We are three games into the 14-game Octagonal, which means the US men’s national team are just over 20% of the way home. You probably remember exactly what happened in the September qualifying window, but here’s a quick sum-up in case you don’t:
- Game 1 was a disappointing draw at El Salvador in which the US left points on the table due to some questionable squad selection and sloppy finishing.
- Game 2 was a disappointing draw vs. Canada in which the US were lucky to hang onto the point due to some obvious chemistry issues.
- Game 3 was a terrifying 1-0 halftime deficit at Honduras that turned into a landmark 4-1 win after head coach Gregg Berhalter switched from a galaxy-brained 3-4-3 to a bog-standard 4-3-3.
- In between the El Salvador and Canada games, Weston McKennie got suspended for having too much love in his heart. He's back with the team and, according to Berhalter, is back in the starting XI.
- Gio Reyna got hurt in Game 1. He’s not back yet.
- Christian Pulisic got hurt in Game 3. He’s not back yet, either.
- Tyler Adams, Miles Robinson, Antonee Robinson, Matt Turner and Brenden Aaronson distinguished themselves.
- You might also have heard that Ricardo Pepi had a halfway decent US debut.
Those are the results and big storylines from last month! If you want a deeper dive, click this sucker right HERE. If you want a more macro-level takeaway, it’s this: Berhalter overcomplicated things with various tactical, positional and formational tweaks for five halves of soccer while a young, talented group learned that they were a young, talented and slightly overconfident group. World Cup qualifying hits different.
In spite of all of the above, the US finished unbeaten and tied with Canada in second place on five points and with a +3 goal differential. It was not a good window but it was a fine window, and if Berhalter and the players learned their lessons (Adams, at least, seems to have done so), then it will have been a productive one as well.
The way that would manifest itself is with fewer complications from Berhalter and fewer intensity deficits from the players. They spent the final 45 minutes of the previous window kicking Los Catrachos into the *&^%ing sun. Just bottle that -- familiar formation, straightforward use of personnel and principles of play -- and let ‘er rip.
Once again it’s a three-game window, one the US opens by hosting an already-reeling Jamaica side at Austin FC's Q2 Stadium on Thursday evening (7:30 pm ET | ESPN 2, Univision, TUDN).
You know that segment of the USMNT fanbase that thinks that just because a player is in Europe, that player is going to come to Concacaf and dominate? That was the entire Jamaica fanbase ahead of the first window. It didn’t go well for them.
The Jamaican federation has spent much of the past four years recruiting dual-nationals -- almost all of them English-Jamaicans -- to come represent the land of their parents or grandparents. Basically all of them play in the top two flights of the English game, and a couple (Michail Antonio, Bobby Decordova-Reid) are legitimate stars.
Because of the UK red list travel ban that was in place last window most of those guys didn’t get to suit up in Jamaica’s two road games, which were at Mexico (a valiant 2-1 loss in which Andre Blake gave us all the full Andre Blake experience) and at Costa Rica (a super credible 1-1 draw). They only got on the field for the middle game, which was at home against Panama. And they got absolutely smoked, losing 3-0. Welcome to Concacaf.
So yeah, one point from three games means this is a team in flux.
Antonio is not back for this window. Neither is Leon Bailey, nor a host of others who most would consider being among the team’s top talents. I’m not going to say that’s a good thing -- you need talent to win games. But talent alone isn’t enough; you need chemistry and intensity and buy-in as well, and I don’t think Jamaica had any of those last month.
So maybe a pared-down squad will actually work to their benefit in that regard. The guys who are there now, like Reid and Kemar Roofe, as well as old standbys like Blake, Kemar Lawrence and Damion Lowe, really want to be there. They have accepted the hardships of grinding through qualifying.
And it will be a grind for them in this game, most likely. The Reggae Boyz don’t tend to go full bunker even when severely outmanned, but they did so against Mexico and it damn near worked. In part that’s because of Blake’s greatness, and in part because any semi-accurate clearance is a potential breakaway.
