Wednesday night’s 3-0 win by the US men’s national team over visiting Honduras provided a pretty good example of both why head coach Gregg Berhalter has installed a new, modern, possession-heavy positional play system, and why the classic US approach – hammer ‘em on set pieces – will never, ever go out of style.
You need both, and after 10 games of the US hammering precisely no one on set pieces, Los Catrachos found themselves on the business end of three exceptional Kellyn Acosta deliveries, and that was that.
The win, which was a laugher and utterly dominant in ways that even the 6-0 win over Honduras from the 2018 World Cup cycle was not, leaves the US on the verge of a trip to Qatar. They have very nearly got the job done.
And so onto the game itself. The subzero conditions in St. Paul, Minnesota were miserable – Concacaf should not have allowed the match to be played – and Honduras have been worse than miserable throughout qualifying, so let’s not get too carried away drawing sweeping conclusions. But we can certainly point out what went right, and what holds potential to help the US in the next, final qualifying window as the Concacaf Octagonal's second-place team.
There has been a lot of hand-wringing over Berhalter’s positional play system, which has often seen the US play way too slow and bogged down. They often look like they’re thinking rather than just playing, which goes a long way toward explaining the lack of high-quality chances this team’s produced (or not produced) throughout qualifying.
There are other, less-often-spoken-of reasons to institute positional play. One is attritional – by accruing so much possession over the first hour of games, the US have generally had more energy over the final half-hour. And the boxscore numbers bear that out, with the US now having outscored opponents by 8-2 from the 60th minute onwards (both goals against were scored by first-place Canada).
And then there is the defensive reason. If you don’t let the minnows get on the ball in the first place, the minnows can not/will not generate shots, and thus will not score goals. Apropos of everything, here is the shot map on the night:
The US had 73% possession. Honduras never came close to threatening Matt Turner’s goal.
Berhalter’s system doesn’t just prize ball dominance for the sake of it, though. Good positional play schemes create natural pitch balance and support, so that when attackers get on the ball in high-leverage areas – the types of areas where even the best players often lose possession – they are not isolated, and there is immediate help from nearby teammates to either win the ball back, or at the very least blunt opposing counterattack opportunities.
This has held true no matter who the US have played against, as I’d argue they haven’t conceded a true counterattack goal in all of qualifying. The US still aren’t good at winning the ball back and immediately turning it into a chance themselves, but they are good at making sure they don’t get gashed when they take risks and push high.
That’s a combination of personnel and pitch balance. It’s an example of Berhalter’s system working.
Honduras played a flat 4-4-2 and didn’t tell anyone to pay special attention to Acosta. And so Acosta ripped them up:
Armchair Analyst: Acosta mini comp v Honduras
His ability to find space and then hit accurate switches with either foot meant that possession was often swung out to Reggie Cannon or Antonee Robinson in space with as many as five teammates streaming into the box. Neither Cannon nor Robinson had a good night crossing the ball, but the US were running the right routes and constantly putting Honduras’ backline under pressure in this way. That pressure led to chances and fouls, and those fouls led to set-piece chances and goals.
The other notable thing, and you can see it in the clip above, is how much depth and off-ball penetration the US created even against a packed-in, bunkering opponent. Again: this creates the type of pressure that makes bad teams fold, and fold they did.
Luca de la Torre looked as comfortable getting on the ball in tight spots and progressing play into the attacking third for the US as he has for his club team, Heracles Almelo of the Eredivisie. He’s one of that league’s leaders in progressive carries and total ground covered, and the ability to get possession from Point A to Point B expeditiously is something that’s often gone missing when Yunus Musah hasn’t been in the lineup.
It is dangerous to read too much into one start against the dregs of the Octagonal, but I was more impressed by what I saw from de la Torre than what I’ve seen from the other back-up 8s Berhalter has relied upon thus far. He certainly appears to be, at the very least, the most like-for-like replacement for Musah, and that in and of itself is valuable since there could/should be a baked-in level of familiarity based upon playing style.
• Cannon, as mentioned, struggled to find the final ball, but he is always effective because he’s always moving off the ball to create triangles and outlets. I still think he’s the second-best right back in the pool, even if a few of the younger guys have higher upsides.
• Even if Christian Pulisic (who was good in his cameo off the bench) and Gio Reyna are healthy and in form for the next group of qualifiers, Tim Weah’s still a starter.
• The US are now 6-0-0 with 15 goals scored and just one conceded in the six games that Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson have started together in central defense. That includes the most recent dos a cero over Mexico, so it’s not just minnows.
• I thought Weston McKennie was excellent over the course of this whole window, largely translating his club form with Juventus to the national team. I’m glad he got the opener off a set piece, because he’s come so damn close so many times.
• Set-piece delivery, from Pulisic in the first two games and Acosta against Los Catrachos, was superb for the US this window. Put this ball, in particular, into the freaking Louvre:
Armchair Analyst: Acosta delivery to McKennie
More service like that and the US will score more set-piece goals. More set-piece goals combined with the run-of-play pitch control the US have displayed almost throughout qualifying, and they will punch their ticket to Qatar.
They’ve almost managed it. One more win from the final three games will likely be enough, but the job’s not done yet.
See you all in March.