Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

The fundamental questions the USMNT must answer before the World Cup

Pulisic Doyle USA

The US men’s national team, in their final friendly before November’s World Cup in Qatar, posted a scoreless draw in Spain against what amounted to the Saudi Arabian B team. It was not great, and I’m not sure it warrants super granular analysis.

I am not the only one to feel this way.

“It’s a difficult one to truly analyze,” FOX color commentator Stu Holden said near the end of the broadcast. “From a competitive standpoint there wasn’t a real intensity to the game. From a United States perspective I think it was poor – not as poor as the Japan game.”

Playing “not as poor as the Japan game” is, at least, some kind of step forward from last Friday’s 2-0 loss. Even so, I don’t think that anyone’s going to come out of this camp with an overabundance of confidence.

What they’ll come away with instead is a bunch of questions. So again, rather than get into a granular, nitty-gritty breakdown of the game itself, I’m just going to tick off these questions that I think Gregg Berhalter needs to answer before a ball is kicked in anger in the Group B opener, Nov. 21 against Wales.

Which version of Weston McKennie will show up?

McKennie played probably his worst game in a US shirt against Japan. He was better against the Saudis – Berhalter had pushed him up into more of an attacking role, and his early off-ball runs created depth that the US never quite managed to put to good use – but still not super influential.

The point I made after the Japan game is that multiple Juventus managers have adjusted their formations and tactics to move McKennie further upfield, out of a ball-progression role and into more of a third-man runner role. The sort of slop that McKennie showed against Japan is the big, negative reason why, while the sort of havoc he almost caused against the Saudis is the big, positive reason.

Here, though, is the thing: we’ve seen a third version of McKennie, one who causes all kinds of hell in the final third (both from open play and from restarts), and who is actually ball-secure and dynamic in possession. In fact, we’ve seen that particular version of McKennie in the very biggest games of Berhalter’s tenure: the Nations’ League final, and the home World Cup qualifying win against Mexico, which I think was the best game he’s ever played for club or country.

McKennie has also had a habit of playing his best games for Juve on the biggest stage. It is not ideal that he’s 24 years old and needs to be dragged to an adequate level of intensity, rather than being the type of leader who naturally has a high level and brings everyone else with him, but it is what it is.

Obviously there are no bigger games than the World Cup. I think the version of McKennie that is so dynamic that, well, Juventus bought him, is the version that the US will see on the field. And I think that version of McKennie will inject the US with the type of pace, competitiveness and dynamism that was lacking during these friendlies.

Because they were, after all, only friendlies, and ones that were played in front of an empty stadium.

Can Christian Pulisic be an attacker anymore?

We’ve just about run out of excuses for Pulisic, who – along with McKennie – was supposed to be one of the two biggest stars on this team. I don’t know if this is too much Tuchel-Brain or too much Gregg-Ball, but for both club and country, this is who he is now as a player:

Ricardo Pepi wasn’t out there playing as a False 9 or anything, so there’s no “it’s too complex a system” excuse. This is a pretty standard pattern of play, and one that is pretty clearly structured to get the wingers on the ball in the most dangerous spots on the field.

Pulisic really isn’t that guy anymore for the US, and while it’s early days in the Graham Potter era, it’s pretty telling that the new Chelsea boss has used Pulisic as a wingback.

Here is the thing, though: while Pulisic didn’t get on the end of any danger in the box, he also didn’t create any danger when getting on the ball in good spots in the build-up. He just doesn’t eliminate defenders off the dribble at a high rate anymore:

Again: I think Tuchel-Brain has something to do with this. But when he was isolated 1v1 against Saudi defenders a couple of times on Tuesday, there was no burst or separation.

Maybe it’s down to the fact that he picked up a knock ahead of the Japan game, which he missed, and was still working through it. Hopefully that’s it.

But I don’t know. There’s starting to be a preponderance of data that says Pulisic’s not the same guy he used to be.

Are Yunus Musah and Antonee Robinson irreplaceable?

Man, it sure seems like it after this camp. Let’s start with Jedi first, and talk a bit about field balance:

DeAndre Yedlin was constantly in the right spot and Walker Zimmerman constantly found him with big diagonals like this, but Yedlin wasn’t able to do much of anything with it. That’s not too much of a surprise, given that Yedlin’s always been at his best as an attacking threat when playing from a pure counterattacking stance, and the US didn’t do that in either of these games.

But what does this all look like if it’s Jedi starting at left back and Sergiño Dest over on his natural right side? I’ve got to think the US would’ve been a bit more productive. (Shouts to Joe Scally, who came on for Yedlin with about a half-hour left and was an immediate upgrade – though he still didn’t really do much).

This is why it was so disappointing that Sam Vines was, well, so disappointing vs. Japan. At this point it’s pretty clear that if Jedi isn’t on the field in Qatar, the US downgrades at two spots (LB and RB), while becoming worse at creating penetration up the left and possession on the right.

As for Musah, the thing he brings that the US missed so much in these two games is this:

Oh wait whoops, that’s an Eryk Williamson highlight, isn’t it? How’d that get in there!?

