National Writer: Charles Boehm

USMNT emphasizes “verticality” for October World Cup qualifiers

Horseshoes are traditionally perceived as a symbol of good fortune, but in the context of a soccer team’s passing maps, they’re anything but.

Analysts have taken to using the term as shorthand for the pronounced pattern created by a surplus of lateral passing, ball circulation across the backline in front of an opponent’s organized defensive shape and a paucity of penetrative passes into “Zone 14” and other dangerous chance-creation areas in and around an adversary’s penalty box.

This phenomenon can be detected in the US men’s national team’s first two Concacaf 2022 World Cup qualifying matches earlier this month, draws at El Salvador and home to Canada:

While he didn’t drop equine terminology in his conference call with journalists after Wednesday’s roster announcement for their October qualifiers, Gregg Berhalter seems to have kept this topic front of mind in selecting his squad for the trio of matches vs. Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica.

“The way we always want to play is to be aggressive, is to break lines, is to play behind the backline,” said the coach. “One of our benchmarks each game that we discuss with the team is runs behind the backline, and I just didn't think we did that effectively enough, particularly in the first two games. So that's a focus of ours moving into this next window.”

To that end, Berhalter and his staff have called in a range of players capable of providing more directness in attack. Brenden Aaronson, Paul Arriola, Matthew Hoppe and Tim Weah are the prime options on the flanks, while Ricardo Pepi – hero of the comeback win over Honduras – and Gyasi Zardes are seen as complementary No. 9s whose movement can facilitate a more aggressive, “vertical” approach.

“At times against Honduras, when we started doing it, we gave them a ton of problems,” said Berhalter. “And when you have guys like Paul, when you have guys like Brenden Aaronson, Gyasi, Ricardo Pepi, Timmy Weah, these guys will stretch the backline and will look to get behind, and that's a really important part of our game. What it does is opens up space in the midfield and lets us play more effectively.”

Conversely, the likes of Jordan Pefok and Josh Sargent seem to have been left out via the same set of priorities, with the coach citing “our need in these games for some verticality and some speed to get behind the backline.”

Berhalter described his forward corps for this window as “two and a half strikers,” hinting that Hoppe will get equal consideration out wide.

“They speak really highly of him at Mallorca, really impressed with his numbers in training, what he's been doing. So I think he can help us again in either position,” said the coach. “At the winger position he gives us this goal threat, this versatility of coming inside and staying wide and going behind.”

His praise for Weah provided another window into that way of thinking.

“For Timmy, I like his versatility. He's another one that plays up front sometimes for his club, plays wide sometimes for his club. He’s a threat vertically, he’s a threat in transition, and he's in a good run of form right now,” said Berhalter, reeling off the 21-year-old’s recent contributions at his French club Lille. “We think he's going to help us.”

The USMNT have come to use a 4-3-3 with twin No. 8s as their default formation. So Luca de la Torre and Yunus Musah are two more prominent additions aimed to bring those traits to central midfield, not to mention the return of Weston McKennie after a two-game suspension.

“With Luca, we really like how he's performing with his team [Eredivisie side Heracles Almelo]. We liked what he gave us when we saw him in camp for the [March] friendlies,” said Berhalter. “He gives us, I think, this directness as a midfielder, a midfielder that can that can break lines dribbling, is good in combination play.”

Though de la Torre can also sit deeper, Berhalter’s words suggest an advanced midfield deployment for the San Diego native, a role in which Musah shined in his limited match action for the USMNT.

“With his ability to break lines dribbling, with his mobility, I think he's a good option to have in central midfield,” said Berhalter of the Valencia CF youngster.

Expected goals statistics are only one data point in this overall conversation – and a limited one – but the USMNT’s numbers in their first three qualifiers underline the basis for their coaches' concerns: 1.68 xG vs. El Salvador, 1.66 against Canada and 1.85 in the crucial 4-1 win over Honduras. Now they must face three more Octagonal adversaries, in all likelihood without the services of the injured Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna this time around

The Yanks are undoubtedly targeting marked improvement in this category. Their prospects of reaching Qatar 2022 may well hinge on it.