Gregg_Berhalter WCup

AL RAYYAN, Qatar – A stark contrast has materialized around the US men’s national team at the World Cup, a substantial gulf existing between how Gregg Berhalter is perceived at home, and abroad.

The coach remains the subject of fierce skepticism and scorn among a substantial swath of the USMNT fanbase.

Many of them have taken issue with his player selections on both rosters and lineups. Others consider his tactics to be more a hindrance than a help to what is widely hailed as one of the most talented generations of US players in the program’s modern history. For some, he’ll simply never escape the circumstances of his hiring, with his brother Jay occupying an executive position in U.S. Soccer at the time.

Listen to other managers or read some of the overseas coverage of the USMNT at the World Cup, and you get a different picture.

Iran manager Carlos Queiroz did not hesitate to praise the USMNT before their meeting, dubbing them “the most consistent … and probably even the team that makes the best two performances in the tournament in our group.” England’s Gareth Southgate was similarly effusive both before and after his team was largely outplayed in their 0-0 draw.

The Athletic's tactics analyst Ahmed Walid opened his detailed analysis of the Yanks’ very effective wing rotations vs. Iran by writing, “Perhaps the biggest compliment a national team can get nowadays, from a technical perspective, is for them to look like a domestic team … there are a few sides [in Qatar] who do look like a domestic team. One of those is the United States, who are not only showcasing their organization off the ball, but on it, too.”

Two pundits on a major Dutch-language outlet in Belgium declared themselves “big fans” of the US displays thus far, calling their midfield “one of the best in this World Cup” and praising Berhalter for his “positive” style, which they even said plays at a higher tempo than the Netherlands'.

So where’s reality? Let’s run through the pros and cons.

FOR: He’s nailed multiple game plans with tactical complexity

It’s not a hot take to posit that in all three group matches, the USMNT bettered their adversaries in the run of play, particularly in the first halves. They did this through varying tactical approaches, from a suffocating high press and rest defense vs. Wales and Iran to the adaptable 4-4-2 that clearly puzzled England.

Fuller breakdowns like Walid’s aforementioned work, and that of MLSsoccer.com’s Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle, delve into the specifics. Suffice it to say that Berhalter’s reputation for obsessive planning and orientation around details has been confirmed at this tournament.

For key stretches they’ve had all 10 field players camped out in the opposition’s half, yet haven’t surrendered clear chances on the counterattack. The single goal they’ve conceded so far was the late penalty kick to Gareth Bale via Walker Zimmerman’s ill-judged lunge vs. Wales. And distinct patterns of play have tested, troubled and occasionally torn open the opponents’ back line, like the sequence that led to Christian Pulisic’s vital, memorable winner vs. Iran.

“Good team goal,” said Weston McKennie afterwards. “We worked on that we knew that they would struggle with diagonal balls behind the backline. And that's something we've been working on in the game before, and it's good to see that it helped out, that we executed it to plan.”

Noted Tim Ream: “We talked about it before the game. That exact, exact play was how we were going to score.”

AGAINST: He’s reverted to dour conservatism in the clutch

The US should’ve reaped more goals from their long periods of control, particularly vs. Wales and Iran. That left them clinging to one-goal leads in both cases, one of which they could not safeguard, the other they could. Berhalter seemed to accept that these would be tight, “suffering” wins and pulled back his attacking ambitions, subjecting fans to agonizing run-ins.

Many fans were aggrieved that against Iran, with their World Cup on the line, the USMNT brought on Walker Zimmerman and shifted to a 5-4-1 shape to fend off Team Melli’s barrage of crosses instead of subbing in the talented Gio Reyna and playing keepaway to defend the lead. As it was, Zimmerman shined as a clearance machine, yet lone striker Haji Wright looked lost and confused all alone up top.

“We decided to go to 5-4-1 because of Iran loading the line and putting numbers in the box,” went Berhalter’s explanation. “Their main tactic was to get it wide and put crosses in, so we wanted to be able to deal with that. I think Haji’s effort was fine and it’s difficult, again, when you have a lot of space and you’re the lone striker trying to press.”

He did not explain why subjecting a lone striker to that situation was the lesser of the evils available.

Only Brazil, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Tunisia, Morocco and Croatia have matched the Yanks' one goal conceded during the group stages. Yet wouldn’t it be just as safe, and more in keeping with this team’s mindset, to keep playing proactively until the end?

FOR: The USMNT have shown a distinct style and identity

Observers generally know what they’re looking at when they watch this team in Qatar. The Netherlands’ Louis van Gaal said of the USMNT that he’s observed “a vision” and “a team that’s keen to execute that vision, and that’s of the utmost importance. I’ve seen especially the convection of the players, and that’s fantastic.”

At their best, these Yanks press aggressively, impose themselves on the enemy and keep the tempo high. They execute recognizable passing patterns and flash intuitive understanding of one another’s movements and preferences.

Fullbacks Sergiño Dest and Antonee “Jedi” Robinson have been influential with their end-to-end running and ambition to spark the attack. Goals from the wingers are key to Berhalter’s methods, and both of his starters, Pulisic and Tim Weah, have delivered there. The three center backs – particularly veteran Tim Ream – have been consistently superb save the Bale penalty. Illustrious French magazine L’Equipe dubbed the often-dominant McKennie-Yunus Musah-Tyler Adams midfield as one of the best at this event.

It might not always work optimally, but no one paying close attention has any doubts that there’s a detailed system in place.