Anyway, through these two games none of the US central midfielders was able to compromise the opposing defense by carrying the ball and forcing them to scramble. Musah’s the best in the pool at that, and truth be told, Luca de la Torre’s pretty damn good as well – I was bummed he didn’t get another start against the Saudis, especially because it was a 4-3-3 with a single pivot. Kellyn Acosta is gifted in a lot of ways, but ball progression and third-line passes in that spot… he doesn’t really check those boxes.

Of these two guys, I think Jedi’s the one who’s actually irreplaceable, because I think both de la Torre and Williamson can do pretty good Musah impressions.

But Berhalter might think otherwise, which concerns me.

Can Tyler Adams make the plays a single pivot needs to make?

Did you see it? Ok, in case you didn’t, I’ll draw it up for you:


After some good work between Scally and Paul Arriola up the right side, Adams receives the ball square, then orients his body as if he’s going to play wide to the left in order to put Pulisic into a 1v1 on the left.

That would’ve been the ok option. But the perfect option here is to realize that the entire Saudi defense has bit on his body shape and to play across his hips back to the US right side to put Scally directly into the primary assist zone.

This had the potential to be the ideal US attack! A fullback creating width, a winger and center forward already basically in the box, capable of mixing up their runs, and Pulisic charging off-ball onto the back post.

Instead… if you watched the clip you know that Adams picked Door No. 3: A useless soiree ball that allowed a scrambling defense to reset its shape completely.

I was surprised Berhalter chose to use Adams as a single pivot in this game, and it’s because using Adams as a single pivot allows so many moments like this to go to waste.

Where is Aaron Long on the depth chart?

He’s third or fourth, alongside Cameron Carter-Vickers and behind Zimmerman and Chris Richards.

Long’s where he is on the depth chart because he’s better defensively than Mark McKenzie or Eric Palmer-Brown, and is paradoxically less of a liability on the ball because he’s more limited with it – which means he takes fewer risks. Compare Long’s one bad turnover (a mishit switch) to McKenzie’s two pretty ghastly ones on the day, and try to be clear-eyed about what you’re seeing.

Carter-Vickers has basically the exact same strengths and weaknesses as Long, though he’s probably a bit quicker on the ground and not quite as good in the air.

What happened to the press?

The reason to play CBs like Long and Carter-Vickers over CBs like McKenzie, Tim Ream, John Brooks and James Sands is explicitly “we’re going to be playing a high line with lots of space in behind us, and we need athletes who can cover in behind.” Long and Carter-Vickers do that job well; the other guys I mentioned… it’s not really their forte.

The implication inherent in that personnel choice is that the US will be bringing their line way up because they intend to press the hell out of teams and create a ton of turnovers, which is something they did well against Mexico in both World Cup qualifiers.

This team is energetic and young, and nobody’s going to confuse them with Barcelona when it comes to their work on the ball. Don’t get me wrong – they have done well with that part of the game in some big situations.

But it’s not their strength, and on days in which there’s no Musah to beat central midfielders off the dribble, and no Robinson to create attacking width and depth, and both of your CBs and your d-mid are suited to playing a high line, and you’ve got your backup No. 6 playing as a No. 8… why the hell weren’t the US running up the Saudis all afternoon?

This could very well just come back to the intensity issue, as even the best pressing teams sometimes struggle to dial it up for a friendly.

I don’t know, though. It’s worrying to me that we’ve got no warmup games left and this particular thing, which goes to the very fabric of the team itself, is a question and not an answer.

What’s the No. 9 situation?

I don’t think it’s quite this simple but boy did Pepi not make a convincing case for himself:

This game desperately needed a Brandon Vazquez or a Jordan Pefok, or even a Josh Sargent. Pepi’s a high-upside kid who will start improving as he gets reps with Groningen, but the US sure could’ve used a bit of grown-man strength up top.

Bringing Ferreira in livened the US up – he once again got on the end of the best chance of the night, which came off some high pressure – but the US weren’t quick or precise enough with their build-up to consistently make use of his skill set.

Berhalter’s aversion to a true target man is, I think, a mistake. I’m not saying it should be a “target forward or bust” situation, but if you’re playing McKennie and Acosta as free 8s, you’re built to win second balls. Yet if your forwards aren’t built to really challenge for the first ball, the whole thing doesn’t really work.

Is Matt Turner the No. 1?

My worry coming into this camp was that he’d look rusty enough as a shot-stopper that this would become a real question.

He didn’t, so it’s not. Or it shouldn’t be, anyway. Turner’s shot-stopping, which is the most important thing a goalkeeper can bring to the table, was excellent across the past 180 minutes, and he controlled his area well.

Even so, Berhalter’s left enough hints over the past week to make one suspect that Zack Steffen’s still got the inside track on the starting job, which would be… “inexplicable” isn’t a strong enough word.

Will Gio Reyna ever be fully fit?

Maybe. But I don’t think anyone – Reyna and Berhalter included – should consider him anything but a super-sub for Qatar. Asking more than 25 minutes out of him is asking to lose him for the whole tournament, and maybe more.

So, now what?

I have no idea how all of this gets answered over the next six weeks, and what’s worse is that I do not think we’re any closer to actually having answers after the past two games. It’s been dispiriting.

But the World Cup’s coming no matter what. Hopefully the right version of Wes shows up, and hopefully the guys we desperately need to be healthy get and stay healthy – and are on the field – when it does.

Doyle roster USMNT post-September