Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

What we learned from the USMNT Gold Cup group stage showing

The US men’s national team made it through the group stage and into the knockout rounds of this 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup.

It is good. That is a legit accomplishment for an experimental (and now, more than ever, weirdly unbalanced) roster designed more to test the depth of the pool than to go out there and win this damn thing. But winning the damn thing is still important — Gregg Berhalter has repeatedly stressed that winning is part of the culture he’s rebuilding for this program — and while this group doesn’t seem to be playing the type of soccer that leads to trophies, they are, in fact, still standing.

That matters to me, even if it was ugly. I like this energy from Daryl Dike, especially after 90 minutes of pure struggle from him:

What, besides that, have we learned from the Gold Cup?

The Second Six

While winning is important, adding depth to the qualifying roster is infinitely more so. By that measure the play of Miles Robinson, Shaq Moore, Matt Turner and James Sands makes Group B play a success, because all four look very much like guys who can help.

It is, I think, Sands who has stood out the most. The 21-year-old almost never misses a challenge (though Cyle Larin gave him a valuable lesson midway through the second half of Sunday’s 1-0 US win over Canada), which is the most important thing. Sands has such good timing and takes such good angles that he’s constantly getting to the attacker just as the ball is getting to the attacker, which means he forces turnover after turnover after turnover, and is absolutely expert at putting out fires.

He’s shown to be more than that thus far, though. Sands has been subtly excellent at evading pressure and connecting progressive passes into meaningful spots on the field:

He came off the bench to close out the win over Haiti. Against Martinique, I thought he was the man of the match in his first US start. Both of those came with him in the middle of a back three.

Sands was once again in the middle of a back three on Sunday against Canada, except … he kinda wasn’t? Berhalter tried out what I felt was a wild heat check by playing a 4-4-2 diamond with Sands at the back point when the US were in possession, and a 5-3-2 with Sands dropping between the center backs when the US were out of possession.

Except sometimes Sands was asked to drop wide of the center backs (usually to the right side) when the US were on the ball, and other times he was asked to step way up into central midfield almost like a sweeper when the US were off the ball.

Those aren’t typical rotations you ask of a new player. Or a veteran! It honestly felt like Berhalter wanted to see how far he could push Sands, tactically speaking, and at what point he would break. Just to get a feel for where the limit is.

The good — great! — news is that he didn’t break. I’d argue he thrived, handling everything that both the opponents and the tactical set-up asked of him. And in the process he showed enough skill and savvy on the ball that … I mean, just use him as the No. 6, right? Play a regular old 4-3-3 with Sands as a regular old No. 6 tasked with protecting the backline, putting out fires, winning the ball back, and playing simple, decisive passes.

The most pressing issue in the US pool, as far as I see it, is that Tyler Adams is the only guy who reliably does all of the above at an international-caliber level. There is no like-for-like back-up worth trusting.

Sands is sitting right there, man. Ask him to be that guy and let’s see how it goes. Let’s not overcomplicate things, and I bet everyone will be happy in the end.

The same, sadly, can not yet be said of Gianluca Busio. The 19-year-old was pretty consistently rag-dolled against Martinique and two steps slow to even get into challenges against the Canadians.

Part of the latter is that his role was almost as complex as Sands’, but even so, Busio has a nasty habit he’s got to shake: When he gets beat, he stays beat. He doesn’t work or fight to get back into the play.

Bear in mind that he’s two years younger than Sands and has been playing full-time defensive midfield all of three months. I will bet large that he will improve.

But in terms of being both physically and mentally hard, he’s nowhere near where he needs to be yet.

Padding the center back depth chart

Walker Zimmerman was largely very good before coming off injured vs. Canada, though I did think that was a penalty. He was lucky not to concede it and then, you know, unlucky that he actually got hurt on the sequence.

Miles Robinson, meanwhile, has probably been just as good as Zimmerman, if not a little bit better. There have been a few rough moments, but his A+ athleticism has allowed him to have some textbook “emergency defense” moments against the likes of Larin, Tajon Buchanan and a few of Haiti’s better attackers. There is literally no center back in the entire US pool — I’m including the Europe-based guys in this assessment — I trust more to win the battle in a 1v1 situation. Robinson is that guy.

