EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — The U.S. men’s national team had been rising, slowly but unquestionably, away from its 2017 nadir. It has been dominating its region, earning respect beyond its shores, and kindling dreams of unprecedented heights to come.
But on Saturday here at Rentschler Field, it flew head-first into its current ceiling. It dueled with Germany in a friendly for 20, 30, perhaps even 45 minutes. Then it succumbed to the type of team that, for the past four years, has been beyond its reach — and lost 3-1.
The USMNT even took a lead, via Christian Pulisic’s individual brilliance. It went back and forth with Die Mannschaft for much of an entertaining first half. It created chances in transition. It competed with the Germans, as it did with England at last year’s World Cup, and as it clearly can do with even the elite of international soccer.
— U.S. Men's National Soccer Team (@USMNT) October 14, 2023
But what the players and program want is to be “confident that we can beat the elite of international soccer,” as USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter said this summer.
“We expect ourselves to win these games now, instead of just competing with them,” midfielder Weston McKennie said Wednesday.
And they quite simply haven’t done that.
By one measure, their A-team hasn’t even beaten a top-25 opponent outside of CONCACAF since Gregg Berhalter took charge in late 2018.
They have beat up on Mexico. And they have played solid soccer against World Cup foes. But their best win outside their region is over … Iran? Or perhaps a reeling Morocco last June?
They need to broaden their horizons. They saw Saturday as a precious opportunity to do just that. These, McKennie said, “are the type of games that we have to win to advance the program forward, to advance ourselves forward, and to be successful in the coming years.”
And it’s hard to escape the conclusion that they failed.
They did not fail in the conclusive sense. Nothing that happened Saturday in East Hartford, at a bare-bones college football stadium, on a dreary fall day in 2023, will prevent them from winning similar games under beaming spotlights at NFL stadiums in 2026. But they failed to prove that they are ready for that stage — for now.
When asked what they learned, defender Tim Ream began bluntly: “We still have a lot of work to do.”
They failed individually and at large, by losing possession in vulnerable moments, and by losing their defensive connectivity without injured captain Tyler Adams. They failed in a 4-4-2 mid-block for the first chunk of the first half, and then in a 4-3-3 thereafter. They failed in midfield, and at the top of their own penalty area, all areas in which the Germans picked them apart.
Gündogan brings Germany back level 👊
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— B/R Football (@brfootball) October 14, 2023
“It's really these fine moments, these split seconds, where you need to be well-positioned, not open up any gaps in your back line,” Berhalter said postgame. “And that's where it went wrong.”
“Our shape was broken,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said, “sagging and keeping guys onside.”
They largely survived the German onslaught for 45 minutes, and entered halftime level at 1-1. But Leroy Sané and Jamal Musiala and Ilkay Gündogan and Florian Wirtz kept coming. They came in waves, and increasingly in transition throughout the second half.
Matt Turner says no ❌
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— B/R Football (@brfootball) October 14, 2023
“Second half, it kinda felt like we were chasing shadows a bit,” U.S. center back Chris Richards said.
After a while, as the endless stream of world-class talent kept bearing down on him, it almost felt like “seeing a train wreck coming but you couldn't quite move from it,” Richards said.
The Germans ultimately put three goals past Turner. They easily could have had more. The final score, if anything, undersold their superiority. The Expected Goals tally, 3.15-0.26, undersold the USMNT’s first-half threat but was a pretty accurate representation of the gulf between the two teams.
It wasn’t an alarming indictment of this USMNT. It wasn’t evidence that they are poorly coached or overrated. As Berhalter and players eagerly pointed out postgame: Germany, despite recent results, is really good.
“I mean, they have some unbelievable players, especially in transition,” Pulisic said.
When asked why the U.S. midfield was so permeable, Ream noted: “You do have to take into account that they are very, very talented players.”
“It's just a class opponent,” Richards said.
But that, in the end, is the crux of the discussion. It’s the type of opponent this USMNT hasn’t beaten — and the level they someday must reach. To Turner, Saturday felt akin to the World Cup Round of 16, where the U.S. went toe-to-toe with the Netherlands, but lapsed in a few critical moments and lost 3-1.
Those moments, Turner explained, are “an individual thing,” and that’s the problem. The U.S. can’t currently match Germany individual for individual. So the Americans have to be perfect, or somewhere close to perfect, to get to where they want to go.
“Against a quality opponent like Germany, you have to be able to make plays and stay connected in and around the penalty box,” Berhalter said. “And you see, on the three goals, it was a loss of connection with the back line. And the midfield, just overall organization on those three plays let us down a little bit.
“And as we plot toward 2026, this pathway, it's about learning from these moments and understanding that we need to stay in it for every single minute of the game to have a chance.”