Inside the United States' Copa América exit: 'We must do better'

In tournament soccer, just a few blinks can change the narrative around a team.

On one end of the spectrum is Jude Bellingham’s overhead kick that saved England against Slovakia and could now see them push on in the European Championship. On the other end is Tim Weah’s punch at Panama defender Roderick Miller, which resulted in an 18th-minute red card and contributed to the U.S.’ 2-1 loss at Copa América.

“That’s just one simple second,” U.S. captain Christian Pulisic said on Thursday night after the Panama defeat.

One second that set a team in motion toward an unexpected and unwanted result. And in tournament play, where the margins are thin, the walls closed in even more on the U.S.

Monday night’s game against Uruguay was already set to serve as a marker for the team’s growth. The U.S. could win regional titles — three CONCACAF Nations Leagues in a row — but how would they look against a top global side? After the loss to Panama, the stakes went up even more.

In the end, the U.S. fell short, losing 1-0 to Uruguay in Kansas City. For the first time in 20 continental and global tournaments played at home, including 17 Gold Cups, two Copa Américas and one World Cup, the U.S. men’s national team went out in the group stage.


Coach Gregg Berhalter’s position is under scrutiny (Shaun Clark/Getty Images)

The narrative around this team has been built around the idea they are capable of doing more on big stages than any other. The prospect of going out in the group stage was not acceptable, no matter the circumstances.

And while those “simple seconds” played a huge part, by the end it felt like the U.S. had found ways in each game to earn an early exit. Against Bolivia, they failed to kill off the opponent in the second half. In the loss to Panama, they sat deep to protect a 1-1 draw but failed to do so. Against Uruguay, they couldn’t generate the chances or the goals to stay alive.

The reality is, the U.S. just didn’t do enough.

Asked on Monday if he believes he’s still the right man to lead this team forward, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter responded with a one-word answer: “Yes.”

Whether he gets that chance will be determined over the coming days. U.S. Soccer said the tournament performance “fell short of our expectations” and “we must do better.” The federation will “be conducting a comprehensive review of our performance in Copa América and how best to improve the team and results as we look towards the 2026 World Cup.”

The elimination left the team trying to figure out what went wrong and what it might mean for the future.

This summer was seen as a critical measuring stick for the U.S.

If the 2022 World Cup cycle had been about building a team out of a young pool of players and giving them experience on the world stage, the next four years were about progressing that team into real contenders.

As co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup, the opportunities for competitive games against top opponents will be difficult to find. The U.S. scheduled friendlies against Colombia and Brazil in June in the lead-up to the tournament, but the Copa América was supposed to be a World Cup dress rehearsal.

When the U.S. lost 5-1 to Colombia, the burden on the team and the scrutiny on Berhalter only increased. The mitigating context over a reasonable performance, undermined by a late collapse after multiple substitutions, bore little weight given the severity of the scoreline by another Copa América rival.

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The USMNT was well beaten by Colombia (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

An encouraging draw with Brazil in Orlando changed the mood. The U.S. had spent weeks together at camp but had the chance to see family. Ricardo Pepi enjoyed his mother’s Mexican cooking and Pulisic flew to Miami to do community work at the “Stomping Grounds” named after him in the city’s Little Havana neighborhood.

In Dallas, Texas, a few days before the first game against Bolivia, U.S. players seemed at ease and confident. There was discussion about the impact of a strong U.S. performance on growing the game and showing they could compete with some of the best teams in the world.

“Of course we’re trying to advance in knockout games,” midfielder Tyler Adams said. “I think that’s super important for our team… showing that, under big pressure situations, we come through is important.”

In the background, though, was the understanding that what happened against Colombia left a scar and, despite the Brazil boost, the discussion over Berhalter’s future was not letting up. The feeling was that the group was behind the manager and knew results in the tournament could impact his job security.

