It’s been a strange few years for the US men’s national team, to put it mildly, and that’s left Gregg Berhalter with almost nowhere to go but up as he opens his tenure as head coach.
With all that in mind, Sunday’s win over Panama was undoubtedly a good first step, however modest, and in a forward direction. And if that sounds like damning the USMNT with faint praise, hark the new boss himself:
“When I addressed the group after the game, I said it was a good baseline,” said Berhalter postgame. “It gave us enough content to work with.”
This was a January-camp friendly, and all the usual disclaimers apply. But the 3-0 win in suburban Phoenix served up enough promise and intrigue to give even the most skeptical and hard-boiled among the fanbase some things to think about. And that little tidbit from the coach – consciously or not, he tossed the press pack a few tasty breadcrumbs to chew on in his press conference – should not be overlooked too quickly: “It gave us enough content to work with.”
Berhalter is a system guy, and a process guy, and a friend to quants and performance analysts and similar types of data-crunchers, and he’s already carved out some striking signposts for this latest project.
I’ll leave it to the illustrious Matthew Doyle to Armchair Analyze Berhalter’s tactical outlook in full – check for that on this site tomorrow. But safe to say that the USMNT tried out some unconventional looks in this one, considering that this group is well short of what would generally be considered a “full-strength” squad and has only had a couple of weeks together.
This was, on paper, a straight 4-3-3 XI. On grass it was that and several other things entirely, usually defending in the traditional two banks of four but morphing into a 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 look in possession. Berhalter said he envisioned “two 10s,” with Chicago Fire young'un Djordje Mihailovic sharing the creative duties alongside Seattle linchpin Cristian Roldan (who’s usually a No. 8 for the Sounders and duly brought a workmanlike edge to Sunday’s assignment).
Nick Lima – a fullback and nothing else during his professional career to date – often pinching into the middle to do some pretty unexpected stuff in addition to flashing his usual skillset, all of which led up to his shining moment in the leadup to Walker Zimmerman’s goal to make it 2-0:
“Some of the movements we’re working with is on the wings, and very complicated movements, it involves three players interchanging and still with the intention to disorganize the defense and get behind their lines,” explained Berhalter, who was refreshingly open and expressive in his remarks to the media. “You could see that sometimes we were a bit tentative with that, and then there were other times where it came off and it was really nice. So I think there were elements.”
Look, this is just not the sort of USMNT conversation we’re usually having at this time of year. We’ve witnessed some truly dreary matches during January camps past, many with little flair, inspiration or execution in attack even with top front-line talent available to the coaches. These dour outings are invariably written off as par for the course, with players in the midst of their offseason thrown together with limited time to gel.
Sunday was different. When players like Lima and Mihailovic and Jonathan Lewis (and even Michael Bradley, the scapegoat of 2017 who suddenly looks like a first-class deep-lying midfielder again just 90 minutes into this new era) catch the eye in new ways like this, something is up.
Berhalter’s clearly got plans, and his players performed as if they’ve been pretty well inculcated in them already. If they show signs of another week’s worth of understanding and repetition in Saturday’s duel with Costa Rica out in Northern California, then US supporters will finally have reason to smile a bit as 2019 begins to unfold in earnest.