Gregg Berhalter's USMNT seat is preheating

LANDOVER, Md. — Eight years and two U.S. Soccer administrations ago, a four-goal loss was the final straw.

It won't be for Gregg Berhalter; but it's relevant precedent to recall as pressure mounts on the U.S. men's national team and its coach in the aftermath of a 5-1 Colombian shellacking here on Saturday.

It was the fall of 2016 when Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT floundered in Costa Rica. Their 4-0 flop was the U.S. A-team’s third by such a margin since 1994. Within several months of all three — and within several days of the Costa Rican calamity — the head coach lost his job.

Saturday’s was the fourth.

And as it unraveled, Berhalter’s seat surely began to warm.

It was, of course, just a friendly. Compared to 2016, stakes and circumstances are different. But perhaps the more relevant precedent is the first of the four flops, a June 2011 loss to Spain, 4-0 in a pre-Gold Cup friendly. Bob Bradley survived that defeat. He led the U.S. into and through the Gold Cup. It was after falling short in the Gold Cup, a regional tournament, that Bradley was fired.

That, in a nutshell, is where U.S. Soccer likely stands 13 years later. Berhalter will coach the USMNT at the 2024 Copa América. If he fails, then questions will be asked and decisions made.

The question, specifically, is whether the USMNT is progressing and climbing toward 2026.

The Copa América will offer paramount evidence.

If the answer is clear and affirmative, pre-tournament results will be forgotten.

If it’s tenuous or damning, though, the Colombia capitulation must be viewed as part of a pattern, one that level-headed analysts increasingly point out.

Tab Ramos, a former USMNT assistant and current Telemundo pundit, touched on it Saturday without mentioning Berhalter. “The truth is, I see a [U.S.] team with commitment, I see a team that runs, but I see a team that can't find solutions,” Ramos said in Spanish. “It's always the same, always the same football, always the same game. The matches change, the opponents change, and we see the same thing.”

We have seen Berhalter's USMNT for five years now. We have seen them beat up on the worst Mexico team in decades. We have also seen them in nine games outside CONCACAF against the Elo top 20. They have drawn five of those games, lost four and won none.

They have tried, at times, against Germany and Colombia recently, to play more expansive soccer. But their efforts have backfired; their cohesion has fractured; "it felt like they were just waiting for us to make a mistake, and then just killed us in transition," captain Christian Pulisic said of Colombia. "And that's what happened over and over again."

Whether or not the mistakes and impotence are Berhalter’s fault is incredibly difficult to pinpoint. International soccer, in general, is overwhelmingly driven by players. But at some point, the onus is on the coach to prove that the pattern is breakable.

Throughout his first cycle on the job, Berhalter broke other patterns; he adjusted; he conquered Mexico. But when he was rehired for a second cycle last June, reasonable doubts swirled around his ability to guide this USMNT to "the next step" and new levels.

One year later, those doubts are still swirling, perhaps more ominously than ever before. And clocks are ticking.

The Copa América, though only nine months into Berhalter’s second stint, will be the USMNT’s only chance between now and the 2026 World Cup to face elite teams in a legitimate competition.

Afterward, U.S. Soccer, led by sporting director Matt Crocker, will have to assess the trajectory of the program. The players, on paper, are better than ever before. Is their collective potential rising in line with their individual talent?

Late July will be the time to answer that question. A coaching change right now, in June, would be rash. But blindly committing to Berhalter until at least 2025 would siphon away crucial months in which a hypothetical new coach could build. And committing to him through 2026, without evidence of progress, would risk wasting this talented generation of players, and squandering this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — a World Cup on home soil.

So the window in which to make a decision, however inconvenient, is approaching. And after Saturday, Berhalter’s seat is pre-heating.

It is not hot. In a month, it could be cool, and in retrospect this freak-out could feel silly. Berhalter will not get fired because he lost a friendly to Colombia. Bradley did not get fired because he lost to Spain (without several starters). Klinsmann did not get fired because he lost to Argentina 4-0 in the Copa América Centenario semis. Coaches do not get fired for 90 minutes.

Coaches get fired when their teams go sideways or backward.

Klinsmann got fired because an objective — qualifying for and succeeding at the 2018 World Cup — felt increasingly far away rather than increasingly near.

That’s the lens through which to view Berhalter over the coming month: Is his process leading to a 2026 quarterfinal or semifinal? Or is it stagnating, perhaps even regressing? Are those lofty aims within reach, or slipping away?

The answers, for now, remain inconclusive, but the chorus of skeptics is growing. For the entire USMNT, a potential inflection point is almost here.

This, as Ramos said, appears to be “a very, very delicate moment for the United States.”

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