There was more unease, too, particularly concerns about the tournament’s low-profile local marketing. A junior national volleyball tournament for 11 to 13-year-olds in Dallas was more prominently advertised than the United States’ Copa América opener. For days ahead of kick-off, worried whispers prophesied an embarrassingly low attendance at the AT&T Stadium, a huge NFL arena fit for 80,000 people. Ticket sales had been slow; expectations were perhaps minimal.

“It’s frustrating, especially as a player,” said midfielder Weston McKennie. “Whenever you do come here to America, you play in a stadium that can fit 70,000 people but 25,000 show up. You don’t really have an atmosphere.”

After joining the chorus of criticism surrounding the quality of the fields at the tournament, the Juventus player then appeared to reference the 60,016 crowd at the Camping World Stadium in Orlando for the final warm-up game against Brazil.

“It’s kind of crappy and if fans are listening to this, don’t take it too literally, but it’s crappy when you come home and you’re playing against a South American team and you show up to the stadium and you see nothing but yellow jerseys,” he said. “So I guess it’s more wanting to make Americans proud to support U.S. soccer and the national team. Any type of marketing to make fans really know us and build a connection to us is important.”

By matchday in Dallas, there was both a healthy attendance (47,873) and a proportion of fans firmly behind Berhalter’s men, exemplified by the booming noise that greeted Pulisic’s third-minute goal.


Pulisic celebrates scoring the United States’ first goal of Copa América (Omar Vega/Getty Images)

The U.S. got a second from Folarin Balogun for a comfortable 2-0 lead at the break, but the U.S. couldn’t build on that advantage against a team that would be beaten 5-0 by Uruguay next time out.

In the postgame press conference, Berhalter bristled after facing multiple questions about the U.S.’ inefficiency in front of goal despite the context of goal differential serving as the first tiebreaker in the Copa América.

“It’s about winning tournament games,” Berhalter said. “We look at the final results. If you get some precise data, we probably have over three expected goals (xG) in the game (2.51). They had 0.18. That’s comprehensive.

“I guess there’ll be an angle, maybe from you (the media), that says, ‘OK, they should have scored more goals, should have created more chances.’ But it’s a 90-minute game and over the course of a 90-minute game, we created enough chances, we denied them enough chances. We’re happy with the result. We move on.”

It may have felt in the moment like it was nitpicking. The U.S, after all, talked about judging them based on performances and results and both had been positives on the night against Bolivia. But with margins so fine in a tournament, the lack of finishing was undoubtedly part of the story.

It became a more critical detail just a few days later.

The eyes of the country were on Atlanta last Thursday — but for distinctly different reasons depending on which channel you turned on.

A walk through the downtown in the afternoon hinted at a city that was hosting two major events on the same day. One popular block was shut down by large trucks blocking traffic on either side, bookended by black SUVs and police cars directing traffic away. People walked around in Make America Great Again hats; others were wearing Joe Biden gear. Highways were shut down, freezing traffic, as the city welcomed both President Biden and former President Donald Trump for the first presidential debate ahead of the upcoming election.

As you walked through Olympic Park and toward Mercedes-Benz Arena, the vibe shifted. The red, white and blue-clad fans had a distinctly celebratory vibe. Shirts turned into jerseys, many with the No 10 and Pulisic on the back.

About three miles separated the Biden-Trump debate from the U.S.-Panama game. On a night when the political divide that exists in this country took the stage in Midtown, a crowd of 59,145 roared, united behind the U.S., just five minutes into the game when McKennie tucked a shot into the net against Panama. A video review quietened the celebration as the goal was wiped off the board.

Just 10 minutes later, the game — and the U.S’s tournament — turned.

Weah punched out at Miller after a seemingly innocuous collision near midfield and after initially being cautioned, he was shown red after a review by the video assistant referee (VAR). It was a shocking moment, in part because Weah was largely seen as one of the calmer personalities on the team.

Tim Weah sent off against Panama

(Eduardo Munoz/AFP via Getty Images)

“Timmy was actually the last player I’d imagine to do something like that,” Berhalter would say a few days later.

The U.S. scored first a few minutes after the red card, breathing life into their chances, but then gave up a goal from distance four minutes later. Berhalter moved to five at the back at halftime to play for a point, but Panama scored the winner in the 83rd minute.

