corner kicks directly at goalkeeper Matt Turner, yet when Éric Davis lined up to take their first of the second half, it was as if Berhalter had not seen any of them.

Three Panamanians were positioned closer to goal than the deepest American defender, an inexcusable setup when the whole stadium knew exactly where that corner was headed.

It unsurprisingly sailed in behind the U.S. line and a desperate effort from Zardes served only to block Turner’s view rather than clear the ball out. It was the only goal on the night, and the U.S. had surrendered its lead in The Ocho just as fast as they had found it.

Bruce Arena won the 2017 Gold Cup just months before losing the job. Jürgen Klinsmann won three straight against the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Germany before getting sacked just two matches into WCQ.

The successes of this summer grant Berhalter no more immunity than it did his successors. No USMNT manager has ever survived after their own 10th of October, and unless U.S. Soccer wants another date to be etched in infamy, Gregg Berhalter shouldn’t either.

“CONCACAF Chronicles” typically runs every Tuesday.