Before we go all-in on the torches and pitchforks, before we embrace the hate and recriminations, before we collectively lose our freaking minds after that listless and dispiriting and punchless and putrid display from the USMNT in a 1-0 friendly loss to Jamaica in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday night, let's just grab some perspective on what the team was trying to accomplish.
Because there was purpose behind the experiment that Gregg Berhalter pulled in this one. Maybe it wasn't the best thought-out experiment in the world, and clearly it did not yield positive results, but there was an idea behind it at the very least.
FS1's Stu Holden tried to illustrate it for us before the game:
For @USMNT- This will be an experimental 3-4-2-1 formation - GB looking for 2nd option. In attack and transition looks very similar to GB regular 4-1-4-1 when fullback tucks inside and wingers are pushed high. Illustration here: pic.twitter.com/uhAKiLa2aF— Stu Holden (@stuholden) June 5, 2019
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Stu did a better job than the players of making that work. The players did a very, very bad job.
I do understand the idea behind the experiment, though, as it was a continuation of the final three minutes from the US's prior friendly, against Chile. The US had the better of that game for about the first 20 minutes, then the Chileans dominated the next 40, eventually breaking the US shape and forcing the team out of the hybrid 4-3-3-in-the-build, 4-4-2-in-defense, 3-2-2-3 in attack (henceforth known as "The System") that was the go-to for the first three games of the Berhalter era.
In that game, back in March, Berhalter inserted a second holding midfielder and switched to a 5-4-1 that sometimes played like a 3-4-3. And it worked pretty well, as the US had the better of play against Chile for the final 20 minutes.
Why not try it from the start, then? Well, that's what happened in this one, and while the first six minutes were kind of fun, the final 84 were an abject nightmare of sloppiness, confusion and passivity. At one point midway through the second half the US had been outshot 12-1 and were losing duels by 44 to 32. Those stats say "this team did not show up," and that's right around when I got this text from a friend:
"I expected us to look a little disjointed because new group/new system. But I at least expected us to compete better than we have."
So did I. Here is a bullet pointed list of possible explanations and concerns:
• The formation Berhalter went with in this one, which was – let's face it – the old Steve Sampson 3-6-1, was both unusual and counterintuitive for a lot of the players out on the field. Jamming four central midfielders into the XI meant that the US would, in theory, dominate central midfield.
It didn't work out that way, though, as the US actually got dominated for long stretches right where they should've been strongest.
In any formation, when playing defense, a team and all individuals have to navigate the tension between keeping your shape and getting pressure to the ball. The best, most cohesive teams, do it so well that you almost don't (or can't, because they're so good at it) register just how attached they stay to each other, just how quickly they move in unison, just how ruthlessly they hunt the ball and close down passing lanes.
The US have not even come close to figuring out the right balance for this in five games under Berhalter. Yes, they almost always keep their shape, but it comes at the cost of passivity and ceding too much easy possession in useful spots. Against good teams, that eventually becomes danger.
Forget everything else: This is the most important thing for Berhalter to fix in the next two weeks. If the US can't get pressure to the ball, it doesn't matter how clever the system is, or how good the shape is. We will lose.
• Exacerbating the above were (and potentially are) the personnel choices. Wil Trapp's not a ball-winner – to a shocking extent, sometimes, given the number he wears – and neither is Jackson Yueill. Those were the deep-lying midfielders, and behind them were a trio of center backs who were not going to win a footrace against any of the Jamaican attackers.
Those realities meant that neither of the wingbacks was confident pushing up early, which in turn meant that the US had almost no attacking width once the first six minutes were in the books. The 3-6-1 or 3-4-3 basically turned into a 5-4-1... at home, against a Jamaican team composed primarily of USL players.
• Man did the wingbacks struggle. Man. Man oh man.
• It got better in the final 25 minutes when Nick Lima and Duane Holmes came on, and the US switched out of the 3-6-1 and into "The System." Both guys played with purpose and commitment, and pretty much the only good stuff that happened on the night, from a Red, White & Blue perspective, happened via their endeavor.
They actually completed some passes, and moved a bit off the ball. It was refreshing, because that's the kind of thing that hadn't existed in the first hour.
• To put it another way: In that first hour the confusion and passivity in defense also infected the US when in possession. Most everyone had a terrible game with regard to their touch (both first and passing), but somehow had worse games in terms of their movement. They almost all looked like they were thinking through a series of complicated dance steps rather than, you know, playing soccer.
It reminded me of the US U-20s vs. Qatar. They were so worried about making a mistake that they were afraid to make a play.
• All of this brings us back to the question that has been hanging over this team for the past six months: Is The System more clever than good? Especially since it takes Tyler Adams out of defensive midfield?
I understand the rationale behind that decision – I have written about it extensively. We have never seen Adams dictate a game with the ball as a true No. 6 either in MLS or the Bundesliga, nor at the youth national team level. And Berhalter really seems to want to dictate the game from the back point of the midfield, to the point where he's willing to sacrifice Adams' defense in the most important spot on the pitch in order to get the notional possession/tempo upgrade offered by either Trapp or Michael Bradley.
But this is brutal. Unless you're a Pirlo-level distributor, this is just not enough from a No. 6:
GET PRESSURE TO THE BALL!!!!
The first three games under Berhalter provided data points that suggested he might be onto something. The last two, including the abomination on Wednesday night, suggest he's getting it wrong.
• Even with all of the above said, think about the spots where Djordje Mihailovic was able to get on the ball this evening. He did nothing with those opportunities, but does this game look different if/when it's Christian Pulisic in those spots? Is there a little bit more (and cleaner) combo play, and/or moments where the midfield is actually able to burst through the lines?
Probably. I'm not sure it would have been enough to justify the 3-6-1, or if it will justify The System. But if the execution was better from the players – most of whom made solid arguments that they should not be on the Gold Cup roster – the scoreline (and this column) would have been very different.
More to come tomorrow in my newsletter.