The US men's national team have two friendlies coming up, as you probably well know. They'll play against Mexico in New Jersey on Friday night (8:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, TUDN), and then against Uruguay next Tuesday in St. Louis.
These games are big in that they're against two very good teams – the Mexico side we'll see on Friday night should be a level-and-a-half above the one that beat the US in the Gold Cup final, as Tata Martino has basically a full-strength roster this time – and these games are not big in that they are friendlies. The US should feel pressure to come out and play like their lives depend upon the result, given that things can get out of hand in a hurry against excellent teams. And the US should feel free to experiment and take chances and kick the tires on new personnel and new tactical ideas and new formations given that ... yeah, they're friendlies. A bad loss would be a humiliation, but it also kind of* doesn't matter.
(*) Weirdly, we're in an era in which friendlies against smaller Concacaf sides matter a little bit more than friendlies against Mexico right now. One of the things Gregg Berhalter & Co. have to do in the next 24 months is just beat the living hell out of the Panamas and Trinidads of the world and rekindle a little bit of the fear those teams used to feel when they faced off against the US. Non-Mexico Concacaf teams have gotten too used to going toe-to-toe with us.
Beating those teams is how you make the World Cup. Failing to beat those teams is how you miss the world cup.
Beating Mexico is awesome in any context, but any honest assessment of the player pools and relative form of the US and Mexico says that El Tri are significantly better at the moment. Games like Friday's are about making progress in closing the gap rather than establishing genuine superiority. Be sure to check out Andre Wiebe's look at possible XIs we'll see.
Ok, my preamble is over. Let's just put together a list questions, concerns and requests for the next 180 minutes:
Change the defensive shape in midfield
There's been a lot written – a lot of it by me – about The System™, Berhalter's very clever way of getting his side into a 3-2-2-3 formation when the US are in possession. It's been written about because the way Berhalter has gone about getting his team into that shape has often been clever and sometimes ingenious. It's been fun to watch.
There's been less written about the team's defensive shape, which has been a pretty standard 4-2-2-2. And in the Gold Cup final, we saw what might have been the limits of that look as the lack of a true third central midfielder put the US at an almost constant numbers disadvantage against a Mexican side that just swarmed them, especially in the second half. Neither Michael Bradley nor Weston McKennie are reliable ball-winners at the international level at this point, but in their defense they were playing 2v3 and getting overrun.
In both of these games I'd like to see a more standard 4-3-3. It's ok to simplify a bit in order to win the numbers game, especially since it should open up playing time for players who are good at winning the second ball...
Punish the press & win the second ball
Berhalter's teams always love to build from the back, but Martino did not let them do that at any point in the Gold Cup. And in the early going the US took advantage of that by repeatedly playing over the top of the press and then winning the second ball:
It's very Red Bulls-ish in the idea is less about completing meaningful passes and more about winning the ball in crucial spots where you have, if not necessarily numerical superiority, dynamic superiority. Christian Pulisic getting onto the ball on the move is a nightmare for even the best defenders in the world, and the "on the move" part is the dynamic part.
When teams press you they are picking their poison. They are saying it's worth it to exchange the danger of getting beat over the top for the increased chances of winning the ball in the attacking third and ramming it down your throat. The US very nearly made Tata regret that decision, and the truth is if Pulisic and Jozy Altidore had been a little sharper in front of net they could've been 2-0 up inside of 20 minutes.
But after those first 20 minutes, the US didn't do as good of job of winning those second balls. Whatever the midfield shape, if Mexico press then the US have to punish them for it.
Pulisic on the wing & a ball-winning 10
Pulisic is not a central midfielder, or a pure No. 10, or any other label you want to put on it. Maybe he grows into that (probably not, though).
Regardless, he is so good on the wing now that it doesn't make a ton of sense to play him elsewhere. And that becomes especially evident given the need for an extra, ball-winning/duel-winning presence in central midfield.
It's got to be Sebastian Lletget or Paxton Pomykal there. Lletget has had an under-the-radar year for the Galaxy, who are still struggling to figure out their best formation and approach. But he wins 57.4% of his duels, which is Ozzie Alonso/Diego Chara territory. Pomykal is even better in those situations, at 59.7% (for context, Jonathan dos Santos is at 52.5%).
The numbers don't tell the entire story, of course, but they're a useful data point for understanding each player's skill set.
And to be clear: Neither guy is a true No. 10. Both guys have strengths in the attacking third – they combine well; have good, quick feet; are good on the half-turn; both are willing to take space off the ball – but neither is a pure chance creator.
That doesn't matter, though, because in the modern game the No. 10 is a less specialized role, and in the US set-up it's less about visionary passing and more about the ability to execute pre-arranged patterns. Lletget's already shown a facility for that, and hopefully Pomykal will get his chance to show the same.
Beyond anything else at this camp I'm very, very interested in seeing whether Pomykal and Lletget can affect the rhythm of the game by 1) winning second balls, and 2) facilitating. If they're able to do that in central midfield, that changes so, so much about how the US can/should play.
