The US men’s national team takes the field in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup in less than two weeks. Shortly after you read this column, Gregg Berhalter will announce the 26-man roster he’s taking to the tournament to try to put right the wrongs of Russia 2018 – to the degree that those wrongs can ever be righted, anyway – and to try to, in his words, change the way the world views US soccer.
I don’t have the roster yet (it comes Wednesday around 5 pm ET), though I think we can all predict probably 23 of the 26 guys who’ll be there. That’s especially true since the news that Tim Ream’s going to be on the final list, something FOX’s Stu Holden had hinted at a month ago, has leaked.
With that in mind, here are some questions I’m thinking about over the course of the day, and probably over the course of the next two weeks.
Berhalter has steadfastly refused to call in the veteran – who was a core part of the team from 2019 until September of 2021 – for the past 14 months, citing speed and aerial concerns (both of which are valid). When Miles Robinson was healthy and paired with Walker Zimmerman, and the two were playing out of their minds together, and had Chris Richards in the pipeline as the third choice behind them… well, fair enough, right? Nobody was clamoring for Ream’s inclusion then.
None of those guys is the distributor Ream is, but all three can pass the ball without falling on their faces, all three are significantly better defending in space, and all three are better in the air. They’re all within the right age range, they all fit the game model well enough and they were all making the case for themselves on the field.
But you know the story: Robinson tore his Achilles’ back in May, and then Richards got hurt this summer, and neither has returned. Neither will be on the roster (Richards himself confirmed it on his Instagram page). In their absence Aaron Long has gotten most of the minutes partnering Zimmerman, while Cameron Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown and Mark McKenzie got cameos over the past two camps.
Three of those guys (Long, CCV and EBP) fit the mold of what Berhalter has specified he wants from Zimmerman’s CB partner (McKenzie is more of a Ream-style distributor than a physical force), but none of them have been particularly impressive either with their club sides or in their national team minutes.
While Ream hasn’t been perfect for Fulham – he’s still good for one big error a game – he’s playing pretty good soccer in the best league in the world, and while he doesn’t fit the specifications for what Berhalter says he wants from this CB spot, he does actually fit the game model better than any of the other choices. It was pretty painfully obvious in the last camp that the US needed more dynamic and incisive distribution from the backline if they were going to be a side that could disorganize opponents with the ball, and Ream is just far and away the best choice for that job (which, to be clear, carries with it what is, in my opinion, an overly optimistic assessment of how the US can/should play this month).
The other thing to bear in mind is that, barring injury, Antonee Robinson will be playing virtually every minute for the US at left back, and he and Ream obviously have years of reps together. That familiarity is a bonus.
Here is what I think is the very obvious flip side of the argument:
Berhalter has always rated Long despite his limitations as a progressive passer. The veteran didn’t have a great final six weeks of the MLS season and, like everyone else, he was a disaster in the September friendlies. But he’s the closest approximation to Robinson among the choices, he was better than the other options in the Nations’ League camp this summer, and he has a stronger overall body of work with the US than the other guys in the mix.
Especially relevant in that assessment is his aerial dominance on both sides of the ball. Long is a Tier 1 target on attacking set pieces, and as we just saw in the MLS Cup playoffs, and as we saw in the 2018 World Cup, “dominate on restarts and don’t screw up playing out of the back” is a pretty great blueprint for tournament play.
Going with Long could indicate a more pared-down and pragmatic game model. I wouldn’t be against that.
Berhalter has used a 4-3-3 with a single pivot probably 95% of the time, with the US trotting out in a 3-4-3 (or 3-4-2-1) for the other 5%. That got the US through World Cup qualifying, finishing third in Concacaf.
But the US… didn’t look great, did they? Tyler Adams is gifted in a lot of ways – he might actually be the world’s best pressing central midfielder at this point, and single-handedly strangles a lot of opposing counterattacking opportunities before the casual fan even realizes what might be coming – but patient and precise distribution is not his forte. If it was, he’d be playing for Liverpool, not Leeds.
