Zac Steffen – Matt Miazga – USMNT anthem
USA Today Sports Images

Wiebe: 5 pressing questions for the USMNT at this summer's Gold Cup

Summer weekends, nothing like them. Read this column, then get outside and enjoy life.

With MLS on a truncated schedule ahead of the Gold Cup/Copa America/AfCon break, we’re switching up this week’s Five Questions to focus on the US men’s national team ahead of Sunday’s tune-up friendly against Venezuela and Gregg Berhalter’s first tournament in charge.

What will I be watching for this summer? Here you go…

How quickly can the group pick up Berhalter’s tactics?

Gregg Berhalter knows how he wants to play – just ask the core of his Columbus Crew team – but it’s hard to know if this crop of players “get it” given they haven’t 1) had more than a few scattered camps to pick up the system and 2) have had some issues bringing their coach’s ideas to life in games. 

Think back to January camp. Not every player picked up on what 3G was putting down. Nick Lima was a primary example of those who did, and his stock went up accordingly. This summer, finally with a full complement of first-choice players, Berhalter has a chance to get everyone on the same page.

The US ought to be able to get out of the group – the expectation is that they’ll win it – with a few tactical hiccups. Will they be able to make the expected run to the final if Berhalter’s system doesn’t come together in the minds of his players and subsequently on the field?

Yes, Jamaica was a changeup from the 4-1-4-1 that Berhalter has been implementing since he got the job, but the training field didn’t translate to the match. This quote tells the story.

“We lacked speed, we lacked aggression in the final third,” Berhalter told reporters after the 1-0 loss. “When the ball is wide, there should be four guys in the penalty box, and we only had two half the time. Even when we won the ball in good positions, now it’s time to counter, now it’s time to force ourselves on the opponent. We didn’t do that.”

The team – one, it must be said, that looked nothing like what we’ll see in the Gold Cup – wasn’t able to bring Berhalter’s vision to life. They fell flat, and now there’s one fewer game for the team that will actually compete for the Gold Cup title to figure it out in live action.

Berhalter knows what he wants. Now, can he get it from his team? It’s an open question, and one that will tell us whether Berhalter is suited for international management. It’s his first time in that particular arena, after all.

Tyler Adams celebrates scoring against Mexico | USA Today Sports

How influential will Tyler Adams be as a right back?

The experiment continues! Berhalter arguably wants more from Adams than any other player, and the system appears to be built around Adams’ ability to be a right back and a central midfielder in the same breath. 

The hybrid right back role – tucking in to help, presumably, Michael Bradley in possession, pushing forward to combine in the attack and using his otherworldly athleticism and stamina to keep the ball in attacking zones and snuff out counterattacks, if needed – is not for the faint of heart or the tactically naive.

Adams can do it physically and mentally, but an adductor injury limited him to just two games for RB Leipzig since the end of March. The 20-year-old has played one game for the US under Berhalter, a March victory against Ecuador. Before that camp, he spent time with his coach on Skype running through his tactical responsibilities.

“It may not work exactly how we have planned, and we’ll have to adapt,” Berhalter said at the time. “But I think in theory, it’s something worth trying.”

Theory is one thing. Time to see it in practice.

Here’s the thing, just because Adams CAN do it – the degree to which is still TBD – doesn’t necessarily mean he’d be best used outside the central midfield role in which he’s thrived for club. Sure, he’s played right back before, but what he did with the New York Red Bulls (stretch the field wingback) and what he’ll do for the US are quite different.

It could work! It might not. If it doesn’t, will Berhalter shift Adams back to the midfield role his UEFA Champions League club and their social media coordinator think suits him best?

What’s the No. 1 partnership in central defense?

No John Brooks, so the long-term answer to this question will have to wait for World Cup qualifying.

In Gold Cup terms, here are the five candidates for two spots (or perhaps three, if Berhalter goes back to five in the back): Matt Miazga, Aaron Long, Omar Gonzalez, Walker Zimmerman and Tim Ream. I’ve eliminated Ream from this particular conversation. In my mind, he’s a left center back in the five-man backline and a stay-at-home left back in the four-man variety. I think the US will mostly play with four.

Here’s what we’ve seen in Berhalter’s five games in charge:

  • Panama: Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman
  • Costa Rica: Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman
  • Ecuador: John Brooks, Aaron Long
  • Chile: Omar Gonzalez, Matt Miazga
  • Jamaica: Omar Gonzalez, Matt Miazga, Tim Ream

What will we see this summer? I won’t pretend to know.

Aaron Long during a January camp friendly |

Which wingers will separate themselves from the pack?

Frankly, I have no idea. Berhalter’s Crew teams lived and died by their wingers. All those big switches and isolation moments don’t matter if the player on the end of them can’t take advantage.

Here are the four options, each with pros and cons:

Jordan Morris

  • Pros: Speed to stretch the backline, can score on the break and in the box, 27 games of international experience
  • Cons: Not fully fit, still learning the position, not a 1v1 threat on the dribble, crossing a work in progress

Paul Arriola

  • Pros: Work rate, smart runs off the ball, added goals/assists to his game, tactically adaptable
  • Cons: Not a game-breaker or a “star” on his own

Jonathan Lewis 

  • Pros: Speed and quickness, effective off the bench, currently in form, true winger
  • Cons: Unproven at the international level, not always clean on the ball

Tyler Boyd

I’ve seen the highlight videos. I have not seen him play a full game. Therefore, I will withhold any and all judgement and send you to this piece from American Exports expert Brian Sciaretta.

Christian Pulisic during a friendly against Jamaica | USA Today Sports

Will Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie take over?

All these words won’t matter much if the US’s best players don’t play like it. Pulisic has proven he belongs in that conversation. McKennie? This is his tournament to do so.

In my projected lineup, the duo lines up as dual No. 10s. In my mind, Pulisic might be more effective in a wide position, flaming out-matched and isolated outside backs.

Either way, the US need their prized young bucks to take responsibility and carry the team the way Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey have in years past. The torch has been passed, and a championship (at minimum, a final) is the expectation.