Don’t misunderstand me here: There are players in this squad with legit high-end quality and class both on and off the ball, and thanks to Reid and Shamar Nicholson in particular, they have some real playmaking nous. Theodore Whitmore does not want his team to be purely a counterattacking side, and in most instances they don’t have to be.
But when they do have to be… good luck keeping up.
Chances are, for the US, that this will in some ways feel like facing Canada again. Jamaica will likely play a different shape -- a 4-4-2 is Whitmore's most preferred formation, though there’s been some 4-3-3s as well -- but will likely grab John Herdman’s gameplan with both hands and literally run with it.
One note: This is the least important match of the window for Jamaica. Just in terms of game theory, the home match this weekend against Canada and then the trip next week down to Honduras are much more likely to affect the Reggae Boyz’ final place in the standings (not just points gained -- got to think about points denied). So I wouldn’t be shocked if the likes of Reid and Nicholson began this one on the bench in order to keep them fresh.
Want to know why I was kind of happy Berhalter didn’t call in a replacement for John Brooks? Because I’m pretty sure it means he’s committed to the 4-3-3 for this window. You don’t play a back five if you’re only carrying four center backs.
And a straightforward 4-3-3 really is the USMNT’s best look. We saw it in Honduras, and we should see it again here.
• Turner is an easy choice in goal even if he hasn’t been up to his usual standards of late.
• The best way to break down a low block is to get your fullbacks up and outside around the edge so that they can get to the endline and hit pullbacks across the six-yard box. Dest and Antonee Robinson are the best in the pool at that, so it’s a no-brainer to start them.
• It’s also a no-brainer to start Chris Richards alongside Miles Robinson. Richards is going to have to make his World Cup qualifying debut at some point, so why not at home in a game where the US are likely to have the lion’s share of the ball?
• Adams is not the slickest-passing No. 6 option (that’d be Gianluca Busio), but I need Tyler Adams out there for his reading of the game, his range and his leadership. And it’s not like Adams is a bad passer of the ball, it’s just that we don’t get to see him command games with the ball all that often given how RB Leipzig plays.
• McKennie is back in the XI. Good. I’m hoping for a statement game.
• Yunus Musah missed Wednesday’s training while waiting for a COVID-19 test -- negative, thank science -- so I could see Berhalter opting for the steady hand (feet?) of Sebastian Lletget instead. Lletget is, in fact, super useful going against a low block.
But Musah is basically my favorite player in the pool and, as with Richards, you’ve got to get him out there sooner or later. At home in a game you’re likely to control, and against a Jamaican midfield that 1) lacks a ball-winner, and 2) got overrun three times in three games last window seems like the best time to me.
• There’s no way Pepi sits after what he did against Honduras. Same for Aaronson.
• Weah, like Richards and Musah, would be making his World Cup qualifying debut. He offers verticality -- Berhalter has said that roughly 1,000 times over the past 10 days -- but he’s really, really underrated as a problem-solver out there both on and off the ball. And he’s an absolute demon closing down opposing defenders, which could play a big role one way (forcing turnovers that the US can turn into chances) or another (making sure any hoofed clearances aren’t accurate enough to turn into Jamaica breakaways).
Expect him and Aaronson to swap sides a lot.
The balance of this roster, both in terms of how the pieces theoretically work together and in terms of the array of leadership and experience just feels right to me:
- There's one guy on each line -- Richards, Musah, Weah -- making their qualifying debut, which means they’ll always be surrounded by guys who just got finished doing this exact same thing last month.
- The marauding fullbacks are supported by two ultra-responsible defensive wingers and the two CBs in the pool who can cover the most ground and do the best job of defending in space.
- The added steel and range Musah provides in central midfield makes it easier for McKennie to push forward with those box-arriving runs he’s so good at.
It’s simple. It’s straightforward. It should work. Now, let’s just hope that Berhalter and the players took last month’s lessons to heart.