When Brazil was invited to the Gold Cup ahead of the 1998 World Cup, it was a great chance for CONCACAF to get a genuine World Cup contender on American soil. When the U.S. was drawn against the Samba Kings in the semifinals, most people would have expected Brazil to win comfortably.
This was not a vintage Brazil side; Romario headlined a squad made up of fringe players, yet it was still the four-time world champions against a soccer minnow, and it was still Romario, one of the greatest strikers in history, against defenders earning comparative chump change. No amount of plucky underdog American spirit was expected to tame genuine star quality.
Things didn’t quite go that way. Inspired by an era-defining performance by goalkeeper Kasey Keller, the only player to wear the stars and stripes that day playing outside of MLS, the USMNT defied the odds to win 1-0 off a goal from Predrag “Preki” Radosavljevic in front of a crowd of just under 13,000.
United States men’s soccer was hot. Including that Brazil win, Steve Sampson’s side was on a six-match winning streak, and the future of American soccer had never looked so bright. If you can beat Brazil, you can beat anyone… right? Well, that sense of belief carried into the World Cup that summer and propelled the United States to… a last-placed finish in the tournament.
It’s a quintessential example of one of the main differences between international and club soccer: individual results generally don’t mean much in internationals. Most games are not in the competitions that matter (World Cups and qualifiers). Venues are various and players are unavailable for all sorts of reasons completely out of the manager’s control. It’s an unpredictable brand of the sport where success is extraordinarily hard to come by, even for so-called superpowers. A lot about soccer has changed in the near-quarter-century since USA 1, Brazil 0, but that much hasn’t.
Yet I get the sense that some U.S. fans (though certainly not all of them) are watching this young, still-developing squad as if it were a club team – a situation where game-to-game results really do have a distinct impact on things. And perhaps no recent international window better encapsulates the fault in that thinking than this last one, which saw the U.S. fall 3-1 to Germany on Saturday in Hartford, Conn. before Tuesday’s dominant 4-0 win over Ghana in Nashville, Tenn.
USMNT still has room to evolve in Berhalter’s second World Cup cycle
There will be a wave of positivity after the Ghana game, just like there was marked discontent among many after the Germany game. And perhaps a certain amount of that is good: the fanbase is no longer content with being plucky underdogs against the traditional soccer superpowers. It expects to compete, particularly on home soil. But one must also acknowledge some realities.
At the international level, coaches are not afforded the time on the training pitch to develop comprehensive tactical schemes to counterbalance a difference in individual quality. World-class talent often shines through. Germany had a red-hot Leroy Sane, Jamal Musiala and Ilkay Gundogan as proven game-changers – the U.S. options are certainly talented and promising but comparatively untested in the biggest games. At the coaching level, small adjustments can make all the difference; in this aspect, Germany’s Julian Nagelsmann is among the world’s upper echelons. As for Berhalter, who is contracted to lead the United States’ “golden generation” through to the home World Cup in 2026, the jury is still out.
The U.S. could have held on to win that game in Hartford 1-0, and all those things would still be true.
A few days later in Nashville, the U.S. seemed to right its wrongs, blitzing Ghana with three quick goals in the first half and keeping the pressure on them throughout. Gio Reyna looked excellent in his 45-minute appearance, scoring two goals from the No. 10 position he has stated is his preferred spot to play.
Yet still there are larger questions: If Reyna is to play at the No. 10, will the midfield unit as a whole be strong enough to control matches against better opponents? And what’s the backup plan if Reyna can’t go amid his continued injury issues? How does Tyler Adams, the U.S. captain at the World Cup who could be out for a significant stretch with his own injury, fit in upon his return?
Ghana could have somehow pulled off its own U.S. vs. Brazil result in this one, and those questions would still be relevant to this team in the next World Cup cycle.
Reyna’s first-half brace helps USMNT to 4-0 win vs. Ghana
Over the next three years, including next year’s Copa America, Berhalter will oversee wins, losses and draws that may seem to be defining for one reason or another. But the journey between international tournaments is long and torturous, and putting too much stock into matches in between is something fans the world over have learned is largely futile. This isn’t a league, where a loss can dent your title hopes, or a win can steer you clear of relegation. Shutout streaks and goal-scoring runs don’t build momentum in the same way. Tactical breakthroughs can be easily abandoned. Nothing matters more than finding balance.
Still, the opportunity to face the best can be a useful measuring stick, and last year’s draw with England in the group stage of the World Cup acts as a useful blueprint for success for a team capable of hurting opposition of all levels in transition.
The reality is that winning teams at the international level often sacrifice style for substance, favoring a pragmatic approach with a sprinkling of match-winning talent to make the difference against the best. Even the great Spain sides of 2008, 2010 and 2012 prioritized a slow build-up and possession as a method of protection over the more attacking “tiki-taka” style from that era’s all-conquering Barcelona side.
The USMNT has come a hell of a long way since 1998, but the demands are basically the same. Sometimes it takes heroic goalkeeping displays, a water-tight defensive shape and goals against the run of play to find success when it matters most: just ask Morocco, who would not trade their journey to the semi-final of the World Cup for an expansive style that may have caused an earlier exit.
Or ask the 1998 USMNT, whose signature win came within months of its most disappointing performance in the modern era.
(Photo: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)