There are big questions for the US men’s national team right now, ones that weren’t ever going to be answered on Wednesday night in Los Angeles. They are questions of coaching, and of big players and bigger attitudes, and of all the other myriad things that any team faces each time they start a new World Cup cycle.
There are other questions – maybe not quite so loaded, and not quite so big, but still very important – that actually kind of can be answered on a night like this one, at least in part. They are questions of overall game model, depth and development. Games like Wednesday's 2-1 loss against Serbia in camps like this can light the way for fans (and pundits) to get a better handle on what the decision-makers are thinking.
Let’s dive in:
Tell me if this sounds familiar: pressing 4-3-3 single pivot with high fullbacks and strong elements of positional play.
If you’ve watched the US since the start of 2019, then it should, because that was the US’s blueprint under Gregg Berhalter. It wasn’t only that, mind you – we saw, against England, a mid-block 4-4-2 and against Iran the US finished off in a 5-4-1 – but the base formation and principles of play were built from that 4-3-3 with what I would consider being a modern approach to how to 1) win the ball and 2) keep it.
And that’s what we saw a young, experimental US side attempt to do on Wednesday. It wasn’t great, obviously: There were a lot of slow reactions and slower rotations to go with the usual helping of sloppy touches typical of January camp.
But it wasn’t directionless, and by god, I’m taking that as a victory. What we saw suggested that a house style has truly been developed, and it’s one that all the players, from the very top of the roster to the bottom, are going to be expected to execute. This is the kind of cycle-to-cycle consistency the best teams in the world have even as the personnel – both on the field and on the sidelines – changes.
Now, obviously, one January camp friendly doesn’t guarantee this will be the case for the US, and, just as obviously, this can all get blown up if the USSF decides to clean house and go in an entirely new direction with the manager and front office. But as long as Earnie Stewart is the sporting director, I don’t think “tear it down and rebuild with a different approach” is in the cards. It feels like the goal is going to be to build upon what worked in 2022 rather than imposing a shake-up just for the sake of shaking things up.
Just to quickly rehash the Serbian goals, since everyone can see what happened in those two moments without a deep dive:
- The wall broke apart and Luka Ilic’s free kick took a friendly deflection to sneak past Gaga Slonina for the first Serbian goal.
- Center back Jalen Neal misjudged a long ball, then a miscommunication between Neal and left back Jonathan Gomez let Veljko Simić stride into the box and make it 2-1.
Mistakes like that happen, especially with young players and especially in preseason. I’m not going to be losing any sleep over those moments.
What was frustrating to watch were the reactions on the defensive side of the ball in transition moments from most of the US players. The point of the relatively rigid positional responsibilities baked into Berhalter’s blueprint isn’t just possession for possession’s sake; it’s to create a scheme where the US players are always in position to have numbers around the ball and win possession back quickly, then go again.
That was what made the US so good defensively in Qatar, and while I didn’t expect this team to execute the scheme anywhere near that well, the regularity with which Serbia were able to not just win the clearance, but actually win the clearance and go off to the races was a little bit disappointing. Aidan Morris (just late to everything when playing as a single pivot 6, though he was better over the final 30 minutes when pushed up as a destroying No. 8) and Alan Soñora (freelancing so much that he was out of position to counterpress, which caused failures further down the chain) were particularly culpable.
It’s not make-or-break for either player at this point in the cycle – it’s rational to think each will be better on Saturday vs. Colombia – and there were certainly other guys on the field who had very bad moments of their own.
But if you’re looking for a reason why the Serbs found so many moments to get on the run with numbers, look to those late or non-existent rotations that left the US in no position to win the ball back in the first place.
• If I need one US player to dime a cross with my life riding on the outcome, it’s Julian Gressel. Against certain opponents, he’s a valuable addition to the pool.
• Brandon Vazquez had a couple of sloppy touches, but he also had the only US goal and generated multiple looks by just doing fundamental No. 9 things. He will continue doing those things no matter who the opponent is or what the stakes of the game are, and I expect to see a hell of a lot more of him in the years to come.
• Kellyn Acosta wasn’t clean on the ball, especially with his passing, but in terms of just hitting the right rotations and knowing the next pass in the chain to make the movement work, he was a difference-maker once he came on at d-mid.
• The Cade Cowell we saw in this game was vastly, vastly different from the Cade Cowell San Jose Earthquakes fans saw through most of what has to go down as a disappointing 2022. That version of Cowell was too often indecisive or invisible. Against Serbia he was consistently dangerous off the ball – I thought he did a good job of understanding the system, and where space would be because of it – and he was both dynamic and decisive on the ball. If there was any justice, he’d have gotten himself a goal.
We’ll see how much of this carries into the next game, and how much of anything we saw against the Serbs matters in the long run because, yeah, the bigger questions still await.