Gregg Berhalter set the stakes when he was hired as the US men’s national team head coach back in late 2018.
“We want to use the ball to disorganize the opponent and create goal-scoring opportunities," he said a month into his tenure, at his first national team camp as the guy with the clipboard. That came a month after he said during his tenure he hopes to “change the way the world views American soccer,” a mantra he’s frequently repeated throughout his tenure and one that players like Christian Pulisic have picked up on.
So at this point, four years into the Berhalter era, with the grind of World Cup qualifying and the highs of both the Nations League and Gold Cup well in the rearview mirror, and with 270 definitive minutes (hopefully more) approaching at what feels like light speed, has this US team made progress toward that goal?
And if so, what would success look like?
I don’t know if it’s good luck or bad luck that the US, in two of their three games, will be facing teams that would look very familiar, in terms of both approach and disposition, to any Concacaf fan.
The first of those teams are the Welsh, who are returning to the World Cup for the first time in 64 years. They got here by doing very Concacaf things: sitting deep, countering like mad, killing anyone who naps on set pieces, and fouling viciously when the game calls for it. This will be just like a trip to Saprissa, up to and including Wales’ 5-4-1 formation!
So how do you break that down? Well, Plan A for the US will be to possess the ball along the backline and try to tease Wales out, opening up space to play in behind. I would expect to see a lot of Walker Zimmerman and Tim Ream (or Aaron Long) pinging short passes back and forth, trying to move the Welsh midfielders enough to slip a ball between the lines into the pocket either to an inverting winger on the left (likely Christian Pulisic) or a free 8 on the right (probably Weston McKennie).
The goal of that is to peel one of the Welsh center backs off the backline, creating room for a diagonal run into the golden zone by one of the wingers.
It actually comes off on this play, which produced the game-winner at home vs. the Ticos last year:
Obviously that is not a textbook switch from McKennie, and definitely not a textbook touch from Joel Campbell. But you can see why getting into the pockets is going to be the thing the US try to do.
If and when that doesn’t work (and please note that it mostly won’t work – Wales are very organized and battle-tested), Plan B will be to recycle possession and create the types of wide overloads that can eliminate the wingbacks and force crisis rotations from the rest of the Welsh defense.
Shawn Brooks put together a very good, in-depth Twitter thread on it that I recommend you check out. I’m going to pick the most salient clip from it:
Those will be the two big gambits. Please prepare yourself emotionally for a lot of side-to-side passing, and to see instant verticality only selectively.
The heavies in the group are England, who are among the most talented teams in the world even if they’re only rarely played like it over the past year. They enter this tournament winless in six, injured in crucial spots (no Ben Chilwell or Reece James, and it’s probably not wise to expect much from Kalvin Phillips, either), and the vibes are bad.
But I’ll reiterate the talent is still very good. England could very well win this thing, even down a couple of pieces.
That said, I’m really not sure how they’re going to play vs. the US. Manager Gareth Southgate has toggled between a 4-2-3-1 (he tends to use this against weaker foes) and a 3-4-2-1 over the past 18 months, and the US are almost right exactly in that sweet spot where the choice could be either. Beyond that, for all their talent England are still more comfortable in transition than they are in possession, so they could be entirely content with the idea of the US carrying play.
I’m not sure the US should be content with that, though. I think the idea for the US should be to turn central midfield into a contest of second balls, as they did against Mexico – the closest thing to England in this group – in both World Cup qualifiers.
Here’s what I wrote after the 2-0 win last year in Cincinnati:
This was a sterling, A+ performance from the US. This was the version of BerhalterBall all of USMNT fandom had been hoping to see, and then waiting to see for damn near 36 months now. His vision, it turns out, really can work.
And with all of that, the most telling stat of the night (besides the scoreboard): The US won 67 duels, while Mexico won just 48.
Tyler Adams had talked in the days leading up to the game about how the midfield trio of himself, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah have “big engines,” and that they wanted the game to be fast and full of confrontations. That’s how it played out and that’s how the US won.
And here’s what I wrote after the 0-0 draw (that should’ve been a win) in the Azteca earlier in 2022:
• Musah and Adams had the types of performances we’ve come to expect from them. Mexico didn’t even look at trying to build through the middle until the US legs started to go, around the 75th minute or so, and those two guys are the biggest reasons why.
• El Tri’s gameplan of hitting big diagonal switches to either attack the US fullbacks 1v1 or get into space behind was a good one, but Jedi and Yedlin mostly held up, and after the first 20 minutes the US attackers did a much better job of preventing those switches in the first place.
England will pull their line up much more than Wales or Iran do, so the US will get chances to play over the top and into the channels – provided the center backs have time enough to get their heads up, anyway. That absolutely will be on at least once or twice on Black Friday.
But success via Berhalter’s system in this game will mean swamping the midfield, winning the second ball and getting vertical immediately. Big engines.
And then it’s back to breaking down the bunker.
While there's a good amount of ambiguity with England and some with Wales, there traditionally has not been with Iran under Carlos Queiroz. The former Metrostars manager (seriously – look it up) is as Portuguese as it gets, which means to him, a 1-0 win off a counter or a set piece is the most beautiful thing in the world (it’s a wonder his team alienated the local fanbase here in record time, isn’t it?).
The Iranians play a 4-1-4-1, but it’s so compact it almost doesn’t even matter how you want to write the formation out, because they will always always always have numbers around the ball. If the US are going to break them down, it will be more chainsaw than scalpel.
And that will call for a combination of both the previous gameplans:
• The US need to be patient, as against Wales, and swing play side-to-side to open up gaps and passing lanes against Team Melli.
• When playing into those lanes, the US need to realize that winning a second ball is often just as profitable as actually completing the pass. In other words, they need to flood the zone and leave their wingers high for quick, diagonal switches of play.
Once the US do that, there should be opportunities to get into the golden zones on the side of the box on the underlap, and at the same time to get multiple runners into the box for low crosses across the six.
It’s not complex – and I guess you could say it’s actually kind of the opposite of what Berhalter talked about four years ago when he started this job – but it’s what the US are probably best cut out for.
If they need a win on matchday three, anyway. If they don’t, and if it’s Iran that comes into the game needing all three points and desperate to carry the game, then it’s time to stuff the notion of changing the way the world views American soccer.
Because a desperate Iran is an Iran you can attack in behind, into space, and if the US have the opportunity to do that… well, I think a pretty easy, no-frills stroll through the group stage would change a few minds about what US soccer is and can be, even if it comes at the price of pure aesthetics.
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