The US men’s national team’s June camp, with a pair of friendlies (in the books!) and a pair of Nations League contests (coming this week!), is half done. While it has been a somewhat experimental camp – we’ll discuss how in a minute – its main purpose has been to fine-tune the team, both in terms of its personnel and baseline tactical shapes and concepts, ahead of November’s World Cup.
With 180 minutes logged we’ve learned some stuff about what Gregg Berhalter’s thinking, and we’ve learned some stuff about what he’s trying to do.
Let’s dive in:
The biggest thing that’s jumped out to me over the course of these first two games, a delightful 3-0 win over Morocco and a scoreless draw against Uruguay that was alternately rugged and wide open, is that Berhalter has inverted the US’s base midfield triangle. Throughout most of World Cup qualifying it was a single pivot with a pair of No. 8s pushed forward; through these two games it’s been inverted, with Yunush Musah (or Luca de la Torre) dropping deeper to play alongside Tyler Adams, making a double pivot.
There is a “coming full circle” aspect to Berhalter’s decision here, as when he initially took over he was working with various rotations to create a double pivot. Back then it was Adams, deployed as a fullback, who would push up and inside next to the nominal d-mid – Michael Bradley or Wil Trapp, and yes, 2019 seems a million years ago – to sit in front of two central defenders and a stay-at-home left back who basically never overlapped. The idea was to get a solid enough defensive foundation to let the five more advanced players just go to work in attack.
Over time Berhalter, as mentioned, went to a single pivot. Adams (it was almost always Adams) had a very clear remit: Protect the backline, snuff out any opposing transition moments, win the ball and play it quickly to those who are able to do more with it.
What we never saw was something like this:
That’s Adams pressing way, way up, which is something I can’t recall him doing any of since the US moved to a single pivot. In this instance he gets cut out of the play and it becomes the responsibility of Musah to slide over and protect the backline from the exact sort of cutback that almost led to a goal here, but Musah never sees it. It’s just not something he’s used to with club or country.
The flip side is he’s now, in possession, doing more of the types of things he actually is used to (and is excellent at): ball progression. Pushing Musah deeper gets him on the ball earlier in sequences, which draws opposing defenders upfield and, once he cuts them out of the play, puts the US into positions of numerical advantage.
Here ya go:
That is the value of getting him on the ball deeper, and earlier in the play (and the same goes for de la Torre, who is a like-for-like sub for Musah). He doesn’t produce goals and assists, but he does produce the stuff that needs to happen first in order to make goals and assists possible.
The other advantage of putting Musah deeper is, by the end of qualifying, Adams had kind of been figured out by the rest of Concacaf. He is iffy receiving the ball in traffic and is limited in his distribution, and so as the windows went on the US veered more and more toward becoming a team that played against the ball rather than a team that plays with it. Adams is not, by any means, the only cause of that tactical drift, but he’s definitely at the heart of it.
And I think it’s pretty telling that, in the first two games after qualifying, Berhalter changed the midfield shape and responsibilities so drastically.
The upshot of all of the above is that Brenden Aaronson and Weston McKennie have both been put into spots where they can play as something closer to what I think most would consider being a true attacking midfielder. It wasn’t 100% across the board – there are still moments where each drops deep into a line with Adams and Musah in the US’s base 4-3-3 – but more and more often the US, on the front foot, looked like a team playing out of a 4-2-3-1.
Whether you consider the player in this spot to be a true No. 10 or not doesn’t really matter; what does is understanding their job is much less about ball progression through the middle, which falls to Musah and (to a lesser extent) Adams, and more about operating in the half-space as part of the attack. If, for example, they’re operating in the right half-space it’ll usually be the right winger out wide, the center forward occupying the middle channel, the left winger (Christian Pulisic basically all the time) in the left half-space and the left fullback trying to get around the edge out wide.
The goal is to get to the baseline 3-2-2-3 formation in possession and to create both positional and dynamic superiority. Throughout 2021 and most of 2022, the US had aimed for a 2-3-2-3 instead.
