ORLANDO — The Canadian men’s national soccer team know better than to underestimate wounded American pride.
Canada’s 2-0 win against the United States in October at BMO Field sent the Americans into reflection mode going into the Nations League Group A rematch Friday (7 p.m. ET) at Exploria Stadium, trying to restore confidence in their program.
At the moment there are few positives for the U.S. men’s program. While the U.S. women are still basking in the glow of its fourth World Cup title, the men failed to qualify for Russia in 2018 and along with their first loss to Canada in 34 years, have sustained a few eye-opening defeats under head coach Gregg Berhalter.
The United States need to win the game against Canada to win the group and advance to the semifinal of the Nations League. All Canada need is a tie.
“When you look at the history of U.S. soccer, we’ve been in games like this before,” Berhalter said Thursday. “We’ve been in must-win situations and this is what builds a team, this is what makes the team strong. We absolutely need events like this to help the team grow.
“We talked about the benefits of Nations League and whether it’s good, it’s absolutely good because of games like this and it’ll really help the group develop.”
Berhalter took over the program following the disastrous 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign where the U.S. failed to book a ticket to Russia. He had previously coached the Columbus Crew of the MLS, making it to the final in 2015.
Since taking over in December, 2018, the United States are 9-5-2. They have lost to Jamaica, Venezuela, Mexico twice and to Canada.
“As we process through the game (against Canada) one of our observations is that when we’re playing these games away from home, the opponent is treating the game like it’s the biggest game of their lives.” Berhalter said. “Canada hadn’t beat us in 34 years and was playing like that. For us to be successful at away venues, we need to match that intensity or exceed that intensity and that’s been a consistent message in this camp.
“You’d think it would go without saying that we know that. But when you think about seven guys playing in their first away game for the first time, when you think about a coaching staff coaching their first away game in a competitive CONCACAF match, these are some of the things that come along with it. I think the message was received loud and clear from our end in terms of understanding what those games are like and we know that we’re better prepared now.”
The United States is a team in transition. They are missing their best player in Christian Pulisic of Chelsea along with Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore of Toronto FC for the game Friday.
“I think it’s a group that’s developing, I think it’s a resilient group,” Berhalter said. “From Day 1, the players have been focused on doing every single thing that we’ve asked of them. From me, that mindset is amazing.”
While Berhalter is not quite in the hot seat, it is starting to get warm as 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying is set to begin next year. Considering the growth of the game in the United States and the success of the MLS, the national team cannot afford to miss another tournament before acting as co-hosts in 2026.
“The result kind of showed last game (against Canada),” said midfielder Weston McKennie. “You could see on the field the lack of intensity from us and the lack of desire. This week, the mentality is really different. The guys went in and watched video from the game, we learned what we could have done better, we learned what our mistakes were and I think the guys still have a sour taste in their mouths from the last game. We’re definitely ready to take on the challenge again, but hopefully, with a better result.”
If the United States are unable to beat Canada, then their game against Cuba on Tuesday in the final game of the Group A stage would be pointless. If that was the case, then the United States would definitely just be playing for pride in that contest, which is being held in the Cayman Islands as a Cuban home game.
“Canada definitely played well last game, they stuck to their game plan and the executed,” said U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget. “But I think this is a complete different game. We’re on our home turf, this is a complete different approach. It’ll be better than last time, for sure. They have some good players, we definitely have to know that and be aware of that. But we can’t give them too much respect. We know what we can do, we know (with) the qualities that we have, we just have to go out and execute.”
On Twitter: @DerekVanDiest