Thumped by Colombia, the USMNT gets a ‘wake-up call’ that shouldn’t be necessary

LANDOVER, MARYLAND - JUNE 08: United States head coach Gregg Berhalter shouts instructions during the second half against Colombia at Commanders Field on June 08, 2024 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

LANDOVER, Md. — The U.S. men’s national team kicked off its most consequential summer in a decade surrounded by expectations and buzz, by 55,494 fans here outside Washington D.C. — but by the 23rd minute of a high-profile friendly, a game billed as yet another test for a still-unproven USMNT, some of those fans were chanting: “USA, Colombia es tu papá!”

USA, Colombia is your daddy.

They were decked in Colombian yellow, to support a top-10 team in the world, the very type of team that has become a USMNT measuring stick. And they reprised the chant throughout a 5-1 beatdown of the Americans.

They reprised it again and again, as rippling Colombia attacks became a tidal wave, and as U.S. players crumbled.

Over 90 minutes Saturday at Commanders Field, a test turned into an embarrassment, the worst defeat of the Gregg Berhalter era, and the worst possible start to what should be a special summer.

The result, in one sense, was inconsequential. But it was part of a pattern, an increasingly damning pattern: In five years under Berhalter, over two separate stints, the U.S. still hasn’t beaten a top-25 opponent in an A-team match outside CONCACAF.

This, like Germany last year and the Netherlands before that, was another opportunity for the Yanks to prove to the world and to themselves that they can topple soccer’s superpowers; that they can “beat some big teams, and be looked at as a big team as well,” as Weston McKennie said Friday.

And it was, in the end, another opportunity squandered.

It turned sour in less than six minutes, when Antonee Robinson made a mistake, and Jhon Arias opened the scoring.

Rafael Borré’s acrobatic finish in the 19th minute put Colombia ahead 2-0. It was the first time since 1995 that a USMNT had conceded twice in less than 20 minutes.

For around an hour, after wobbling, the U.S. stayed on its collective feet. It possessed and probed. It stemmed the Colombian flow. The scoreline obscured what, for large chunks, was a somewhat balanced game. In the 58th minute, with a driving run and a well-taken goal, Tim Weah brought that to light, and brought the U.S. within 2-1.

But as the game got stretched, and subs replaced starters, and concentration wavered, “the wheels started to fall off,” Berhalter admitted.

Richard Ríos scored Colombia’s third. Jorge Carrascal added the fourth. Luis Sinisterra got the fifth, and to all involved, the conclusion was clear.

“We were nowhere near the level we need to play if we're gonna win games coming into Copa América,” captain Christian Pulisic said postgame.

Players and Berhalter framed the defeat as a “wake-up call,” but it’s unclear why they needed to be awoken in the first place. They are not yet a “big team.” They have offered no reason that they should “be feared.” They are a regional giant but a global afterthought, so surely, hopefully, they did not underestimate Colombia.

Perhaps they overestimated themselves. Their starting 11, for the first time in program history, came entirely from Europe’s Big Five leagues. “Where everyone is playing, and the levels that they're playing at, and what they've accomplished this year, speaks for itself,” Pulisic said Friday. “It's just an exciting time.”

And yet they were “nowhere near as good as [Colombia] today,” Pulisic said.

They are nowhere near as good as Colombia, whose 22-game unbeaten streak dates back over two years.

LANDOVER, MARYLAND - JUNE 08: Rafael Santos Borre #19 of Colombia celebrates scoring during the first half against the United States at Commanders Field on June 08, 2024 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)
Rafael Santos Borre #19 of Colombia celebrates scoring during the first half against the United States at Commanders Field on June 08, 2024 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Colombia’s players, on the other hand, did not all come from the vaunted Big Five. Some did, but others came from Mexico’s Liga MX and Turkey’s Super Lig, from Brazil’s Serie A and the Qatar Stars League. On paper, they were not levels better than their U.S. counterparts. Even on the field, player for player, individually, Pulisic, Weah and Robinson said they didn’t feel inferior.

“I think it was just more of a collective thing,” Weah said.

“It definitely was a collective thing today,” Robinson agreed.

The collective, though, has more or less been together for multiple years, and the question is why they haven’t progressed at a faster rate.

It’s a question, first and foremost, for Berhalter, who said postgame: “We take responsibility as a coaching staff, for sure. We can't put this all on the players.”

But he also pointed to individual and collective failings. “We weren't moving for each other. We had this idea that we were gonna dribble out of the back every time. It was multiple players,” he said.

He spoke about granting Colombia too much space. He spoke about “midfielders not recovering,” and “guys losing the ball in positions where our fullbacks are high.” He said “it was a lack of respect for our opponent, [and for] the game of soccer.”

But why? Why, after five years, did players look unprepared? Why did they seem like their brains were overthinking? They have hung with top teams like England in the past, but why, now, do they appear to be stagnating or even regressing? Why, if the individual talent is sufficient, were they “clearly not” up to Colombia’s speed?

“I don't have the answers for you right now,” a dispirited Pulisic said. “I gotta go watch a little bit of video. But the feeling is just — I mean, how open we were … ” — he shook his head. “It just felt like they were just waiting for us to make a mistake, and then just killed us in transition, and that's what happened over and over again.”

And how will he, as a captain and leader, handle such a shellacking, with Brazil up next on Wednesday and Copa América near?

“I'm still trying to figure it out,” he said. “I don't have so much to say right now. … But for sure, we need to start right now, and hold each other accountable. Because it just has to be better.”