It sounds minor, but it’s really not a trivial distinction. Getting efficiently into final third kill patterns, and getting your most talented attackers into spots in that final third where they can execute said kill patterns, is how you can make a solid team good or even great.
I’m not sure scrapping the single pivot is the way to do it, but I understand the ideas behind what Berhalter’s done here.
Against Morocco, Berhalter tinkered with a rotation that turned what was nominally a back four into a back three, as Antonee Robinson was given license to overlap all day long in his usual manner from left back, while Reggie Cannon – who has played mostly as a right center back for Boavista in Portugal this year – didn’t overlap at all. Instead, he’d slide inside to create that 3-2-2-3 look.
Against Uruguay the fullbacks, Joe Scally on the left and DeAndre Yedlin on the right, were operating on the basic “you stay I go” system. In other words, if one was overlapping then the other stayed home. Nobody was cutting inside to create midfield overloads and nobody was sliding inside, Cannon-style, to create a permanent back three.
Scally, who was targeted all night by La Celeste, couldn’t manage it. He barely got forward and the few times he did, he created nothing. The knock-on effect was a significant attacking imbalance for the US:
(Note you can see McKennie’s positioning there in the right half-space. He’s No. 8).
An attacking imbalance is not, in and of itself, a calamity. Just look at the Musah clips above and you’ll see the two best US chances of the game came down the right-hand side.
But Jedi’s played 85% of available USMNT minutes this year and his absence against Uruguay (he came on midway through the second half, but the game was truly gone by then) was visible. Not having him – or someone like him – at left back drastically changes the way the US can play.
Ideally, that’s not something the US will have to worry about in Qatar. Ideally, Robinson will play every single minute.
But what if he can’t? Putting Sergino Dest at left back and slotting Cannon or Yedlin in at right back is just a massive shift for the US since Dest doesn’t create width or penetration on the overlap when he’s inverted. George Bello came up short both in qualifying and at Arminia Bielefeld, while Scally’s a right-footed wingback who evolved from a starter into a sub over the course of last season.
I wouldn’t be against bringing Sam Vines in for another look. Vines struggled at first in Belgium, but wound up winning a starting job down the stretch and into the playoffs. The other high-upside option is young Kevin Paredes (my favorite player of the bunch), who was outstanding last year for D.C. United, but didn’t really break through at all for Wolfsburg when he moved in January (nobody breaks through for Wolfsburg right away, unfortunately).
Both of those guys are left-footed, overlapping, attacking fullbacks. Both are plausible like-for-like back-ups for Jedi, and I think we’ve got to have that on the roster.
So here’s the question: Do you credit the player who finds high-upside chances for understanding attacking patterns well enough to actually find those chances in the first place? Or do you ding him for not finishing?
That’s what the situation with Jesus Ferreira is at the moment.
Now, understand on a long enough timeline, a given player’s actual goals will tend to match their expected goals, and in that instance Ferreira is massively underperforming for the US. But he massively underperformed for Dallas in 2020, then found his level last year, then upped his level this season. That feels like a pretty natural progression for a young attacker, and since Berhalter keeps showing faith in Ferreira, and since the overall attack keeps operating better with Ferreira out there, I tend to think the No. 9 is Ferreira’s job to lose.
I am sympathetic to those who would rather Berhalter go in a different direction (and for what it’s worth, I expect Haji Wright to get a start in at least one of the next two games). Guys like Wright, Daryl Dike, Jeremy Ebobisse and Brandon Vazquez don’t just move well; they have dominant physical characteristics that make them a different type of center forward than Ferreira, who’s more of a false 9 than a classic striker.