Few had dreamed up this scenario. A loss to Panama, even after playing a man down for more than an hour, upended the path to the knockout stage. For a team that came into the tournament dreaming of making a run, they suddenly faced a knockout game five days earlier than anticipated against a Uruguay team that won its first two games by a combined 8-1 scoreline.

Goalscorer Balogun and defender Chris Richards publicly shared instances of racist abuse they had received on social media. U.S. Soccer said it was “deeply disturbed by the racist comments made online and directed at several of our men’s national team players” after the defeat.

“Tonight, everyone’s a bit down,” winger Gio Reyna said. “But tomorrow when we wake up, I want to see that energy change and kind of flip the switch towards Uruguay on Monday because it’s vital. We have to win and get three points there and that’s going to take positive energy and togetherness to get a result against them.”

The questions started even before the tournament opened, but as the Uruguay game approached, the cacophony grew louder. Was this team capable of living up to its reputation? Was there pressure on the coach to succeed?

In the press conference at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday, Pulisic was asked about his previous vocal support for Berhalter and whether the team felt a responsibility to get a result for the coach. Berhalter was then asked about the “noise” and pressure. Later, Pulisic was asked if the “golden generation” moniker was putting more pressure on the team to perform.

Their answers were similar — “the external stuff we can’t control,” said Berhalter — but it was a reflection of how the discussion around the team had shifted throughout the tournament. The debate was no longer about how far this team could go, but rather whether it would have a chance to make noise in the knockouts at all — and what the ramifications would be if it didn’t.

The game hardly lacked drama. It had controversial referee calls and exciting transition moments. A Bolivia goal in Orlando against Panama briefly changed the outlook of the game in Kansas City. Berhalter was captured by cameras raising his fingers to inform players of the score only seconds before Uruguay netted their winner from a set piece — a goal that required a lengthy review.

When the final whistle sounded, players dropped to the ground in exhaustion and disappointment. The U.S. was out.

Matt Turner

Matt Turner reflects on the United States’ exit (Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Afterwards, Berhalter said he and the staff would do a full review of the tournament. “We know we’re capable of more and in this tournament, we didn’t show it,” he added. “It’s really as simple as that.

“You look at the stage that was set with the fans in this tournament, with the high level of competition in this tournament, and we should have done better. We’ll do a review and figure out what went wrong and why it went wrong, but it’s an empty feeling right now, for sure.”

Whether he will get that chance is out of his hands.

“I believe we all have a comfort with Gregg and we all understand him and we’ve had him for a long time,” midfielder McKennie said. “He’s progressed the team very far from where we started four or five years ago. I think the connection we have with him is what’s important in having a coach that players that would run through a brick wall for and players that listen to him.

“I think whatever happens, happens. But I think if he’s the coach, we’re all happy”



USMNT 0-1 Uruguay: Takeaways from the U.S. Copa America failure

The last player through the tunnel at Arrowhead was Pulisic, the team’s captain and star. He had been randomly selected for doping control and walked along with security toward the team bus before stopping to answer a few questions.

There is a photo of Pulisic in doping control on the last night the U.S. went out of this tournament, in the 2016 Centenario. Pulisic was only just breaking through with the national team and he sat next to Lionel Messi. On that night, the U.S. had been beaten thoroughly by Argentina, but in a semifinal and by a team led by the game’s best player. Eight years later, Pulisic was the leader of a group that had hoped to reach similar heights but fell short.

He shook his head thinking about the missed opportunities. He expressed frustration at the referees but said it didn’t serve as an excuse. Finally, Pulisic was asked about Berhalter.

“I mean, look, we have a good relationship with him,” Pulisic said.

He paused. The reality of the tournament, its failures and the potential consequences to come had started to settle in. He let out a deep sigh.

“And whatever the next step looks like,” he said, “it’s not my job to decide.”

Twenty seconds later, Pulisic turned and walked toward the idling bus waiting to take the team back to the hotel.

Additional contributor: Adam Crafton

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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