Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Gregg Berhalter's system, positional play & why Canada are better than the USMNT right now

Let’s get this out of the way at the start: The Canadian men’s national team is better than the US men’s national team right now. They’re also better than Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica and everyone else in the region.

They have proved it by going unbeaten through 10 games in this Octagonal, and by dominating their top competitors in the exact manner prescribed by World Cup qualifying gurus the world over, i.e. they’re winning at home and drawing on the road. That’s what they did to both the Yanks and El Tri, taking points out of Nashville and the Azteca, respectively, then keeping all three points in Edmonton and, on Sunday afternoon, in Hamilton courtesy of a no-frills 2-0 win.

It didn’t matter that they were down two of their best players in Alphonso Davies and Stephen Eustaquio, and it didn’t matter that Canada’s XI were as unfamiliar with the concrete turf as the US players were. They had a game plan and executed it, which is what they’ve been doing basically since the second half of the first game of this final round of qualifying.

And they’re going to Qatar 2022 because of it. That’s not mathematically official yet, but it would take something larger than the USMNT's Couva meltdown for this team to be denied at this point. John Herdman has done a great job, as has basically everyone up and down that roster (but especially Cyle Larin – go Huskies!).

Gregg Berhalter and the US have… not done quite as good a job. They are on 18 points through 10 games, and currently second place in the standings. During the entire history of the old Hexagonal, which was always 10 games, 18 points would have been good enough to qualify for the World Cup every single time, and usually in second place. Make sure that’s where your head is when trying to grasp the issues with this team.

What I am saying is they have not truly been bad, per se, but they have often been listless and only infrequently have they been compellingly good. As I see it, there are two main issues here:

  1. The coach is an ideologue whose view of the game seems to get in the way of the US playing as effectively as they could, especially in attack.
  2. The players themselves, in the attack, are in poor form for club and country almost across the board.

Attacking form

Let’s take item No. 2 first: Christian Pulisic was poor for the US once again on Sunday, but this was not an outlier performance. He simply performs this way for both the US and Chelsea. There is no distinction between the two right now.

Ricardo Pepi, meanwhile, hasn’t scored in 12 hours of game time for Dallas, Augsburg or the US. He has struggled. Brenden Aaronson was a breath of fresh air for the US earlier in the Ocho, but Aaronson has just three goals in 2000 minutes for RB Salzburg this season, and his inability to get the edge against good defenders on the ball, or to pull away off the ball rendered him pretty invisible in this one. Sam Adekugbe and Kamal Miller ate him up.

Gyasi Zardes, Jesus Ferreira, Jordan Morris and Paul Arriola are out of season. I’ve been watching January’s Camp Cupcake friendlies for more than 20 years and I am in no way surprised to see these guys involved in a bunch of sequences that almost came off, but didn’t. That is the nature of out-of-season players – we saw the same thing with the Euro contingent in the first set of qualifiers, remember.

Just about the only attacker who’s been in good form for the US recently is Tim Weah, which somewhat belies his club form. So once he was ruled out (and I’d argue that it wasn’t worth playing him on short rest even if he’d been available)... look, it wasn’t a fait accompli the US performance was going to be this frustrating, but if you’re a big believer that club form predicts international form, the writing was on the wall.

Now compare the above to Larin, Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan. Larin is now Canada’s all-time leading scorer, David is one of Ligue 1’s top strikers and Tajon’s hit the ground running in Belgium.

They looked sharp; the US didn’t. They are sharp; the US are decidedly not, in any venue.

Berhalter as an ideologue

And now let’s go back to point No. 1: Berhalter is an ideologue. His stated goal, from the off, is to "change the way the world views American soccer.” He did a power-point presentation of it for the team a couple of years ago, and he’s got players truly buying in.

"I think ultimately all the players that are being called – the guys over from the MLS and the European-based players – we all share the same goals. That we want to win trophies, we want to change the way that the world sort of views American soccer.” That’s a quote from Antonee “Jedi” Robinson, from before qualifying began. He repeated Berhalter’s mantra word-for-word.

To Berhalter, I think that means he wants the world to see the US as a modern, innovative, ball-dominant team that’s at the tactical cutting edge. And that means a commitment to positional play.

Positional play – a rough definition of which is "a style of play where the football pitch is divided into zones and each player is assigned to a zone" – really works when executed well. It creates pitch balance, natural overloads, lots of triangles and width. Just watch Manchester City when they’re humming if you want the best example of what positional play can look like, and how murderous it is to defend against.

The US are getting better at positional play. The best example of it came a couple of months back in the 2-0 Octagonal win over Mexico, during which the US exerted more control over how and where the game was played, and what tempo it was played at, than any US win over Mexico I can ever recall. They also showed it last week’s 1-0 win over El Salvador, though it was revealed in that game more as defensive dominance than in a surfeit of high-quality attacking chances (though they should’ve scored more than once).

