Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Busio and Sands make their mark in USMNT win over Haiti

The first thing I want to get on the record here, and to hope that anyone reading this understands: By historical standards, the US men’s national team’s 1-0 win over Haiti in the group stage opener of the Concacaf Gold Cup was fairly comfortable.

For one, Haiti have always played the US very tough -- think back to the 2015 Gold Cup, when the US needed a goal from Clint Dempsey and then spent the rest of the game holding on for dear life. That’s usually the baseline against the Haitians.

For two, the Gold Cup is almost never as easy as casuals think it’s going to be (just ask all those El Tri fans after Saturday night’s scoreless draw against Trinidad & Tobago). Back in 2017, which is the last time the US won it, they had to settle for a 1-1 draw vs. Panama in the opener and then needed to scrap their way to a 3-2 win over Martinique in the second group stage game. That great 2007 team that beat Mexico in the final on Benny Feilhaber’s golazo? Their opener was a 1-0 win over Guatemala that came via an early Dempsey goal and then an hour of grim determination to make the scoreline stand up.

Gregg Berhalter’s not insensible to that, and part of what he’s trying to do with both his personnel and his system is to tilt the odds more in favor of “talent,” of which the US now have an abundance, and less in favor of “random chance” or “grim determination.” I think the xG numbers from Sunday night’s game paint a pretty good picture of that:

I do agree with Paul’s take that it never felt quite that dominant, but in addition to the US goal they hit the woodwork twice and forced Haitian ‘keeper Brian Sylvestre (a former US youth international) into a number of quality saves. Matt Turner, meanwhile, didn’t have to do much until the very end -- a play, it should be noted, on which he was clearly fouled.

Was it perfect? No, of course not. But it’s never been perfect against Haiti no matter what the formation, personnel or principles of play have been. The Haitians always create opportunities on the break no matter who they’re playing, and this group has been particularly good at that over the past few years (though it should be noted they truly missed Frantzdy Pierrot). When they do so, your defenders simply have to make the necessary plays.

The US defenders, in other words, did their jobs.

And that is a very good baseline to have from this group. Berhalter needs to trust that Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman, in particular, won’t lose the US the game against pretty good Concaf foes. That box isn’t completely checked, but it certainly was an encouraging 90 minutes in that regard.

Also encouraging was their distribution. It wasn’t John Brooks-level, but both guys were brave about stepping up and trying to play through the lines. That bravery matters, because it leads to stuff like this:

That is exactly what Zimmerman needs to do if he’s going to pull himself up the depth chart at center back. The run and touch from Kellyn Acosta (probably the US’s best player over the course of the game), meanwhile, were superb.

There wasn’t enough of that overall, though. Let’s dive in:

Upping the Intensity

One of the things I appreciate about Berhalter is how clear and honest -- and correct -- he is in his postgame assessments. Here’s what he had to say after this one:

"It was way too slow, way too backwards and not enough intent to turn Haiti around and get them defending in the penalty box ... from the attacking end, we were disappointed with the intent that we showed tonight."

The word I used for it was “timid,” and I think it showed most clearly in the play of Jackson Yueill. He was never flashy but always assured in his caps prior to the end of May, when he got on the field against Switzerland. For whatever reason, he hasn’t really been the same since then for the US (and it should be noted that he’s been much less influential for San Jose this year as well).

This type of play was typical:

There was a chance to turn there and force the deeper Haitian midfielders into a decision: Do I step to the ball or do I try to close down lanes? Yueill made the decision for them by, as Berhalter said, playing “way too backwards.” Doing that allows the defense to press with impunity because they know that even if the first line of pressure is beaten, their overall shape won’t be compromised.

The whole point of building out against the press and playing through a regista is to compromise the other team’s shape!

I think it’s telling that Yueill was one of the first non-injury subs for the US, and here’s his direct replacement, 19-year-old Gianluca Busio, in a similar situation:

This particular play didn’t work out well for the US -- Busio picked the wrong pass and put Acosta, who subsequently got a yellow, in a bad spot -- but I do not care. Busio’s 19 and in his first cap and is learning the position, so mistakes will be made. What I care more about is that when those mistakes happen, he didn’t get the yips or look frightened of the moment.

