Forget everything else about the US men's national team for a moment, including the result of Sunday night's Gold Cup quarterfinal against Curacao, a 1-0 USMNT win. Forget about the system and the individuals and the club situations and the last cycle and everything else you can think of. Forget all you know, and remember the first thing you – or anyone else – should know about this game of ours: You have to get coordinated pressure to the ball at some point.
That is the most fundamental building block of good soccer. You and your teammates need to defend, together, in order to play soccer that approaches "decent." You can have that and still not be good, but you can't be good if you don't have that.
The US were not good on Sunday night, a game in which they spent most of the time sitting passively in a 4-2-2-2, and far too often allowed little Curacao to pull them out of position and then pass between the lines. It started at the front line, where Christian Pulisic and Gyasi Zardes provided only token pressure, and reached damn near critical levels in central midfield as Michael Bradley and Weston McKennie just couldn't sort themselves out.
And thus a dispiriting performance.
The passivity on defense filtered into the collective complexion of the team in attack as well:
To be clear: I believe a lot of this comes down to personnel. I think players like Tyler Adams, Paxton Pomykal and Jozy Altidore (and hopefully soon Josh Sargent) will naturally knit together the midfield and attack on both sides of the ball in a way that so many of the players out there this evening weren't able to. I think Tim Weah would contend for a starting job right away, and I think that the returns of DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks will help.
But it's not like all of it comes down to personnel. Personnel or no, the structure of the USMNT suffered this evening.
A few scattered thoughts:
• A line from my old podcastmateMatt Tomaszewicz: "I feel like the US are playing soccer's version of the prevent defense."
• I think it's telling that the one time in the second half the US looked actually decent came when Pulisic dropped into central midfield defensively and won a ball. My working theory is that we have to have the ability to be as flexible defensively – in terms of shape, not just line of confrontation – as Gregg Berhalter clearly wants us to be in possession and attack.
I hope there's a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-3-3 defensive set in the US's near future.
• The other issue with Pulisic as that left-sided No. 10 is that the US lose the numbers battle in central midfield when in possession as well. Pulisic, both by design and inclination, drifts toward the wing to create overloads, and isn't actually a central midfielder in almost any real way.
So that meant Zardes was the one most often tasked with connecting the midfield and the attack. There were a lot of balls played to his feet, and to his credit, he did very well with it on the build-up to the goal.
Most of the rest of the time, though, his struggle with basic hold-up play was a momentum-killer.
• One of the maladies that occasionally infected Berhalter's Columbus teams was a sort of tap-tap, tap-tap, tap-tap, two-touch predictability. They often dominated the ball, but didn't turn that into a meaningful advantage because when they were in possession they rarely varied their rhythm.
That was on display in this one.
• Full credit to Curacao. They were 0% intimidated and 100% confident that they could play through anything the US threw at them, and they largely did so. That said...
Yeah, that feels right.
• Tyler Boyd really struggled with his decision-making, the first time he's looked anything less than stellar in the Red, White & Blue. He had sticky feet and was slow to recognize or take space off the ball, and ended up putting in a selfish performance.
• I didn't like or understand using just one sub until second-half stoppage time. Berhalter had a chance to change the shape of the game one way or another and opted not to, even when his team was packed into its own end for the majority of the second half.