The US men’s national team checked a bunch of boxes on Wednesday night in a 3-0 friendly win over Morocco at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati, the first of six remaining games before the World Cup finally – finally! – kicks off in November.
Just from my own mental checklist of things I wanted to see:
- Multiple high-quality shots from well-worked, intentional sequences of play.
- Flexibility and a bit of invention in midfield build-out shape.
- A few compelling performances from guys fighting for spots.
- A shot-stopping masterclass in net.
I think all those boxes were checked. It wasn’t perfect, mind you – young Joe Scally, for example, didn’t do himself any favors while Jesus Ferreira had a chance to stake a real claim on the No. 9 job but, well, you know what happened. To borrow a line from The Athletic’s John Muller, Ferreira’s going to find out just how seriously head coach Gregg Berhalter takes expected goals.
But after a World Cup qualifying campaign that was always stressful and basically never pretty, it was nice to watch the US ball out and have fun. It was relaxing.
And there’s the rub: real games are never this relaxing. I made the point on our watchalong that, from the jump, this one felt like a friendly, and Charlie Davies and DaMarcus Beasley, two guys who understand very clearly the difference between games that count and games that don’t, both immediately agreed.
Want an example of what I mean when I say “felt like a friendly”? Achraf Hakimi, who is the world’s best right back at the moment, carelessly lost the ball three times in the first 15 minutes of the game. Just gave it up. In none of those instances did he immediately work to get it back.
Think Hakimi’s that sloppy or uncommitted in a qualifier or an AFCON game? Certainly not at the World Cup itself, right?
But it’s a friendly, and friendlies are played in a different gear. My point in all of this is not to pour cold water on the USMNT’s win, but to remind you all not to jump too high or too far with any conclusions based on this particular game.
Still, though, we saw some stuff. So let’s go back to that checklist:
If Haji Wright just squares for Tim Weah instead of shooting, this sequence probably goes down as the best goal of the Berhalter era, right?
Armchair Analyst: USMNT build-up to Wright shot
This is sort of the Platonic ideal of what a press break looks like. The US were calm playing around the backline, and they did it a lot on the night with nearly 65 percent of their passes coming in their own half (Morocco were down at 52 percent as per TruMedia via StatsPerform). Time and again the US’s calm possession sucked the visitors further and further upfield until Aaron Long had the opening to play a pinpoint line-breaker – which he did a number of times on the evening in completing 38 of his 42 pass attempts – or Walker Zimmerman had the chance to play over the top.
These weren’t blind, hopeless long-balls. On the night, the Yanks advanced upfield at a Man City-esque 1.08 meters per second.
The result from this type of thing was the US generating about .18 xG per shot, which is elite from any team in any game. Morocco generated many more shots, but much fewer quality looks (especially after a rocky first 20 minutes, defensively speaking, from the US).
Berhalter’s played around with two different build-out shapes* in his four years in charge. First it was a 3-2-2-3 with the right back tucking inside as an ad hoc central midfielder. He scrapped that after about six months and turned to a 3-2-2-3 with simpler backline rotations and a regista-style No. 6 as the fulcrum, which was understandable given how much success he had with that approach in Columbus.
(*) Understand that this almost always comes out of a base 4-3-3, which was once again the primary formation on Wednesday.
A few bad results early in 2021 forced Berhalter away from regista-style d-mids as the US slowly evolved more into a pressing team than a pure possession team. Part of that was a switch to a 2-3-2-3 with lots of the work coming via combo play from the right back and central midfielders, though again with simplified rotations compared to what we saw in early 2019.
On Wednesday night it was back to a 3-2-2-3, with a few things standing out:
• Right back Reggie Cannon, who’s spent most of his career as a fullback but most of this club season as a right center back in a back three, really was more of a right center back than a right fullback in this one.
• Yunus Musah, playing on the left of the three-man midfield, was much more of a holding No. 8 who’d often drop back alongside the No. 6, Tyler Adams. The other No. 8, Brenden Aaronson, played much more like a pure attacker. The network passing graph (Musah wears No. 6, while Aaronson wears No. 11) actually reflects that to a good degree:
In past iterations under Berhalter, the roles and responsibilities of the No. 8s were much more balanced. But coming out of this game, you could definitely say that Musah was the more defensive one and Aaronson the more attacking one.
