The inaugural US foray into the Nations League begins on Friday when the US national team host Cuba (7 pm ET | FS1), a game that the Red, White & Blue should win by multiple goals and in style. Anything less than that would be a frustrating disappointment.
Anything less than a stylish win over a much better Canada side next Tuesday should be considered a frustrating disappointment as well. This isn't a slam on Canada, who have put together their most talented side (ever?) since at least the 1986 World Cup, and who at times in this past summer's Gold Cup tested the hell out of Mexico.
Of course, they also lost to Haiti later on in that tournament and struggled to beat Cuba on the road last month. They've also struggled to figure out how to get all that talent onto the field at the same time (Alphonso Davies at left back was one of the problems in that Haiti loss), and haven't yet developed a real on-field identity. This is the kind of side that Gregg Berhalter's approach of "disorganizing teams with the ball" should play well against.
Note that a "stylish" win does not mean an "easy" win. Again: Canada are a talented and improving team, and are playing for their Hexagonal lives. They need this one, and I expect them to come out with a level of intensity that the US has seen only once since Couva. It will be that kind of emotional test.
But we're just about a year into the Berhalter era now and it's time to see at least some of the fruits of his labor with regard to how his team plays. They should impose their style on both these teams and should expect themselves to walk away with six points while doing it.
Here are three more granular things I want to see:
Weston McKennie controlling the game
McKennie has been much, much better so far in the 2019/20 season than he was in 2018/19 at Schalke, largely because he's playing for a real coach who's asking his team to play real soccer instead of whatever that was supposed to be under Domenico Tedesco. He has shown a little more patience to his game and a little better understanding of how to find more of the ball both in attack and defense. This past weekend he put together one of the best 45-minute displays I've ever seen from him.
There needs to be more of that in the US shirt. McKennie hasn't yet developed a feel for building out from the back, which showed vs. Mexico in a friendly last month:
Mexico are pressing with seven, and they've cut the field in half. But if there's a little more comfort and a little more awareness (born of reps) from McKennie, he'd understand that he can either play short and square to Alfredo Morales advancing out of the box and into space, or that the big switch – the horizontal switch – to left back Sergino Dest is on. Or he could've kept the ball, drawn in his own defender, spun to his left and drawn in Reggie Cannon's defender, then slipped Cannon up the wing.
These are tough plays, but you have to be able to make tough plays if you're going to build out against any half-decent high-press. Sometimes you have to be patient and draw the defense a half-step further toward you and then make the pass.
“Weston [doesn't] necessarily play like that with [his club]," Berhalter said to Yahoo's Doug McIntyre earlier this week. "But because they’re high-level players, you would expect that they can take on information, take on concepts. That’s why they got to the level they’ve gotten to.”
He's not wrong. McKennie's ability to take on new concepts is one of the reasons he was able to play seven different positions under Tedesco, and has now been able to play four different spots under David Wagner while transitioning from Tedesco's anti-soccer to Wagner's more standard, balanced approach. He is flexible and smart, and is not just a runner.
Given the importance of the No. 8 in Berhalter's system, it would ease a chunk of my anxiety if McKennie took a major step forward on that side of the ball.
Combo off the center forward
Berhalter's system is designed to create high-quality chances, primarily for the center forward. That's led to some very good moments, but also led to some frustrating moments when teams have forced the US to play through rather than to the No. 9. In the Gold Cup final Jozy Altidore ran out of steam by about the 50th minute and was no longer able to be an effective outlet, and then his replacement Gyasi Zardes... Gyasi just doesn't do that.
Josh Sargent can and often does. The 19-year-old has had issues with fitness in the past, and if you read between the lines on some of Berhalter's quotes this week you can tell that the coach wants Sargent to play hungrier and with more purpose. Regardless, he can and has made plays that, in the current pool, only Altidore has been able to in the past:
Jozy is once again injured for these games, which means the forward rotation is Sargent and Zardes in some order (hopefully that order). Sargent has been starting in the Bundesliga and now would be a nice time for him to show that he's not just the heir apparent, but that his time is now – even and especially in games that matter.
Hard in the middle
Michael Bradley, Jackson Yueill and Wil Trapp are the defensive midfielders on this roster. All three bring something clear to the table: Their comfort in possession, passing range and ability to make the field big when the US are on the ball. All three clearly take something off the table: defensive range and ball-winning ability.
Traditionally, coaches have privileged the second thing over that first thing. Berhalter has flipped the script and so far is willing to sacrifice defensive presence in favor of on-the-ball control. At times it's been really, really bad – minutes 50 through 75 in the Gold Cup final, when El Tri just tore through Bradley and McKennie repeatedly. At times it's been pretty, pretty good – the most recent friendly against Uruguay when Yueill's distribution forced the Uruguayans to change both their defensive shape and line of confrontation.
Regardless, a whole chunk of the fanbase (including me) have been hoping that these guys are mostly just keeping the seat warm for the eventual return of Tyler Adams, who's scheduled to return to training with RB Leipzig in the coming weeks. Adams is a world class ball-winner who shrinks the field defensively and wins an absurd amount of 50/50s. Given how soft the US have been through the middle at times this year, it feels important to have a player like that in there.
Berhatler, though, is still thinking "pass" first.
"You look at a guy like Trapp who has the passing range or Yueill who’s young and played well vs Uruguay," Berhalter told TUDN's Nico Cantor. "Look at Tyler Adams: Can he interpret it in a different way and still be effective? Haven’t had him in camp long enough to see that.”
It's a fair question – Adams has never been in a club system that prioritizes game control over game destruction. But he has shown in moments that he can hit the type of passes that Berhalter requires from the spot:
That's a question for another camp, though (hopefully next month, though maybe not until March depending upon Adams' injury return timetable). For this camp the question is "Can Bradley, Yueill or Trapp show they're a defensive answer – or at the very least, not a liability – against a team with as much attacking firepower as Canada?"
That's as crucial a question as Berhalter's of Adams. And if the answer is no, then it's probably time for the coach to start re-thinking what he needs from that spot on the field.