There are about 400 lessons that fans could have learned about the U.S. Men’s National team last night. And they spread over the entire spectrum of endless hope of things we’ve never imagined to complete and total disaster we’re sadly all too familiar with. Projecting this team into the future, because of all that happened, is probably just as hard as it was before the match with Mexico started.
Where we should start is that for all the promise and pedigree this edition of the USMNT has right now, with players spread all over Europe and in some of its most hallowed locations, it has yet to play well. At least not for a whole match. A large part of that could be chalked up to playing mere friendlies in a pandemic season that was a mess from start to finish. And there have been flashes here or there in those friendlies. But over 90 minutes, this U.S. roster hasn’t really come close to putting it together. International soccer is weird, and it’s nearly impossible to put a cohesive team together in a few days of practice with players flying in from all over the place and having played with their club’s different tactics and positions.
The Nations League was the first time we’ve seen them with something on the line, and some time together, but it didn’t really change the questions all that much and they weren’t all that well answered.
The U.S. is in one of the most awkward positions in international soccer. Within their region, during qualifying especially, the U.S. men will be the team that will have most of the ball and have to break down a bunkered-down defense. But when they get to the World Cup, if they get to the World Cup, that reverses and suddenly it will be the defending team, trying to play on the counter. Few teams have to be able to do both. Mexico does, and seeing as how their World Cup record isn’t really any more impressive than the U.S.’s, it’s not something they’ve been able to thread either. In the past, the U.S. wasn’t really polished enough to break down teams consistently, and not quick or lethal enough to make teams pay on the counter. They should be now, and for both.
The U.S. got to try both in these two games, and neither looked great. In Thursday’s semifinal, Honduras was only interested in defending and countering. But the U.S. looked decidedly blunt on attack and unable to break them down.
Against Mexico, the U.S. had to defend far more and try and counter, which shouldn’t be a huge issue considering where Gio Reyna and Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent play domestically. And yet it was. And the reasons for both of those struggles are the same. The midfield is very wonky.
We salivate at the thought of Reyna and Pulisic terrorizing teams from opposite wings, but that involves getting them the ball consistently. And the U.S. couldn’t get that done, unless either dropped way too deep. The Hondurans actively tried to cut off any passing lane from the defense to Jackson Yueill at the base of midfield, which was made a lot easier by Yueill showing all the mobility of a manhole cover to try and get the ball. But his midfield partners in Weston McKennie and Sebastian Lletget had already ran up amongst the forwards whether he had the ball or not. There was a huge gap between defense and the five attackers. It was just a line of five staring blankly either back at the ball they weren’t getting or the Honduran defense they couldn’t get past. That’s why we saw Reyna and Pulisic dropping back and trying to run at that line.
Manager Greg Berhalter switched to a 3-4-3 against Mexico, with the idea of Kellyn Acosta and McKennie being a double pivot in the middle. Which worked in bits but overall was pretty iffy, because either the U.S. would win a tackle or intercept the ball and immediately give it away, or just not win the ball. Acosta isn’t really a defensive midfielder for this level, and McKennie would isolate him too much. When they did look dangerous were the few times when they would win the ball cleanly, and then run with it through the midfield and into the attacking third.
The problem in both cases, as strange as it sounds, is that McKennie doesn’t really have a position. In games against teams that will just try to defend the U.S., he really isn’t that good of a passer to link play from midfield to attack. His touch isn’t all that good to play between the midfield and defensive lines either. In games where the U.S. wants to defend and counter, he really isn’t that good of a tackler. You would think with his incredible energy and mobility that he would be the U.S.’s version of N’Golo Kanté, a midfielder who plays the game of two or three players in one. But he doesn’t have those skills other than just running around a lot.
What that running around a lot can result in is his arrival into the box late and get on the end of things, which leads to things like this:
While two of those are from corners admittedly, McKennie’s instincts and aerial prowess in the box are incalculably vital. It’s why his struggles, or just his inability to do much of anything else a midfielder is supposed to, are the price you pay to get the one thing that truly matters, goals.
But that means that all has to be accommodated, and the U.S. doesn’t have enough players right now to do it. It depends too much on Tyler Adams, who plays in a holding role and wasn’t fit enough to start either game in the Nations League. And it would still need a third midfielder either to act as a No. 10 (Aaron Aaronson, hello) with McKennie linking Adams to it, or someone to link Adams to McKennie as the most advanced midfielder. Either way, the U.S. still lacks someone who can dictate play with the ball in midfield. Put their foot on it, as the Brits would say. Someone like Luca de la Torre, or what de la Torre has promised for a bit now, but who actually makes the team unlike de la Torre.
When in defense-and-counter mode, the U.S. would probably require another holder besides Adams to help break up play, but that isn’t really McKennie. And Yueill and Acosta spent the weekend proving it isn’t them either. And this is international soccer. Guys get hurt, guys lose form, so putting all the eggs in one Tyler Adams-shaped basket has huge risk.
That’s not the only issue, of course. We still don’t know if Berhalter is an imbecile, or not, for sure, and his insistence on first using Tim Ream at all and then exposing him completely in the second half with a switch to a back four which led to Mexico’s second goal should have earned him an immediate beating with an alligator. There still is no central striker they can count on. But the center of it all will have to be solved first.