Instead he played better the longer he was on the field. And I think the US, as a whole, did so as well.

The 3-5-2

I can’t think of a single game in Berhalter’s history as a head coach in which he’s used a 3-5-2. I’m sure it’s happened, if only for a few minutes here or there, but I don’t think it’s a club he likes to take out of the bag all that often.

Still, I’m glad that the US finished this outing in that formation (even if it was due only to an injury to one winger and significant underperformance from the other). There will come a time in World Cup qualifying where it makes sense to get two true forwards out there, especially when the US are struggling to get more than one runner into the box:

Further back it was a more natural look. Berhalter has fairly frequently gone with three or five at the back, though always in a 3-4-2-1 with the US. The middle of a back three is exactly where James Sands has spent a bunch of his pro minutes, and while he had a less flashy debut than Busio, he was just as effective. I’m about to ask you to watch a minute of soccer, but it’s worth it:

There were a number of little moments like that from Sands in just ~20 minutes on the pitch, and it speaks to his improvement curve as a player. A year ago he was never a problem-solver on the ball, but in addition to quickly recognizing the space he needed to take in order to be an outlet, he was also able to slip that clever little disguised pass right into Busio.

Acosta in Pen

Acosta started the win over Mexico in the Nations League final as part of a double pivot in a 3-4-2-1, and finished it at left back. He started this game as a No. 8 in Berhalter’s more preferred 4-3-3 and finished it as a right wingback in a 3-5-2. He was very good at all four spots.

That versatility, along with his experience (he’s played in huge World Cup qualifiers before, remember), basically make him an essential utility man for this US side. There is a baseline level that you know you’re going to get from him because he’s given it to you before in games that really, really matter.

He can also do stuff like this:

(Note that goalscorer Sam Vines actually put pressure on the Haitian defense by getting on the ball and carrying it inside and upfield a bit, which opened up space for Acosta and everyone else. There needed to be more of that!)

Both those passes are gorgeous.

The most important thing for Acosta, though, was just how much he was on and around the action. He is a habitually low-usage central midfielder on both sides of the ball, a trait that by its very nature puts a cap on how influential you can be.

In this game he was all over the ball, and was probably the most influential US player. It was an assured performance from him, which is a big part of what the evening -- and his potential role in qualifiers -- called for. So go ahead and write his name into the team sheet in pen.

The No. 1 Kit

It's time folks recognized that Turner's long-range passing ability is a weapon:

He wasn't perfect playing over the Haitian press, but he was mostly very good. And if he's playing that ball to Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson or Gio Reyna, there's probably a better ending than what Nico Gioacchini was able to conjure.

A few other notes:

  • The subs changed the game not just in terms of the US shape, but in terms of who was physically controlling the match. At the hour mark Haiti had won 24 of the 39 duels contested between the two teams. Over the final 30 minutes it was 25 to 9 in the US’s favor.
    Part of that is fatigue taking a toll on the Haitians, but part of that was Busio, Sands and Eryk Williamson imposing themselves upon the game in a way that the guys they had replaced did not.
  • Shaq Moore was very good. I almost feel bad for him, though, as there is just not that much room on the right back depth chart. If he played any other position and put in a performance like that we’d be talking about him being a gameday roster lock come qualifiers.
  • Gioacchini was more useful on the wing than I expected him to be once Paul Arriola went down with what looked like a hamstring injury, but he still struggled to turn the good spots he found himself in into anything meaningful (watch the Acosta and Turner clips again). Jonathan Lewis, meanwhile, was very, very poor and ended up being a ball-stopper at left wing.
  • I think most fans were disappointed that Gyasi Zardes got the start over Daryl Dike, but Dike didn’t exactly make an air-tight case for himself once he got on. His hold-up play was actually a bit sloppier than Gyasi’s.
  • Neither Vines (despite the goal) nor Sebastian Lletget put in the type or performances that would move them up or down the depth chart.