And the bonus is that Robinson’s improved distribution that we’ve seen with Atlanta has mostly translated with the national team.

I don’t think anybody would be concerned to see him in the lineup for a qualifier. And given how unproven much of the center back depth chart is, and how much Berhalter is going to have to rotate during qualifiers, that matters quite a bit.

Progressive carries

Watch this old clip of Pep Guardiola, which is one of my favorites that occasionally makes the rounds on twitter:

The US midfield, with the exception of Eryk Williamson, has been reluctant to drive the ball forward off the dribble and force the opposing defense to make decisions. Sebastian Lletget has been way too comfortable settling for a back-pass, while Kellyn Acosta hasn’t gotten around the ball enough since the Haiti game to actually bend the defense to him. Busio has taken space if it’s there, but like Lletget has been way too conservative with the passes he’s picked.

Williamson, in his showing against Martinique (so it has an asterisk), was not. He repeatedly forced the defense to make hard, on-the-fly decisions, and punished them when they were slow to do so.

Did he turn the ball over in bad spots a few too many times? Yes, absolutely. But the point of these games is to get young and/or inexperienced players reps at the international level so they can figure out the speed of the game and where to take risks.

I want Williamson out there doing that because he has the skill and confidence to make those risks pay off in ways that none of the other midfielders on the roster have shown, and in ways that would open up the game for the rest of the attack.

The unbalanced roster

It’s a weird roster for one big reason: there are four center forwards. Dike, Gyasi Zardes, Nico Gioacchini and Matthew Hoppe are all better — in some cases much, much better — as center forwards than as wingers or halfspace merchants or in any other role.

And yet because of the injury to Paul Arriola and Jonathan Lewis basically playing himself out of contention with that showing against Haiti, both Gioacchini and Hoppe have had to spend most/all of their time on the field at \not\ center forward. Zardes and Dike, meanwhile, were up top together in that 3-5-2/4-4-2 against Canada and predictably had zero chemistry.

The knock-on effect of taking four center forwards isn’t just inferior wing play or a lack of chemistry up top: it’s a lack of depth along the backline, as there are only four US center backs.

One of them — Zimmerman — is hurt.

One of them — Sands — is better as a d-mid or in a back three.

One of them — Donovan Pines — is pretty clearly out of his depth at this level, at least for the time being.

I am glad we got to see the 3-5-2 because even a negative data point (as in “Man, did that &*%^ not work”) is valuable in prepping for qualifiers. But I’d be more comfortable if that experiment felt more like it was by design instead of something Berhalter was forced into because of weird roster choices.

My Lineup for the quarters

Assuming Zimmerman is healthy:

Doyle's XI for the quarters

A few notes here:

• If Zimmerman can’t go I would rather see Sands get the start next to Robinson in central defense and Williamson drop into the No. 6 role. Then bring Lletget back into central midfield and put Hoppe in at left wing.

• Yeah, playing Lletget and Cristian Roldan as wingers is less than ideal, but both guys have played there a ton before, and both guys are problem-solvers both on and off the ball. I trust them to figure out how and where to find space, especially if they’re asked to come into the half-spaces instead of stretching the field.

And if it doesn’t work … I mean, you’ve got five subs. Use ‘em at halftime if you have to.

• Dike was really, really poor against Canada, but I still want him out there anyway. There’s nothing we can learn from Zardes in the quarters that is going to be new, while Hoppe and Gioacchini don’t present the same possible upside at the No. 9.

• Sam Vines is the obvious starter at LB at this point, and I see no reason not to keep rolling with Moore at right back (or wingback if it's a 3-5-2/3-4-3). I even think there's an argument to experiment with Reggie Cannon as a right center back in a back three, while keeping Moore as a wingback. If either of those two proves able to operate as a RCB — as Alistair Johnston has done for Canada over the past month, it should be noted — that could open up a good amount of roster flexibility during qualifiers.