What doesn’t come naturally via positional play is attacking depth – i.e. stretching the field – and pace. The players have to create that themselves by recognizing when those moments are presented and driving the game forward. Recognizing when positional play has done its job and unbalanced the opponents, and then executing at speed… that’s when the system really starts to work.

That is not happening for the US right now. Time after time after time, the US won the ball in good spots to transition forward. Time after time after time, instead of doing that they played backwards, seemingly more focused on getting into their attacking shape than actually exploiting space. It’s almost like the system has become an end unto itself, rather than a means to create the types of chances that win games like this one.

This is not an uncommon thing with positional play teams. The most frequent criticism of Pep Guardiola’s City sides is that the players are almost robotic in their adherence to predetermined dance steps, and that this has taken away much of the spontaneity and verve the very best teams are supposed to have.

I don’t particularly share that criticism of City, though there is for sure a grain of truth. With the US, though, it’s much more than a grain. Look at Aaronson here:

This kid plays for RB Salzburg. His whole life is about winning the ball in midfield like that and immediately playing forward. But here, he goes in the other direction.

And that was far from the only time we saw this from the US on Sunday. Just off the top of my head, Tyler Adams at 59:45 then again at 61:40, and Pulisic at 78:10 were all “I can’t believe the US didn’t drive the game forward right there” moments. I’d make clips, but why bother? You’ve watched the Aaronson one above. The others I’m describing look exactly the same.

Understand that playing back to the backline is not inherently bad, but 1) that can’t be all you do, and 2) when you do play back, you still have to move the ball quickly.

As so:

This clip is from last September, the 1-1 draw in Nashville. Canada are not a positional play team under Herdman, but there are obvious positional play principles on display in this clip – namely how quick ball movement and players occupying different zones puts one US midfielder in a spot where he has to mark two Canadians. The difference is when Canada got to that point, they went into their kill pattern.

When the US got to that point, their patterns fell apart.

It’s on Matt Turner

Turner held his hand up after the first Canadian goal, as he should’ve. Here’s the clip:

Obviously that’s bad distribution, though it’s worth noting Milan Borjan did the same exact thing three minutes in, sending a goal-kick directly to Weston McKennie, and McKennie wasn’t able to do anything with it. There was lots of “rock ball syndrome,” to borrow a line from Greg Velasquez, in the game’s first 20 minutes.

The real issue, though, is Turner attempted that goal kick before pushing his center backs upfield. When the opponents take away short distribution options like that, you’ve got to get the backline up in order to prevent this exact thing from happening.

Miles Robinson should’ve done better, and all four Canadians involved in the goal – Miller, Jonathan Osorio, Larin and David – were ruthless and excellent.

But first and foremost, this is a mistake from Turner.

What to expect vs. Honduras
Wed., Feb. 2 @ 7:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, TUDN

Los Catrachos have been abject throughout qualifying. They are dead last and were officially eliminated from Qatar 2022 contention with a 2-0 home loss to El Salvador on Sunday night. They have lost all five matches under new head coach Hernan Dario Gomez, who was appointed back in October in order to turn around this qualifying campaign but obviously hasn’t.

If the US play exactly as well on Wednesday as they did on Sunday, and no better, they should win this game. Honduras have been really poor.

Doyle's updated US XI v Honduras

Lineup notes

• I’m assuming Adams’ hamstring strain and Chris Richards’ possible broken foot has them ruled out for this one. Acosta is the only back-up d-mid on the roster, which means he’s the sub for Adams, while Walker Zimmerman was probably going to be rotated in for Richards anyway.

Zimmerman reportedly picked up a knock on Saturday, but from everything I’ve heard he could’ve gone if it was life-or-death, and should be ready for Wednesday.

• One start for Ferreira, one start for Gyasi, one start for Pepi. Let’s hope he snaps out of his slump.

• I have flipped Pulisic and Weah. I do not know that Berhalter will do this – I strongly suspect he won’t – but anyway, there it is. (Truth is, though, I would probably not even start Pulisic for this game given his form, the workload on his always balky hamstrings, and the weather).

• Speaking of the weather, here's the prediction for Saint Paul as of about 12 pm ET Monday:

St Paul weather USMNT v Honduras

I keep hoping to hear the US have a contingency plan and are moving the game down the street to US Bank Stadium, home of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings. That is, going indoors.

I understand these conditions will make the Hondurans miserable, but they’ll make the US players miserable, too, and it’s the US players who are going to be out there trying to string together pretty passes and play pretty soccer. Honduras will just be doing first-ball, second-ball, counters and set pieces.

Selecting this venue at this time of year seems to work at cross purposes with how both Berhalter and the players want to play.

Hopefully, in the end, that doesn’t matter. But strange things can happen in qualifying, and I don’t love that the USSF decided to add a variable like this when the simple talent disparity should’ve been enough to lean on.