Josh Sargent, please
We know Altidore can manhandle most center backs, and we know Gyasi Zardes's limitations in those situations.
We don't know a ton about Josh Sargent at this level just yet. There's a lot we suspect, and there have been pretty strong data points in the past. Just think back 11 months:
Sargent's going to have to do some of the donkey work the US asked of Altidore in the Gold Cup final, and hopefully he'll also get to do some of the combination work you can see in that compilation above.
I will be actively disappointed if he doesn't start vs. Mexico, even with his fitness concerns.
What type of d-mid?
Berhalter very explicitly wants a defensive midfielder – like Bradley or Wil Trapp – who excels at hitting long diagonals to the flank in order to pick out a winger in isolation or an overlapping fullback in primary assist zones. A few of the US goals this summer came from exactly those types of passes.
“What I’d say is we always want a player that has a good range of passing and if you look at a lot of chances we created in the Gold Cup it’s from trying to overload on one side of the field, we can’t overload, it comes back into the middle and then that player plays a diagonal ball to a fullback or to a winger running behind the line. How many goals did we score in the Gold Cup like that?" Berhalter told The Athletic's Paul Tenorio last month. "So I feel like we need that person on the ball. A person has to be able to process the ball in tight space, has to be able to open up, has to have the vision and the technique to be able to hit a pass like that. Michael is a great example of a guy who can do that, Wil is a good example of a guy who can do that.
"We want to see these qualities from other players because that’s a really valuable weapon in soccer.”
In the long-term, this is a request from Berhalter to Tyler Adams: Please add this to your game! In this camp, it sounds like a suggestion that another Bundesliga starter, veteran Alfredo Morales, will get his opportunity to prove he can do this as well.
Morales has been a fine player for a long time, but long-range, zone-moving passing has never been his forte. He has an opportunity in this camp, it seems, to show otherwise.
Of course, Martino did everything in his power to take those passes away from the US back in July. The El Tri central midfield swamped Bradley and McKennie, daring the rest of the team to build enough to beat them. It didn't happen.
There's a lot on the line in this camp for both Trapp and Morales. Trapp knows the system and has the range of passing, but has frequently looked out of his depth both athletically and defensively against good teams at the international level. Morales has been on the outside looking in for nearly half-a-decade, and this might be his last, best shot at carving out a meaningful international career.
Invert the left back
I actually suspect that neither the right back nor the left back will be inverted, playing that hybrid FB/DM role against Mexico that Berhalter concocted back at the start of the year. It feels too risky against a team that's likely to line up Rodolfo Pizarro (dominant in the Gold Cup final) on one side and Hirving Lozano on the other.
But if he's determined to try The System™ in this one, I'd like to see him swap sides and have the left back invert rather than the right back doing so. Both Sergino Dest and Nick Lima have proven their comfort at LB, and both have shown a measure of comfort coming inside as ad hoc defensive midfielders.
It would be a slightly different, but worthwhile look. And any time Dest, in particular, is pushed forward into attacking spots, he is a potential game-breaker.
For what it's worth it sounds like Dest is going to play a bunch in these games. You can listen to Berhalter's full interview on last week's Extratime here:
The No. 1 CB pairing
It's just important to get John Brooks and Aaron Long some reps. Maybe they won't be the No. 1 pairing a year down the road when World Cup qualifying starts, but at this point the US should proceed as if they will be. Get them used to each other.
And get them used to beating the first wave of pressure on the ball, please! Brooks and Long both have the ability to drop a shoulder and step past a closing defender, which is becoming a required skill for center backs at the highest levels of the game. There will be times against both Mexico and Uruguay when they're required to be brave.
Worth noting that Miles Robinson, who's in his first full camp here, has shown to be very, very good at this already:
Wes the boss
My biggest complaint about McKennie thus far in his young career is that he doesn't find the game enough. His usage rate has tended to be lower than you'd expect of a $20 million-rated central midfielder, and against El Tri this summer there were times when it looked like he was just determined to stay as far away from the engine room as possible. He's basically the opposite of Adams and Pomykal in that regard.
The beginning of his Bundesliga season has been promising in this regard. He's still not close to being a field general, but he's not an E-2 anymore. He might be an NCO at this point, with the potential for much more.
Long-term, though, in Berhalter's system (and David Wagner's at Schalke), he's going to be asked to boss the midfield – everything from receiving on the half-turn in traffic, to hitting long switches, to creating overloads with his movement, to popping up between the lines in possession, to creating easy outlets for his back line. And, of course, to getting around the damn ball defensively and winning it.
We already know that he can be a devastating force when playing downhill in attack – either running off the ball, or carrying it himself – but there's so much more he needs to do in order to reach his potential and be the type of player a team (club or country) can build around.
Patience in possession
Related to the above, and to the Lletget/Pomykal discussion, and to the Sargent's combination play idea, and to everything else: The US have to be both more patient and more confident on the ball in those instances when they do establish some possession. Let runs unfold, be willing to cycle up-and-down the field, and trust that you have the skill and shape to do it.
Gimme this lineup: