All right, I’m gonna be Sammy Sunshine about the USMNT. It’s not easy, but there’s a lot of dark clouds after the team went 0-for-180 minutes in scoring goals, or looking like they could get a goal, or even looking like they were interested in scoring a goal, in their last two friendlies before the World Cup. That’s still how they determine who wins, after all.
But…but…for a young team that has always played to the level they deemed the game was worth, two friendlies in empty stadiums with no energy just isn’t a fair tableau to draw too many conclusions. Is it a problem that this team can’t bring it every game? Absolutely it is, and you can’t be totally sure that A WORLD FUCKING CUP will snap them to attention now. You’d like to think so, but it’s no guarantee. But let’s just assume that the biggest games of any of their lives will convince them to bring full effort. Shouldn’t be that hard.
Secondly, while this won’t make anyone feel better, the questions that come out of these past few days aren’t new. We knew that center forward was a problem, and we knew the depth of the central defense was wafer thin. Still true! So it’s not like there are new holes that Gregg Berhalter has to stick his finger in. He can get comfortable with where his fingers already were, if you’ll excuse that unsettling description.
The question is, does he know how to permanently plug these gaps?
Berhalter isn’t any different than most every manager on Earth in that he’s got his guys. There are some players who have just tickled his heart in a way that can’t be undone, and also players who simply can’t access his heart at all, much less tickle it (these metaphors aren’t getting any more comfortable, are they?). And with absolutely no time to try shit now — basically seven training sessions before the first World Cup game — it would be natural for Berhalter to turn even more inward than outward.
But still…you gotta score, dude. Berhalter is married to Jesus Ferreira as starter in the #9. Loves the idea of a false nine, the way Ferreira drops into midfield and links play. And that’s cool…if Tim Weah is healthy. Because that kind of forward needs midfielders and wingers who run beyond him, stretches the defense, and keeps it from crunching up the field and shrinking space. Weah does that. Weston McKennie does that, against the right team. With no Weah, it doesn’t quite work. Hopefully Weah will be fit in seven weeks, but if he’s not, Berhalter might have to find a way to stretch the defense through the striker position, because no other wide forward does what Weah does. .
But even if Weah is healthy, and he’s on the field, and it’s the 65th minute and you’re locked into a 0-0 draw with Wales and looking out of ideas…what’s Berhalter’s Plan B? He wanted Ricardo Pepi to prove to be that, a bigger version of Ferreira who also threatens to make runs behind the defense himself. But he didn’t. It’ll suck to tell a 20-year-old kid, who played very well for you in qualifying, that he’s not going to the tournament. That he’ll have to wait four years to play a meaningful game again for his country (unless USSF, with some help from Mexico, can rig another Copa America in 2024). But that’s the job.
Josh Sargent… not really a plan B. He does a lot of things Berhalter likes — pressing, linking, high-effort — but he’s too similar to Ferreira. Berhalter is going to have to turn to Jordan Pefok, whether he likes it or not. Pefok has been pressing well, so far, in the Bundesliga. Yeah yeah, I know about that miss in the Azteca. Sucked for everyone. But he’s scoring. He’s scoring in a Top Five league. If he doesn’t link to the midfield well, or run about in a way that Gregg finds trustworthy…well, there’s going to come a time where you have to chuck all that. You need a goal. There’s one Yank getting goals in a Top Five league right now. One. There will come a time where you just chuck balls into the box and see if your striker can’t get on the end of one. Pefok is the only one attuned to that.
Berhalter gets a lot of shit about his system. But the barbs aren’t really accurate. Berhalter has shifted this team to be a more direct, quick, straight-line attacking team. It’s not what he originally wanted, but it’s what this squad was best suited for. They showed that, for a time, against Saudi Arabia. But it’s the details that sometimes he gets wrong. Which is a problem, because he’s not going to get a whole lot of time to work out the details in Qatar. We saw this in Hamilton, Ont. against Canada. The US won the ball back in advantageous positions, but then were too intent on recycling possession to get back into positions and routines that Berhalter wanted. When what they needed to do was to just fly the fuck up the field at times.
Same thing yesterday. The US would get into good positions through direct play, but then not hit an early ball into the box. We don’t want the US to turn into David Moyes’s Manchester United here, just flinging crosses for the sake of it. But you do have to hit that early ball into the box to show teams that you will. Get the defense facing its own goal. Reward Pepi or McKennie for making those runs. Instead, repeatedly, the fullbacks or wingers would chop the ball back, look for another pass to the top of the box, or try and work intricate 1-2s with someone in the box with the defense recovered. It looked rehearsed. It didn’t look threatening. Some of that was Deandre Yedlin’s lack of attacking flare, some of it was Sergiño Dest being on the left and wanting the ball back on his right foot. It’ll probably look different with Dest on the right and Antonee Robinson on the left, if both are healthy. But again, the US looked like it was thinking about where it was told to be instead of what came naturally. Throw that shit out.
Speaking of systems, it’s too late to have multiple formations you can call upon. The team is probably too young to be that flexible anyway, at least right now. They play a 4-3-3. That three in the middle has a destroyer in Adams, and the attacker in McKennie. It needs a linker, a player who can take the ball from Adams or the defense, and find a way to the attackers either through opening up with a pass or dribbling through an opponent or two. Which is Yunus Musah. Berhalter doesn’t seem to think they have another option. It most certainly isn’t Kellyn Acosta. It should be Luca de la Torre. One game after not playing for his club shouldn’t rule him out of that backup role.
If Berhalter wants someone in that role who is playing, it’s Portland’s Eryk Williamson. He wasn’t even called up. Maybe Berhalter will wait to see if de la Torre can get into the Celta Vigo team, fine. But what if he doesn’t? Is he going to count on the 19-year-old Musah to make it through three games in eight days, or four games in 12, unscathed? Acosta ain’t it.
He also better hope Chris Richards finds health with Crystal Palace and just a game or two, because throwing Aaron Long out into a World Cup is asking to take it in the face. Not going to work.
Berhalter can bemoan the lack of starters he had for this window. But that’s international soccer. No one ever gets their full squad. Someone will not be ready for Wales, if not the whole tournament. That’s life. Fucking figure it out. Berhalter can’t do that if he has blinders on.