And even at Leeds, Jesse Marsch has paired Adams with a more possession-and-distribution-minded partner in Marc Roca. That not only gives Leeds actual control of the ball from time to time, but it frees up Adams to push forward off the ball in pursuit of forcing turnovers in the attacking third.
Back during the camp this past summer, Berhalter seemed to be considering the same thing, and the upshot was that Adams and Yunus Musah played deeper in a 4-2-3-1. The double pivot replaced the single pivot, and while Musah was excellent as a ball-progressor, his defensive awareness left something to be desired:
Armchair Analyst: US slow rotations in the double pivot
Here is the good news: Musah has been playing as a central midfielder full-time for Valencia this year.
Here is the bad news: His defensive awareness off the ball remains poor.
I like the theory of putting him deeper and playing the double pivot, but I’m not sure adding him to that line lets Tyler be Tyler in the way that adding Roca to the Leeds midfield lets Tyler be Tyler. I think Adams, even with his quarterbacking limitations, might just be more valuable to the US as a single pivot who sits, protects, destroys and shuttles simple passes – even if they’re back to one of the CBs.
This ends up being another argument for Ream, provided the US really are committed to using the ball. Having an A+ distributor at LCB and a B+ distributor at RCB can at least somewhat mitigate the effects of having a C- distributor at d-mid.
The other thing that can mitigate it, of course, is an adjustment to the game model. We saw that during qualifying in both games against Mexico when the US focused more on winning second balls in midfield than stringing intricate passing sequences together. Not coincidentally, these were the two best qualifying performances for the US.
I’m not sure Jedi was the best US player during qualifying, but he was arguably – with Adams – the most important. His ability to go endline-to-endline provided both width and verticality to the US attack, which was extremely necessary given Christian Pulisic’s inability/unwillingness to provide either from the left wing.
Robinson, even if he’s carrying a knock, is a write-him-in-pen, no-doubt-about-it starter for the US. But yeah, he’s carrying a knock, and yeah, World Cup games are intense, and yeah, the weather in Qatar might not be entirely conducive to playing 270 life-or-death minutes over the course of eight days.
That would be less of an issue if there was an adequate like-for-like backup on the roster behind Jedi, but that ship has sailed. George Bello was weighed, measured and found wanting; the same basically goes for Sam Vines, who then added injury to insult when he broke his leg last week playing for his club side, Royal Antwerp. Guys like John Tolkin, DeJuan Jones, Kevin Paredes (god, I wish he’d gone anywhere but Wolfsburg) and Andrew Gutman, meanwhile, never got a look.
Which means the backup LB is going to be an inverted RB. In theory that is fine, especially since both Sergiño Dest and Joe Scally have played a fair chunk of LB (really LWB for Scally) in their careers.
In practice with the US, though, it’s been a mess. Robinson is the one guy in the picture who wants the ball in space; everyone else wants it to feet. That left side, when he’s not been out there, is where US attacks have gone to die.
I’ve maintained for a while now that either Jordan Pefok or Brandon Vázquez should be on the roster as the third-choice center forward. That is not to say that I think Jesús Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi or Josh Sargent are clearly ahead of those two guys – I honestly don’t, and I’ll wager that in the not-very-distant future the decision to omit Vázquez entirely is going to end up looking very bad for Berhalter.
But 1) I could be wrong about the above, and 2) even if I’m not entirely wrong, it’s not like the gap between these five guys is enormous. They all have hits on their résumé they can point to as arguments in their favor.
Even so, there will come a time in these games when the US enter the Tactics Free Zone and are just spending the final 10-to-15 minutes of the game lumping it forward and desperately trying to get it into ye olde mixer. And in that situation, why would you not want a big, strong target forward to toss onto the field?
To that point: As per TruMedia via StatsPerform, Ferreira had just two goals all year in the final 10 minutes of games where Dallas were trailing or tied. Vázquez had five, which was the second-best total in the league.
It’s not a capitulation to give yourself different options. Berhalter can still start Ferreira and try to pass-and-move teams to death, or bring in Sargent for his link play. But I do worry that he’ll hamstring himself by failing to bring a target man for inevitable desperation-time moments.