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Disappointing Early Exit From Copa América Raises Doubts Instead of Hopes for U.S. Soccer

4 minute read

Copa América was not supposed to end this way.

The U.S. men’s national soccer team (USMNT) was set up for success this summer. The U.S. was hosting Copa América, the quadrennial soccer championship of South America, and was once again invited to participate along with a few other central and North American teams. Two years before co-hosting the World Cup in 2026, the U.S.—which we’ve been told, again and again, has assembled more young talent than ever—had a prime opportunity to make a statement on the global stage. Team USA, which finished in third place at Copa América in 2016, the last time the U.S. hosted the tournament, were supposed to announce their intentions to truly contend at its home World Cup in two years time. And after a 2-0 victory over Bolivia in the opening group stage game, on June 23, the plan seemed on the right track.

Before everything collapsed.

On Monday night in Kansas City, Uruguay defeated the United States, 1-0, which eliminated the USMNT from the tournament strikingly early. The U.S. loss, combined with Panama’s 3-1 win over Bolivia, sent Panama, rather than the U.S., through to the quarterfinals. “It’s an empty feeling right now,” said American coach Gregg Berhalter, whose job now seems in serious jeopardy, after the match.

Berhalter hurt his own cause during the game, when mid-match he signaled to the team from the sideline that Bolivia had scored a goal against Panama, tying their game at 1-1. At the time, the U.S. and Uruguay were tied 0-0; if everything held, the U.S. would advance instead of Panama, who beat the U.S. 2-1 in a testy match last week to make the group competitive.

You play, however, to win the game. As a sort of punishment for Berhalter’s public display of complacency, Uruguay scored seconds later, in the 66th minute when Mathias Olivera knocked a rebound on a free kick into the net. Olivera appeared to be offside earlier in the play. But after VAR review, the goal stood.

United States v Uruguay - CONMEBOL Copa America USA 2024
USMNT captain Christian Pulisic yells at referee Kevin Ortega during the Copa América match against Uruguay at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., on July 1, 2024.John Dorton—ISI Photos/Getty Images for USSF

To be fair, in a physical game the refs did the U.S. no favor. American defender Antonee Robinson called the officiating, which included some questionable yellow cards and decisions to let play continue after fouls, “amateur hour.”

But the results tell the real story. The U.S. players, particularly captain Christian Pulisic, turned up the pressure during the last third of the match, but couldn’t score. Panama beat Bolivia, 3-1. Tournament over for Team USA. The U.S. found itself in a difficult spot going into the match against Uruguay, traditionally one of South America’s strongest sides, thanks to Thursday’s loss to Panama, a game in which Tim Weah’s early red card put the U.S. a man down.

So attention now turns to Berhalter, who led the U.S. to the Round of 16 at the 2022 World Cup. Even then, some experts thought a change could boost the American side going into the next quadrennial. Fresh voice and all. Then the parents of one of his players, Gio Reyna, attempted to orchestrate Berhalter’s exit by bringing up a domestic violence incident in his distant past to U.S. soccer leadership. U.S. Soccer had to conduct an investigation; Berhalter was eventually rehired, but not until June of 2023.

The soccer pundit class is now calling for a change, before it’s too late to inspire the team before the 2026 World Cup. The chants in Kansas City—particularly from the so-called American Outlaws, Team USA’s fiercest supporters—were audible:

“Fire Gregg.”

“Our tournament performance fell short of our expectations.,” U.S. Soccer said in a statement after the game. “We must do better. We 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.”

Instead of fighting for a title over the next few weeks, fans will be debating Berhalter’s fitness for his job, once again. An empty feeling, indeed.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com