Should USA fire Gregg Berhalter? Copa America could be last chance for USMNT head coach to show growth

Gregg Berhalter is not without faults as the U.S. men’s national team head coach. But he also brings plenty of strengths to the table.

Yet as the USMNT stands on the precipice of the 2024 Copa America, we must ask: Are the flaws in Berhalter’s reign outweighing the benefits?

The team will enter the tournament with its most talented and globally renowned group of players. But the program has shown little tangible growth under the 50-year-old coach relative to players’ individual achievements at the club level.

The USMNT rehired Berhalter after an exhaustive search in the aftermath of the 2022 World Cup and in the wake of a messy scandal. At the time, the decision was the right one — the players were fully behind their old boss, and the former Columbus Crew coach had garnered significant praise from some of the world’s top managers for his tactics at the World Cup.

Still, the team’s Round of 16 exit at the hands of the Netherlands, while not a disappointing effort, also did not represent a success. While Berhalter’s new contract runs through the end of the highly anticipated 2026 World Cup, to be played on home soil, U.S. Soccer must consider Berhalter’s viability as the head coach if the team does not make progress this summer.

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Should USMNT fire Gregg Berhalter?

If the USMNT does not reach the semifinals of the Copa America, there should be serious questions about Berhalter’s ability to lead the team into the 2026 World Cup.

While continental success has been the hallmark of Berhalter’s tenure, with the U.S. establishing themselves as the team to beat in CONCACAF as Mexico flounders, little progress been made in USMNT’s standing relative to global football powers.

The talent on the U.S. squad has never been higher, from both a peak standpoint and a depth perspective. Christian Pulisic, the first UEFA Champions League winner in American soccer history, is coming off a season as AC Milan’s top scorer. Meanwhile, the starting lineup against Colombia was the first in USMNT history with all 11 starters contracted to Big 5 European clubs.

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But while the USMNT squad continues to gain talent and renown on an individual level, that has not translated into a rise for the team into FIFA’s upper echelon of national team sides.

When Berhalter was hired in December 2018, the United States ranked 25th in the world, having missed the World Cup that year. It took Berhalter just three years to see the team’s ranking rise to 11th. But in the time since, he has been unable to see the most talented team in USMNT history get over the hump to compete with the world’s most powerful sides.

Berhalter has failed to defeat a single team hailing from outside CONCACAF ranked above the USMNT in the standings. In fact, he’s beaten just three teams other than Mexico ranked inside the global top 40, and just one in a competitive environment. Those wins came in friendlies against Costa Rica in 2019 and Morocco in 2022, plus the win over Iran at the latest World Cup.

Anything less than a spot in the 2024 Copa America semifinals would fail to instill confidence that the team is indeed on a growth trajectory relative to the significant increase in talent amongst the squad.

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What is success for USMNT at Copa America?

The glass ceiling for the USMNT has been winning a knockout stage game at any major competition. That would mean reaching the quarterfinals at the World Cup, something the program has done just once in its modern history, or the semifinals at the Copa America.

Berhalter fell short of that goal at the 2022 World Cup with a Round of 16 defeat for the 16th-ranked USMNT at the hands of eighth-ranked Netherlands. Saturday’s 5-1 defeat to Colombia in a pre-Copa America friendly seems to indicate the semifinals of this summer’s Copa America will require an uphill climb, and while the 1-1 draw with Brazil promises they will fight hard for results, it’s not quite enough to fully wash the taste of the prior result away.

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In order to reach the semifinals of the Copa America, the United States will almost surely need to beat at least one (and probably two) of Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay. Brazil, ranked fifth in the world, needs no introduction. While Colombia and Uruguay both sit below the United States in the official FIFA rankings, the former is on a 22-match unbeaten streak and just clobbered the USMNT in a friendly, while the latter has beaten both Brazil and Argentina in recent World Cup qualifying matches and hasn’t been this scorching hot in decades.

Is that a lofty goal? Absolutely. Yet anything less would once again display zero growth on the international stage. Given the strides the USMNT has taken in recent year from both a talent perspective and in continental competitions, the continued lack of growth on the international stage — with a World Cup to be played on home soil right around the corner — is no longer excusable.

USMNT must learn to win games ahead of 2026 World Cup

One of the most damaging narratives in the run-up to the 2024 Copa America has been Berhalter’s insistence that results at the tournament are not of paramount importance. Rather, he is focused on the continued buildup to the 2026 World Cup is the ultimate goal.

The players have grasped onto this top-down directive, repeating it on multiple occasions in media availabilities.

“We do see this as a building block,” Berhalter said in his pre-match press conference ahead of the match against Brazil, echoing his comments from prior to the Colombia game. “Copa America is essential to the growth of this group, and I believe this is a very important tournament for us as a team…It is a building block for us to go into the World Cup confidently. We’re treating this seriously, and we want to put in good performances.”

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At one stage, Chris Richards said the Copa America is “not the end-all, be-all,” highlighting the World Cup as the ultimate goal.

The team cannot continue with this softened attitude and mindset this summer. Instead, the USMNT must learn how to beat teams regardless of performance before they can expect to just show up and get results in two years on the biggest stage.

In the aftermath of the loss to Colombia, Tim Ream admitted that the biggest lesson learned from that match was how much those games mean to the opponents, and that the U.S. needs to match that level of desire.

Desire does not come from prioritizing performance over result. Instead, desire comes from doing everything it takes to win matches, regardless of environment, opponent or how well the game is played.

In the 5-1 defeat to Colombia, the USMNT — by its own admission — failed to match its opponent’s will to win. The U.S. had a gameplan, sure, and for the first 60 minutes of the match executed it relatively well, but Colombia had a much greater need for victory.

The USMNT must change its mindset and view the Copa America as a must-win tournament. And that must be something the players and coaches don’t just repeat at the podium but believe in their hearts.

If the U.S. is to achieve growth at the Copa America and prove it is translating the rise in individual talent to results on the pitch, the team must treat this tournament with the same gravitas as the coming World Cup.

If the USMNT cannot break through in 2024, what confidence can fans have that Berhalter can make it happen in 2026?

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