Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Young USMNT provides the expected vs. Martinique

The final was 6-1 and honestly, that scoreline flattered Martinique a little bit. The US men’s national team was that good on Thursday night in Kansas City, smashing Les Matinino on the rocks of their relentless and ruthless possession, always looking forward and always putting pressure on goal. It was, in that way, the kind of performance head coach Gregg Berhalter had demanded from his side after the fairly listless 1-0 win over Haiti in the group stage opener.

It was also against Martinique, so it’s dangerous to read too much into the scoreline or even the individual performances. As Berhalter said after the final whistle, “We’re not jumping to conclusions on anyone based on tonight.”

That is smart and good. Now let’s jump to some conclusions based upon this match:

Forward from the back

Daryl Dike had two goals. Cristian Roldan and Matthew Hoppe, who nominally played underneath Dike in a 3-4-2-1, were massive contributors on both sides of the ball. Eryk Williamson was a dynamic two-way presence. Walker Zimmerman won everything in the air and hit some the night’s bravest passes.

But to me the Man of the Match was young James Sands in the middle of that back three. He had more touches than any other US player, and completed 96 percent of his passes. In a vacuum that could mean he was playing too slow, but not in this game. In this game he was able to repeatedly hit disguised passes into pockets, freeing the likes of Williamson, Hoppe and Roldan to make decisive attacking plays:

His ability to disguise his passes like the three in that clip above, drawing the defense away from his intended target and then playing across their momentum, is a weapon — one that was particularly devastating against a Martinique side with a clear, early mandate to keep their lines tight (it was shocking how compact they were through the first 10 minutes).

That mandate didn’t last, though. Sands, more than anyone else on the US, was the one responsible for pulling those lines apart.

“I liked his game today. I thought it was excellent,” said Berhalter afterward. “He battled, he competed, his passing was excellent. So it gives us an option. You don’t always have the opportunity to play three in the back, but he gives you that option, certainly.”

Here is the thing about that: If you’re going to play with three center backs, at least one of them has to be comfortable advancing the ball upfield more than just nominally. Sands was really, really good at that.

It matches what he’s done in league play with NYCFC over the past 12 months. By some metrics he was dead last at his position as a passer of the ball in 2019 — a pure destroyer whose only mantra was “get it off my foot and recycle the possession.” He didn’t look scared, precisely, of passing forward. It just looked like it never occurred to him to do so.

In 2021 those same metrics have him in the 90th percentile as a distributor. He is, for NYCFC, a weapon. And now it’s looking like he’s the same for the USMNT.

The midfield battle

Williamson is a 24-year-old who, at this time last year, had only ever started three MLS games. Gianluca Busio is a 19-year-old who, at this time last year, had never played professionally as a defensive midfielder. Their presence is a reminder of how quickly national team depth charts can change when players get the right club opportunities at the right spots.

This game also served as a reminder of just how much polishing both players still have to do. Williamson was occasionally spectacular, gliding around the field and advancing play to dangerous spots with seeming ease, then hitting telling passes once he got there. He also, quite often, took too many touches and lost possession in bad spots — the types of spots where a team like Canada would turn those lost possessions into quick transitions and counterattacking opportunities.

Williamson needs to harness his considerable skill and confidence and marry it with just a bit of prudence in those moments. That will most likely come with time.

The same for Busio, whose faults during this game were less about lost possessions (though he did have a few of those thanks to his penchant for playing hospital balls) and more about lost 50/50s. He went just 2-for-9 in his duels, repeatedly getting rag-dolled by the bigger, stronger, older Martinique midfielders on 50/50s.

Berhalter didn’t name names, but it seemed pretty clear who he was talking about in this postgame quote: "I didn't think we were competing well enough on [2nd balls].”

That, from Busio, will most likely come with time both on the field and in the weight room. I’m not saying he needs to go with the full Goretzka-at-Bayern transformation, but physical strength matters in this game, and there were quite a few moments out there where Busio’s lack of it cost the US a 50/50.

Against a better team, that could’ve hurt pretty bad.

Still, considering both these guys were in their first full national team starts and didn’t really play like it, both were brave about getting on the ball and trying to do progressive things on it, and both were brave on the turn. Even if they weren’t always clean with it, the fact they repeatedly wanted to be on the ball in the toughest spots and worked hard to be available is exactly what you want to see from young (or maybe “inexperienced” in Williamson’s case, as he isn’t really young anymore) players in these games.

The 3-4-2-1

We’re now two-and-a-half years into Berhalter’s tenure so it was maybe kind of stupid of me to think he was going to go with a 3-5-2 just because the personnel in the XI seemed more suited to a 3-5-2 than to any other formation. He had actually said earlier in the week he was not going to play that formation from the start, and as I’ve written elsewhere, I can’t remember a time when he’s actually gone with that shape outside of being forced to late in a game due to injury or some other unusual circumstance.

So it was, in fact, the 3-4-2-1. Here’s the network passing graph from the game:

US network passing graph

It worked, but not always as intended. Berhalter obliquely referenced this in the postgame, noting the team's “positional play can improve.” In large part this was due to Hoppe, in particular, marauding all over the attacking third in search of space rather than functionally occupying the half-spaces, as positional play entails.

I can’t blame Hoppe a bit — he was really effective whenever he found space, as the first goal and a few other highlight moments showed. But he looked very much like a forward playing attacking midfield, which is why I really thought this was going to be a 3-5-2 with Hoppe and Dike up front rather than a 3-4-2-1 with Hoppe and Roldan underneath a lone front-runner.

All of the above emphasizes that yeah, this really is a quite weird roster construction by Berhalter.

A few more thoughts:

  • Neither Zimmerman nor Miles Robinson were perfect, but through two games I have grown increasingly comfortable with the idea of this partnership (with or without Sands in between them) on the field in a World Cup qualifier. The final group stage game against Canada — Cyle Larin, Lucas Cavallini and Ayo Akinola — will be a worthwhile stress test of that data-based assessment. It is a must-win in order for the US to top the group.
  • I sure hope we get to see Dike start against Canada.
  • Young left wingback George Bello struggled. He got into good spots time and again, but too often took an extra touch and couldn’t provide the telling ball. He has improved massively on the defensive side of things over the past year, though.
  • I was happy for Nico Gioacchini, who finally got a goal in front of his friends and family late in this one after about a million chances. He works hard and finds good spots, and while I think it’s unlikely he contributes to World Cup qualifying this time around, he looks the part of someone who can grow into a useful player with reps at the right club. If I were Orlando City and about to sell Dike, I would seriously be thinking about trying to sign this kid.