John Herdman claimed a measure of disappointment, declaring at the start of his postgame press conference that all three points were there for the taking rather than just the one that his Canada side pocketed from Sunday’s World Cup qualifier vs. the US men’s national team at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium.
His face told a slightly different story, though. The expressive Englishman looked like the proverbial cat who’d swallowed the canary. And why not? The coach had gotten the better of his US counterpart Gregg Berhalter as Les Rouges adeptly executed their cagey game plan, not only snatching a road draw but denying the Yanks two needed points in what should be a tight race to the three automatic qualification slots for Qatar 2022.
By now most readers are familiar with how Canada did it, sitting deep and organized between occasional but incisive surges forward into transition via the likes of Alphonso Davies, Junior Hoilett and Tajon Buchanan. While it wasn’t a surprising approach, it was effective, and neither Berhalter nor his players could think or pass or dribble their way through it quickly enough.
The visitors kept barely 28% of possession but dictated terms just the same.
“We changed rhythm in the game, there was a few little things we did to make sure the US never got comfortable against the 5-4-1, so I thought the boys executed that really well,” said Herdman, alluding to “micro-performances” and psychological cues and other such subtleties.
“We were able to control, without the ball, more of the game.”
Much has been said about the qualifying inexperience of this talent-rich yet young USMNT side as they labor to find their feet in this tense, unforgiving competition. It may also be time to underline the fact that – as many of these matches as he took part in as a player – it’s also the first WCQ go-round for Berhalter as a coach. Signs of that were certainly evident in the Music City.
It’s not that he and his staff didn’t try to problem-solve, to adjust their team’s approach to unlocking Canada’s bunker. And they did eventually roll the dice with a triple substitution as they chased a late winner. Everything was too little, too late, however.
“It was tough to break down, man, it really was. We needed much faster ball movement,” Berhalter said postgame.
“There was really very little space between the lines and we were trying to operate outside of the lines and it just gave Canada the opportunity to just keep shifting, and [we were] never really penetrating. So we tried to start working with some diagonal walls behind the backline, they were sliding out with a wingback to defend that. We tried some combinations inside, with our fullback paying directly to the striker, we needed more attachment with our attacking mids there. So it was challenging. It was difficult, and we didn't do a good enough job.”
On some level, U.S. Soccer signed on for this when they selected Berhalter for the job three years ago. Widespread reports indicated that older, more experienced candidates were passed on in favor of the intelligent, meticulous job he did with the Columbus Crew from 2013-18, and the substantial knowledge he offered as a distinguished USMNT player with 44 career caps and two World Cups to his name.
At his unveiling, then-federation president Carlos Cordeiro spoke of “an identity and approach that will be uniquely and fiercely ‘U.S.’,” strongly suggesting that Berhalter’s ideas, skills and background trumped any concerns about this being his first coaching gig at the international level.
So even with some 30 months to prepare for this qualification cycle, Berhalter is learning on the Octagonal job, just like all but six members of his current squad.
Certainly they’ve encountered some unlucky headwinds in this first window, with Christian Pulisic’s COVID-19 case, injuries to Gio Reyna, Tim Weah and Sergino Dest, and the stunning suspension of Weston McKennie just hours before Sunday’s game. But a pressing need for a Plan B, and perhaps a C and D as well, has already become evident. Reyna has since returned to Borussia Dortmund for treatment, Dest is out with an ankle sprain and McKennie is returning to Italy following a violation of team policy.
“I think we need new ideas at times,” Pulisic said after the Canada match. “Today we just didn't test them enough, whether it was not being direct enough or not – I’m not too sure, but it just felt like we couldn't break them down. Obviously they defended well. Yeah, we just need some new solutions.”
The underachievement of these past two games falls across many shoulders, not just the coach’s. Many players looked tentative and risk-averse. Canada deserve just as much credit as the USMNT do blame. And the program’s shortage of reliable options for the No. 9 role, particularly in terms of clinical finishing, were known well before this window.
Still, given the makeup of this roster, Berhalter is almost certainly going to have to lead the way to some solutions, starting with Wednesday’s daunting visit to Honduras.
“We have to be resilient,” he said in Nashville. “I mean, we can do two things. We can feel bad for ourselves or we can continue on with a positive attitude and try to get a positive result in Honduras, which we're going to do.”