The question is, though, will they even find the types of chances Ferreira is currently failing to finish? Dike has struggled mightily in his non-friendly appearances for the US, while Wright missed his one good open-play chance against Morocco, then touched the ball just four times in 29 minutes against Uruguay (which is in line with his underlying numbers from Turkey, which say he finds good chances, but doesn’t find many of them and doesn’t do anything else at an above-average level). Vazquez and Ebobisse might not even be a glint in Berhalter’s eye as far as we know.
I do think Ricardo Pepi has a chance to work his way back into the picture, provided he actually puts the ball into the net a little bit for Augsburg. For Jordan Pefok and Gyasi Zardes, however, I think the ship has most likely sailed.
Regardless, what we’ve learned about the No. 9 job for the US is we’ve got a lot more to learn about the No. 9 job for the US.
I think it’s telling Aaron Long started both games alongside Walker Zimmerman. Long wasn’t perfect – there were a couple of times he scrambled slowly in the 18, which led to a spectacular block vs. Morocco and a massive let-off vs. Uruguay – but he was better than the other two options, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Erik Palmer-Brown.
Carter-Vickers does a lot of good stuff when the ball’s on the ground, but he’s not Long’s equal in the air, and that matters. Here are two clips from CCV’s 45 minutes against Morocco. The first is a header Long wins, and the second is a header Carter-Vickers completely whiffs on:
Misjudging the cross to allow Tarik Tissoudali a free look speaks for itself, but that first clip is important as well. Carter-Vickers has never really shown the ability to muscle a center forward and win a long clearance like that for the US, and has struggled to do it for his club at higher levels. His weakness in the air is the reason he plays in Scotland rather than England, full stop.
So right now I think Zimmerman’s first in the center back pecking order, with Chris Richards second, Long third and either Carter-Vickers or Mark McKenzie (who did not have the best year with Genk, but played more down the stretch and into the playoffs) fourth.
One thing I will say is if there needs to be a fifth center back – and there should be if rosters are expanded to 26 – it should be James Sands because of his versatility. He’d slot into the depth chart as a fifth center back as well as a third d-mid and a third right back.
I’m not sure Berhalter sees it that way, and the fact neither Sands nor McKenzie are in this camp doesn’t bode well for them. But going five-deep at center back and three-deep with d-mid ball-winners should be non-negotiables.
• Taylor Twellman said during the Morocco game he thinks the No. 1 goalkeeper job is Matt Turner’s to lose, and I tend to agree. He’s the superior shot-stopper, which is what matters most, and is going to be training with an Arsenal side that demands improvement in his footwork playing out of the back.
Add in Zack Steffen’s repeated struggles for both club and country, and I will be surprised if Turner’s not the starter this autumn.
I don’t think Johnson truly has a shot to win the No. 1, but I would honestly choose him, Ethan Horvath or, obviously, Turner over Steffen at this point.
• For me the Musah/McKennie/Adams midfield is written in pen. I understand there is a sentiment in certain corners of the internet to bench one of Musah or McKennie in favor of Aaronson, but… no. Inverting the midfield triangle, as Berhalter did this week, did a nice job of showing how Aaronson* could play in the midfield effectively (he’s been disastrous when played as one of the dual 8s). But to me, that was more of a “let’s see what he can do in case Wes is hurt” type of thing.
(*) Also, this role was made for Djordje Mihailovic. I can see now why Berhalter kept insisting he was brought to camp as a midfielder.
• If Aaronson’s competing for a starting spot anywhere, it’s on the wing. And the truth is nobody – not even Pulisic – should have their name in pen in that front three. If all four of Aaronson, Pulisic, Tim Weah and Gio Reyna are healthy and good to go in November, then most likely two of them will be coming off the bench (though there is at least a chance Weah could be used as a No. 9 instead).
Still, if I were a betting man I’d wager Pulisic and Weah are the starters. But just think about how much has changed in the past five months, and imagine about how much can change in the next five.
We’ve learned a lot about what Berhalter is thinking, and about the state of the player pool. There are only two games left in this window – just four games left until the freaking World Cup itself is finally here! – but we’ve still got a lot of learning left to do.