Jackson Yueill – USMNT – Concacaf Nations League

I’m writing this the day after a US men’s national team match, and as is the case more often than not on such days, lots of people are mad online about it. That’s despite the 1-0 scoreline in their favor over Honduras, which prompts a Concacaf Nations League final on Sunday against big, bad Mexico (9 pm ET | CBS Sports Network, TUDN, Paramount+).

There’s lingering post-Couva anger, frustration at the gap between what individual players are achieving in Europe and their USMNT productivity, and also some basic pandemic stir-craziness at play here. While the general tenor in postgame media availabilities for head coach Gregg Berhalter and several players was “that wasn’t great but we got the dub eventually and we’ll learn from this,” there are legitimate reasons to stand somewhere along the continuum from underwhelmed to seriously concerned.

As we turn towards the latest “Choque de Gigantes,” here’s my attempt to separate a few of those from the general vitriol. We should also bear in mind that Sunday is the USMNT’s third game in eight days and second in four, all at high altitudes. In basic physiological terms, lineup changes are inevitable.

Yueill play the 4-3-3 and Yueill like it

I’m a well-established Jackson Yueill Appreciator. But I agree with Matt Doyle’s critique of his performance against Honduras, and I suspect there’s a real chance Gregg Berhalter makes a change at the No. 6 spot against El Tri. Both Yueill and Berhalter bear responsibility for that.

The San Jose Earthquakes regista has been given plenty of chances to carve out a spot on the roster, and remember that he was anointed captain of the U-23 Olympic qualifying team last March. Yueill can ping it around the park like few midfielders in the pool, or at least he does for his club.

He’s been more cautious (Matt used “timid”) in his choices for the USMNT lately, playing like he’s self-conscious, or afraid of being the weak link, which is a quick way to become the weak link. “Scared money don’t make money,” and the above clip hints at the frustration he risks cultivating in his teammates by not playing more efficiently and instinctively.

Here’s where we get to the coach. I’ve been having flashbacks to the Olympic fiasco, because Berhalter is showing the same rigidly orthodox insistence on his currently favored version of the 4-3-3 (specifically, with twin 8s in front of a lone 6) that Jason Kreis did down in Guadalajara, which happened to crescendo with a costly loss to … [checks notes] Honduras. While loyalty to a clear and methodical tactical system is laudable, Thursday night was yet another example of a Concacaf environment punching your meticulous plan right in the face, to paraphrase Mike Tyson.

Why is Jackson Yueill – a very different type of player from Tyler Adams! – seemingly the only option at the 6 when Adams is unavailable (which injuries have made all too common lately)? Technically they’re both defensive midfielders, but they’re NOT equally suited to be the lone shield for the back four behind 8s like Weston McKennie, Sebastian Lletget or Yunus Musah. The current structure simply doesn't set up Yueill for success.

If Berhalter’s system requires pushing Yueill into a harsh spotlight that he’s not suited for in the name of consistency across the XI, then the system needs to be tweaked. If Adams is fit to start against Mexico, then it makes sense to stick with this interpretation of the 4-3-3. If not, drop one of those 8s deeper, and maybe simple turnovers don’t turn into fire drills at the back quite so easily. We don’t even have to call it a 4-2-3-1!

Where’s Yunus?

Tyler Adams’ back problems are the culprit for the New York Red Bulls academy product’s absence. Yet the reason for Yunus Musah’s non-involvement against Honduras is harder to pinpoint.

The Valencia dynamo, alongside McKennie and Adams, made up one-third of a central midfield trio in last fall’s friendlies that produced some of the USMNT’s most impressive periods of engine-room dominance in years. His “zone-moving” abilities (i.e. advancing the ball forward from one phase of play to the next) are unmatched in the pool, and he provides a rangy, tenacious physical presence in both directions.

I thought, perhaps naively, that this made him a must-use weapon for Berhalter this month. But he logged half an hour off the bench in Switzerland and didn’t appear against Honduras. What gives? It’s tempting to guess that there must be a physical issue here that we haven’t been made privy to, but perhaps Berhalter is just saving him (and maybe Adams) for Mexico.

El Tri will hunt the ball a lot more aggressively than Honduras, they usually create a lot more danger with it, and they’re loaded with quality. (Go back and rewatch that 3-0 post-Gold Cup friendly thrashing in September 2019, if you dare.) I don’t think the USMNT can afford to go toe-to-toe with Mexico without a fit Musah, even if it requires sacrificing the trusted Sebastian Lletget. We’ll see how Berhalter sees it.

What Josh Sargent, and Mexico, deserve

Fighting one gloomy Bundesliga relegation battle after another, the Werder Bremen striker has really been through it at club level over the past couple of years. I believe Berhalter factors that in, to some level or another, with his steadfast faith in the 21-year-old, who seems to have remained his first-choice No. 9.

A No. 9’s first job is to score, though, and Sargent hasn’t done enough of that for the USMNT. It can’t help his cause that his competitor, Jordan Siebatcheu, replaced him on Thursday and saved the day by doing exactly that. There seems to be gathering momentum for Siebatcheu to start against Mexico, an understandable sentiment.

It’s also pretty harsh on Sargent, who puts in the work every time out and effectively did the same thing as scoring a goal against Honduras by racing back to bail out goalkeeper Zack Steffen’s early gaffe with an amazing goal-line clearance. A wide-open Sargent also got snubbed by Gio Reyna and Christian Pulisic twice in glorious positions, moments where the young stars elected to shoot instead of pass:

Berhalter has hinted that he sees Sargent’s passing and movement as signs of a more complete skill set compared to Siebatcheu, who’s known more for being aerially dominant. But if that means Siebatcheu is a more direct option, and considering that his clutch goal arose from a relatively direct passing sequence between John Brooks and McKennie, and keeping in mind concerns about the USMNT overthinking things in tactical terms, then maybe it’s time to be more direct.

This wouldn’t be a complete abdication of Berhalterian ideals, either.

Direct play might goose that pressing approach that he seems to want to emphasize, even if it wasn't always easy to tell on Thursday. There’s something to be said for shifting the zones of engagement deeper into Mexico’s end and Siebatcheu could prove a rugged reference point for that. Go back and look at some of the USMNT’s all-time best moments against Mexico and you’ll see plenty of the likes of Brian McBride and Jozy Altidore, which I don’t think is a coincidence.

Whether Berhalter goes that route, shifts around the front line to create more threats to run in behind El Tri’s backline, or both, some kind of tweak is needed to give Tata Martino’s bunch something unexpected to think about. If not, the ranks – and volume – of the skeptics might just intensify in the weeks ahead.