Are you ready to eat a bunch of leftover Thanksgiving turkey on Black Friday before watching the biggest soccer game the US men’s national team have played in more than eight years?
Because I sure am.
The USMNT take on England on Friday (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo) at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. They have one point after their 1-1 draw with Wales on Monday, while England have three points after they beat Iran 6-2 in their Group B opener earlier this week.
It’s safe to say there’s a bit of a gap in talent between the two teams. It’s also safe to say the USMNT will need to be far better and more consistent against England than they were in their tournament opener.
What USMNT-centric changes need to be made to get a much-needed result before the Group B decider next Tuesday against Iran? Let’s explore them.
Walker Zimmerman’s rash challenge in the box on Gareth Bale directly led to Wales’ equalizing penalty late in the second half in Monday’s draw. But that defensive error wasn’t the only thing that turned the tables in Wales’ favor.
After a relatively strong first half where the US owned the tempo, controlled the field and led on the scoresheet, they faded hard in the second half. Gregg Berhalter’s team was far too reserved, lowering their defensive line of confrontation and squandering a set of transition attacks.
I mean, just look at this compilation of transition moments. There are a few bright sequences early on that lead to corners and box entries. Too many of the rest, though, are slow, laborious efforts that come to nothing.
Gareth Southgate’s England team doesn’t always love to dominate the ball, but they did against Iran and will probably do the same against the United States. With that in mind, the USMNT will have to be sharp after they win the ball. Christian Pulisic will need to release the ball more quickly on the break. The midfield group – whether it’s made up of the Tyler Adams/Weston McKennie/Yunus Musah trio or another combination – will need to be clean on the ball after the US win possession in their half, picking out smart passes.
There will be space behind England’s backline after they push forward into the USMNT’s half, particularly on the flanks. That’s the space the US should target early and often on Friday with quick, aggressive attacking moves.
I mentioned Zimmerman’s defensive error up above. The USMNT were bending, bending and bending some more up until that rash challenge late in the second half – but after Zimmerman gave up the Bale penalty, they were officially broken. England will try to break the US, just like they broke Iran on Monday. And that’s where the USMNT’s defensive structure comes into play.
Under Berhalter, the USMNT’s defensive ability has been their single brightest shining quality.
“We press. We press relentlessly. We don’t stop pressing and it just breaks teams' rhythms,” Berhalter told ESPN earlier this year. “[Opposing teams] will get some chances against us if they break the press, but it’s not easy.”
Defending in their 4-3-3 shape, the US have shown an impressive ability to press, stay compact and force turnovers. According to an analysis performed by Jamon Moore for Backheeled earlier this month, the United States’ defending has been better in this World Cup cycle than it was during the last two. They allowed 0.7 goals per game in this qualifying, compared to 0.8 in 2014 World Cup qualifying and 1.3 in 2018 World Cup qualifying.
Against England, defensive solidity will be key. Bukayo Saka, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford and Harry Kane (if he’s fit) … they’re all dangerous attackers the US will have to monitor extremely closely. Let’s not forget about Jude Bellingham in midfield, either. Bellingham has been one of the most impressive players in the tournament so far with his mixture of technical ability, mobility and off-ball movement.
It won’t be easy, but the US will have to absorb pressure, compress space and, most importantly, bend without breaking against England.
Let me say this as simply as I possibly can: The USMNT must be better on set pieces in their second World Cup game than they were in their first.
The United States didn’t create a single quality chance from set pieces against Wales, and Pulisic generally struggled with his crosses into the box in both dead ball and open-play situations. Because the USMNT have yet to prove they can create chances on a consistent basis in the run of play, set pieces present a highly valuable opportunity. Plus, with players like McKennie and Zimmerman, the team has more than enough dominant aerial forces to cause problems for their opponents.
And, to steal a point our Matt Doyle drills home, set pieces take an outsized importance in tournament play. You must capitalize on them.
According to FBref, McKennie is in the 72nd percentile among midfielders in Europe’s top five leagues in aerial duel wins per game over the last calendar year. Zimmerman is in the 84th percentile in that same statistic among MLS center backs over the last year, also according to FBref. Those two players have impressive vertical ability and physicality – and the US would be wise to find a set piece taker who can accurately deliver passes into the box for them.
Gio Reyna might be the most natural set piece taker in the squad. However, given the questions surrounding the Borussia Dortmund attacker’s fitness, the USMNT might have to look elsewhere if they want to change their set piece taker. Perhaps Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson or Kellyn Acosta would be capable options, as well.
Will Berhalter actually change his primary set piece taker? I don’t know. But to maximize his team’s chances against England, he should.
If the USMNT execute in attacking transition, make England’s life miserable with smart defending and find more chances on set pieces than they did in their World Cup opener, the team might have enough for a Black Friday shock against the Group B favorites.