I think it’ll go back to a more “normal” look when Musah and Adams once again get a chance to share midfield with Weston McKennie, who had himself a 20-minute cameo at the end of this one with the game already gone. But I thought this was a clever way to get Aaronson into the midfield mix while minimizing his biggest weakness (he doesn’t find much of the ball and doesn’t do much ball progression) while maximizing his strengths (his pressing made Sofyan Amrabat’s life hell, and he was always available to combine in the attacking third).
The downside, of course, was that the positioning of Aaronson, Weah and Cannon left the US vulnerable to big, right-to-left switches:
Armchair Analyst_ US undressed on a switch
“I think they switched the ball really well,” Zimmerman said. “That’s something that we needed to change in the second half, especially from the right side to the left side. Figuring out how to shift, whether that’s with our attacking mid or releasing our fullback up to their left back or left winger. We didn’t do that quick enough in the first half, we were a little bit indecisive and that allowed them some space to operate.”
While Morocco were generally less dangerous in the second half, I don’t actually think the US ever quite figured out how to prevent those switches and button-up completely on the defensive side of the ball.
When thinking about that, bear in mind that Morocco’s shape is similar to England’s, as is their propensity for big, useful switches. I think this goes straight to the top of the list of Berhalter’s things to solve.
Long had one bad moment getting turned, but was very good in his distribution and dominant in the air:
Armchair Analyst: Long header leads to Ferreira shot
None of the defenders were bad, per se, but it was disjointed and so Morocco often had a ton of room to work. I think that had more to do with the US structure (and Morocco’s quality) than individual performances.
While neither Jesus Ferreira nor Wright scored a goal from open play*, both guys linked well and did a good job of playing off the other attackers and getting into dangerous spots. As long as that keeps happening – as long as they look like they know how to be part of a more cohesive whole, and the chances keep falling to them – I’m good. The goals will come.
Luca de la Torre is a jolt of electricity when he comes in, and is absolutely fearless advancing the ball into the attacking third. I love him.
I was less enamored of the performances of Cameron Carter-Vickers, who still struggles in the air, and Scally, who remains naive on both sides of the ball. Malik Tillman started slow but grew into the game, though I’ll also say that the game was pretty much gone by the 75th minute, so YMMV on how much you want to read into that.
I’ll bundle Turner’s return into the “compelling performance” list, since he’s still fighting for a job as the No. 1. I think everyone will look at the role he played in that build-out clip above and rightly be impressed with his calm, pinpoint distribution, and I don’t think that’s wrong. Turner, for what it’s worth, knows he has to do more of that if he’s going to convince Berhalter the No. 1 kit should be his.
“I have to train at a higher level,” Turner told Sam Stejskal of The Athletic recently. “The style of play with the Revolution is mighty old school. If there’s pressure, we don’t really try to play out of it too much. At Arsenal, the goalkeepers are required to play a little bit more with the ball, playing in the system rather than just sort of going out there. They have to follow tactics and game plans a little more closely. Those are things that I know are valued with the national team that I’ll be challenged more with Arsenal.”
Fair enough. But there is literally no amount of footwork that’s as valuable as elite shot-stopping, and that’s what Turner brings to the table. As long as he continues to be that guy, he should continue to see his name on the team sheet.
• Between the assist to Aaronson and letting Wright take the penalty, this was maybe the most unselfish game I’ve ever seen Christian Pulisic play for the US. He even dispensed with the hero ball propensity for dribbling into multiple defenders.
• There needs to be a like-for-like replacement for Antonee Robinson on the final roster, someone who can provide width and penetration from left back. But no one – not Scally, nor George Bello, nor Sam Vines – have played their way into that role. It’s fallen from one to the next to the next basically by default.
It’s for that reason I’m bummed that Kevin Paredes, who I rate higher than any of them, isn’t at this camp.
• It was VERY interesting to see Berhalter give De La Torre and Musah a few minutes as dual pivots near the end of the game. I’m not sure how much (or how little) to read into that, but I largely agree with this tweet:
• Sunday’s game against Uruguay (5 pm ET | FOX, Univision, TUDN) will likely be an entirely different kind of test. Morocco came out and tried to use the ball, and while la Celeste can do that, they are just as comfortable dropping deep into compact banks of four, which allows them to absorb pressure and then hit on the break. That’s exactly what they did the last time they played the US in a friendly back in 2019 (USMNT tied 1-1).
The US couldn’t really solve it then. We’ll see what happens this time around.