A lot happens in a soccer game, but how much of it matters?
Hundreds of actions take place — passes, dribbles, shots, duels, plus every movement that happens off the ball. Some go well, some go poorly. You can’t expect all of it go right. You can’t even really ask for all of it to be right. You have to decide what matters on that day and hone in on it.
Picking priorities is even more important in a friendly, and even more paramount for a coach taking over a new team. And it’s the thing I’m most intrigued to see in Gregg Berhalter’s first game in charge of the US men's national team, on Sunday against Panama (8 pm ET | ESPN2, UniMás, UDN).
Not who starts, or what formation the team plays, or how they play (although I’m also very interested in those). It’s what Berhalter prioritizes.
In his first game in charge, he’s setting the building blocks on which everything else will come. He’s putting the most core principles to the front.
We know how Berhalter had his Columbus Crew team play — passing from the back, fairly quick to goal in the final third, and a middle block in the defensive phase. But we haven’t gotten decisive answers on how he will have the USMNT play. Do we have the talent to possess as much as he wants? Will he adjust to his most talented players and use a more high pressure style?
What type of team will we have for the next X number of years?
We won’t get all of the answers in the two upcoming friendlies, but we should get a clear glimpse. And it won’t be obvious, but there will be moments that will show what Berhalter’s looking for. Namely, when the mistakes happen.
In the first step of establishing a style, the ideas matters more than the execution. You want to build the right mental habits and decisions. You’re used to playing the ball in the striker? Let’s get you to play it to the center mid. With that, mistakes happen. In a normal setting, you might expect a player to do something different after a mistake. I suspect in these upcoming games, we will see the same mistakes over and over. And that’s a good thing.
The biggest thing the team needs is an identity. Christian Pulisic has said it, you’ve said it, even your great aunt who only watches soccer once a year has said it. They need a clear philosophy that binds the players together. Identities aren’t fleeting, they are ingrained.
Berhalter demonstrated at Columbus that he knows how to build an identity. It’s piece by piece, one element on top of the next. We get to see the first piece he’s putting down on Sunday. It might not stare us in the face, but it’ll be there … in the repeated errors. In those errors, we should get to see what Berhalter’s cooking for the rest of the cycle.