AGAINST: The level of play has dropped in the late going

The fundamental drawback of the USMNT’s Plan A is that it demands high levels of not only organization and understanding, but lung-bursting physical output for most of the XI. In a compressed midseason tournament with short turnarounds and elite opposition, it’s been simply impossible for the Yanks to sustain it for 90 minutes.

McKennie was carrying a quad injury into the tournament and is too valuable to be risked over a full 90, at least not yet. Adams and Musah both ran more than eight miles vs. Iran, with the latter looking particularly dead on his feet by the end. Berhalter himself admitted that “it was hard to complete the actions for some of the guys,” with the fullbacks also logging well over 10 kilometers of distance each.

“As you saw in the game, it took a lot of suffering to get that win,” said Musah postgame. “It was just such a relief. And yeah, tonight I’m going to obviously sleep well.”

Part of this is the cold reality that big scoring chances are hard to come by at this level and teams who spurn them expose themselves to the consequences. If Weah was a hair behind the last defender on his disallowed goal or had finished his inviting first-half transition sequence with Josh Sargent, the game state vs. Iran would have been quite different.

FOR: The team’s spirit and belief are strong

With Reyna, in particular, it seems every word to the media, every gesture and expression on camera has been dissected somewhere in the USMNT universe (more on that in a moment). The overwhelming vibe around the team is one of belief, of camaraderie, of desire to do something genuinely historic.

“I hope people watching, especially back home in the States can see, ‘Wow, these guys are really giving everything for each other, for this country.’ And that's what really makes us special,” said Pulisic on Thursday. “You can see all the individual talent, you have guys playing at top clubs across the world. But without the brotherhood and without this family aspect, we wouldn't be in this position.”

While every individual in such a group invariably has their own desires and motivations, this has been going on for too long, and among too many different personalities, to be a feigned construct. The intense, jet-setting nature of Concacaf Octagonal qualifying has forged bonds, as have the many common threads shared among players who in some cases have competed together since adolescence. Berhalter intently studies, ponders and tries to nurture these dynamics, perhaps even more than tactics.

“We all know that Netherlands is a big team, a lot of quality players. I think this group, we rely on our team mentality, our togetherness, our hard work,” said Tim Weah this week. “I feel like I'm confident against anyone. We just have to go out there and apply ourselves and do what we have to do to get the job done.”

AGAINST: The subs and adjustments have raised questions

For a certain segment of USMNT backers, the sight of Jordan Morris getting the call ahead of Reyna as the final sub vs. Wales was and always will be the bloody shirt of this World Cup. Berhalter citing a preference for the Seattle Sounders mainstay’s “speed and power” over Reyna’s widely adored skill spawned ferocious criticism and some conspiracy theories, too.

Berhalter’s public comments on Reyna – who has been tragically injury-prone over this cycle, but was playing regularly at Borussia Dortmund in the weeks leading up to the World Cup – have contained gaps, inconsistencies, and hints of annoyance at the lines of questioning. That’s given even neutral observers reasons to suspect there’s something more than meets the eye.

As with previous points in his tenure, his desire to keep sensitive matters in-house has complicated rather than simplified the situation before him. Conversely, fans are prone to taking the comments of both player – after the Wales match Reyna insisted he was fit and ready to go, but most any player in his situation would – and coach at face value when those protagonists are quite likely to send up smokescreens for adversaries.

Should the wunderkind have been used more by now? Are both player and coach disguising unseen physical limitations? Is all this just misdirection building up to a dramatic deployment vs. the mighty Netherlands? Unfortunately there’s not much clarity to be had at this point.

We can scrutinize Berhalter’s substitutions and game management; some would say he’s been slow on the draw. His earliest personnel change was Brenden Aaronson for Pulisic at halftime on Tuesday, and that was injury-forced. After that it was the 65th-minute entry of Kellyn Acosta for McKennie vs. Iran, then the 66th-minute entry of Aaronson for McKennie vs. Wales. The rest of his subs have come in the 74th or later, with the latest being that controversial Morris sub in the 88th minute of the opener.

Berhalter might argue that these aren’t as late as they may seem, considering the extensive amount of added time at this tournament. Still, it’s not out of line to ponder whether there’s reactivity in there. One could also point out that with a couple of days to go in the group stage, there were already more goals scored by substitutes at this World Cup than in all of Russia 2018 as a whole. And none of his subs have made such an overt impact as yet. Is this team rich in depth or not?

In Conclusion…

This correspondent recognizes that the debate will rumble on for the foreseeable future regardless. For some, navigating a path through the group stage is an achievement to be lauded for the USMNT, which has fielded several of the tournament’s youngest lineups and may do so again on Saturday. To others, it’s a baseline expectation that says nothing about Berhalter’s contributions.

One last thing, though. Much of this discourse assumes that this World Cup and the assessment of it will decide whether Berhalter stays on for another four years to run the show at North America 2026. U.S. Soccer does have priors there: Bruce Arena was renewed after the ‘02 quarterfinals run (which didn’t end well) and the fed didn’t even wait until after Brazil ‘14 to re-up Jurgen Klinsmann on a lucrative new deal (which didn’t end well either).

We’d urge some circumspection there. Those close to the team suggest that it’s no sure thing that Berhalter wants to stick around another four years. There are fatiguing aspects to the job and both his methods and his mindset are inherently better suited to the club game, which offers day-to-day influence and interaction that only comes in spurts for national team coaches.

Berhalter has acknowledged what an attractive gig a World Cup on home turf will be. He’ll also be keenly aware of how rare it is that a second-cycle coach succeeds, in any nation.