The natural inclination is to arm the nukes to drop on USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter after his comments that the U.S. “dominated” Canada, despite losing 2-0 and managing just three shots on target. The initial reaction is that he’s completely deluded, doesn’t know what he’s watching, and all while having huge talent at his disposal on the roster.
That’s not what we’re doing here. Because one can see what Berhalter saw over the 90 minutes in Hamilton. It’s what that means to him, and where the U.S. goes from here that’s a little concerning.
It’s been a ride for Berhalter in his three years on the job. It started as terribly as it could have, and the initial inclination then was to deride Berhalter as simply U.S. Soccer’s boy who wouldn’t rock the boat (he was the CCO’s brother after all), enforce systematic change, or really do anything other than be something of an obelisk on the sidelines. With the perspective of time, it was clear that Berhalter realized that all friendlies and the entire 2019 Gold Cup didn’t really count for shit. And they didn’t, so they were the perfect setting to try and change the way the U.S. played while also turning over the roster. There was nothing to lose. That was the right thing to do, and the U.S. has changed the way it plays from whatever it was trying to do in the last days of Bruce Arena’s headlong dive into a ditch.
And then there was the excitement of Berhalter welcoming all this talent into the program. Yunus Musah, Sergiño Dest, Ricardo Pepi, Antonee Robinson (you’ll have to give me some time before I can get to calling him “Jedi”), and others. Whatever shortcomings we saw with Berhalter, he obviously was promising and outlining something that all these young players wanted to be a part of.
There was the summer of 2021, perhaps empty as those Nations League and Gold Cup titles don’t really get a team anything, but they were fun. And into qualifying. Qualifying is not set up to be a glorious parade (unless you’re Canada, but we’ll get to that), with the three-game windows and the varying form and health of a squad as it negotiates its club seasons.
But still, after 10 games, sitting in second in the group having scored just 13 goals, it has to be asked if Berhalter is really getting the most out of what he’s had at his disposal. What we see in our minds is not what we see on the field.
There is the cynical crowd that is excited to tell you that maybe, or likely, that these players just aren’t that good. No one should buy that. We’ve seen most of these players make a dent at the top levels of the game. But the conclusion that Berhalter isn’t maxing out the potential isn’t really much of a salve either.
If we get at what Berhalter was saying after the loss to Canada, we might begin to see the problem. Because he wasn’t altogether wrong. The idea, at the base of all the tactics for yesterday’s game, was to press Canada furiously and try to turn the ball over high up the field. That’s why he started Gyasi Zardes (more on this in a bit), because if there’s one thing Zardes can do (and it’s likely the only thing) is that he can run around like his balls are singed and press.
And the U.S., especially in the first half, did cause turnovers in the Canadian half or near the Canadian box. They found themselves with the ball in space. But this is where the main problem arose. Instead of using those turnovers and the space they would have before Canada could get its coffin-tight defense set to simply charge up the field and counter, the U.S. was far too determined to get whatever predetermined shape and tactic Berhalter had installed. It was so slow. It was about getting their fullbacks wide to pair with the wide forwards, but leaving Zardes isolated in a box. And Canada would be set, only too happy to let the U.S. form a constant “U” as they constantly, sluggishly, would pass the ball from one wing, out to midfield and in front of Canada’s defense, to the other wing. Every time the U.S. won the ball in space, it looked like everyone was trying to remember their steps instead of just doing what came naturally, namely getting the ball up the fucking field fucking fast and wreaking havoc.
Nothing was better in the second half, where Berhalter moved Musah and McKennie out wider to combine with the fullbacks and forwards, but left the middle of the field even more bereft. And you want those two midfielders getting into the box, adding numbers, being there for crosses and passes.
And this is Berhalter. He wants everything to be drilled and controlled. When he says the team dominated, he sees the U.S. winning the ball early, and getting into the shape that he wanted, that he was sure would work. And that’s not necessarily wrong, but it didn’t work.
Contrast that with Canada, who have had mostly a much simpler plan through qualifying. Defend with numbers, get the ball to our forwards on the counter as quickly as possible, let them have YA HA TIME. They have the most goals scored and the least conceded. So yeah, it’s working.
Berhalter has some problems that his Canadian counterpart, John Herdman, doesn’t. Herdman has Tajon Buchanan, Jonathan David, and Richie Laryea humming. Berhalter has Christian Pulisic doing a dance interpretation of “Disintegration.” He doesn’t have a #9 who is playing well, or fitted to the role. But he’s not making it easier on them by giving them this rigid style and plan to create chances.
It felt like Berhalter wanted to play a bit like Liverpool, though I tend to see that in everything because I want to. The fullbacks way up the field, the wide forwards squeezing in to give them space and link with the center forward, a hard-working midfield supporting. But for that to work, a team needs to switch sides of play quickly to get the defense to move. It needs its centerbacks to be able to hit accurate long passes to those fullbacks up the field or to the wingers to get in behind. And when seeing a bunkered-in, organized defense like Canada, a team needs to play the ball quickly and link together with one- and two-touch moves. It has to get between the lines. It is not exchanging passes on the wing while the Canadian defense giggles at the ease of it all.
While Zardes can work hard, he cannot link to his teammates with his Wreck-It Ralph touch, and especially as he’s out of season. This is another problem Berhalter has run into. There’s always been a suspicion that U.S. Soccer pushes MLS players onto the national team roster to promote the league, even if they have no business there. They have even less business when again, they’re NOT IN SEASON! Zardes was a non-factor. When it came time to make changes, it was Kellyn Acosta, Jordan Morris, Paul Arriola. Morris wasn’t up to the international level when he had two knees and was in the middle of a MLS season. Where was Luca De La Torre? Or Jordan Pefok? Or Josh Sargent? None are answers by themselves, but at least they’re playing.
Berhalter would tell you that continued devotion to the structure and tactics will eventually create chances and goals. Man City are well drilled in the attack. So are Chelsea. Funny thing, ha ha, about them… they’re club teams. Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel get every day for nine months a year to drill and practice what they want. It becomes second nature.
Berhalter does not have that as an international manager. He gets maybe two practices before a qualifying game comes up, and that’s with a roster coming from all over with their own tactics and instructions from their club teams. Maybe he thinks it will all gel in Qatar and this is part of the process. But he won’t get that time in Qatar either. He’ll have maybe a week to gather the team after domestic leagues pause their season for the World Cup. There just isn’t time for this intricate shit.
Again, contrast that with Canada and Herdman and how simple he keeps it for no less diverse of a roster. Defend in two blocks, spring on the counter. Anyone can translate that in the abbreviated windows Canada has.
This isn’t a call that Berhalter should be fired now. That wouldn’t help, and would only cause panic.. The USMNT still on course to qualify. It really only has to win its two home games left. But is this how the U.S. is going to make some noise come Qatar? Is this static, stagnant adherence to what’s on the whiteboard the best use of this talent? There probably isn’t time either to fire Berhalter between qualifying (if the U.S. does) and the tournament. It would show far more brass than U.S. Soccer ever has. But it might be time to start asking.