The first of those took place in sultry Cincinnati Wednesday night, and Gregg Berhalter’s group walks away from their 3-0 friendly win over Morocco with a raft of encouraging data points – as well as a few blemishes that the coach hinted will draw ample scrutiny in light of the daunting adversaries and tight margins awaiting them at the world’s most beloved sporting event.
“We talked before the game about establishing a baseline for this group about how we can perform against World Cup opponents. And I felt like the group went out and showed exactly how good we can be, but also at times were vulnerable,” said Berhalter after a victory paced by a swaggering display from captain Christian Pulisic. “We're very happy with the result. We still know that we need to keep improving, and that's why this game was so good for us.”
This was the first step in an unconventional and unavoidably imperfect buildup to Qatar. Two of their six opponents are outside their choosing, thanks to the Concacaf Nations League. And the COVID-19 pandemic and the compression it imposed on the World Cup qualifying process have prevented the USMNT from testing themselves against elite global opposition for most of the past two years.
The Yanks passed this first test.
“It was a good opponent, very, very dangerous opponent. And I think we controlled the match pretty well, and were able to create a number of chances against a good defensive opponent,” said Berhalter.
“These guys are playing regularly in Europe and playing for big teams and big clubs,” he added of the North Africans, who cruised through their CAF qualifying campaign undefeated. “Really happy that we got to play against them.”
The USMNT flashed a tactical wrinkle as their usual 4-3-3 formation morphed into a 3-2-2-3 in the buildup. Left back Jedi Robinson roamed forward while Reggie Cannon tucked centrally. Brenden Aaronson and Pulisic were freed to probe between the lines, while spearhead Jesus Ferreira drifted and combined in his usual elusive fashion.
The result: Flowing stretches of attacking possession as well as threats from direct play, like Walker Zimmerman's ball over the top that released Pulisic and led to the opening goal.
“Based on what we saw Morocco do, based on how we wanted to control the game, we think that it's a very difficult formation to play against, to build pressure against,” explained Berhalter of the 3-2-2-3.
“If [opponents] want to really commit to building pressure, you have to bring numbers forward. And once you bring numbers forward there are spaces that open up on the side of the field, and between the lines. So we wanted to use Christian and Brenden in those positions to really hurt the opponent, and then still have three guys high on the backline that could be running behind them and keeping their five pinned back.”
WATCH: USMNT dispatch Morocco 3-0 in World Cup tune-up match
If the scoreline threatens to send fans’ expectations soaring, they merely need to review the Yanks’ defensive jitters – and the ensuing eight saves required from goalkeeper Matt Turner – to gain some grounding.
Gent striker Tarik Tissoudali bedeviled Aaron Long and Cameron Carter-Vickers with his physicality and movement. The Atlas Lions' talented wingbacks, Paris Saint-Germain regular Achraf Hakimi and Watford’s Adam Masina, repeatedly sparked danger down the flanks, each playing a game-high four key passes. Young substitute Joe Scally was baited into conceding an admittedly quite questionable late penalty-kick decision that Selim Amallah wastefully clanged off the woodwork.
“Sometimes the center backs, [Morocco] got a good cross in the second half, we were out of position,” noted Berhalter. “For me, it was about how quickly we could release to their wingback in the first half; Hakimi had too much time on the ball, and he was a little bit late releasing. I think at times our backline was too deep, gave the opponent too much space. And in the physical battles, I think at times we got dominated on our backline.
“It was a good opponent, good forward [Tissoudali], the guy’s scored a ton of goals this year, and he got really physical. But for us, it's about team defending. Getting pressure on the ball makes it a lot easier for the center backs.”
While the degree to which Turner was exposed hinted at Achilles heels in the US setup, the extended possession that precipitated their second goal, Tim Weah’s thumping strike from distance, was more encouraging.
“I think it's about moments. And we have to be really careful and really deliberate to keep the ball when we can, and really hurt the opponent in certain moments with the ball,” said Berhalter. “I mean, how long do we have the ball before we scored the second goal? For a while, yeah. And that's perfect. I mean, just keep doing that. Keep wearing them down, wait for an opening and then play behind.
“You need to control the tempo of these games, because there's going to be very little separating the teams at the World Cup, and it's about the teams that can control the tempo and then be decisive in the key moments.”
All in all, it was a decent beginning to the end of the road to Qatar. Further progress will be demanded in Sunday’s meeting with Uruguay in Kansas City (5 pm ET | FOX, Univision, TUDN).