Armchair Analyst: Another step forward for the USMNT vs. T&T

There is something that Mexico often does. It is a thing about how they carry themselves, how they enter games with their heads already up and their motors already running, and how they bring their club and country pedigrees with them out onto the field.

They wrap themselves in that. They use it to give themselves a level of not just confidence bordering on arrogance, but they use it as a psychological weapon against any of the smaller teams they play. They intimidate so, so many Concacaf teams that these types of Gold Cup group stage games – games in which a multi-goal victory isn't just expected, but is demanded – are over before the ball is even kicked.

You can see it in the faces and postures of their opponents in pregame warm-ups, and when anthems are sung, and when they take the field. You can see it in the first few challenges, and in how low they set their block. You can see it when the goals start to flow.

You used to see it from the US men's national team as well. The US finished atop three straight Hexagonals from 2006 through 2014, and won the Gold Cup twice in that span. The region in that era was defined by the US-vs.-Mexico rivalry (with occasional cameos from Costa Rica), but that wasn't the only game that mattered. All of these games matter, and in many of them, the US did to lesser opponents what Mexico has raised to an art form: They scared the hell out of them. They intimidated them. They won the game before they even set foot on the field.

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"You didn't just want to win, you didn't just want to score six goals," is how current colleague and former USMNT striker Charlie Davies put it on the postgame show. "You wanted to beat it out of them."

Somewhere in the past six years, that attitude was lost, and along with it went the intimidation factor. Concacaf teams, up to and including Trinidad & Tobago, happily played the US on their own terms. They often out-toughed the US, and almost always had greater cohesion. They certainly weren't scared anymore – nobody felt like they'd lost the game before it was even played.

Trinidad & Tobago, in the second game of this 2019 Gold Cup group stage, certainly didn't think they'd lost before the ball had been kicked on Saturday night. The US's dominant 6-0 thrashing was, I hope, a message from the US to both the Soca Warriors and the rest of the region: The beatings will continue until your morale disappears and we see it in your eyes.

It took half a game for the US to get to that level of ruthlessness and intensity, but they did eventually get there. And once they finally arrived at that point they just beat it out of T&T. It was a throwback performance, and these types of throwback performances matter not just on the night, but in the long run. 

All-in-all, it was a useful reminder that it's not just tactics, not just personnel, not just adjustments, not just which club you play for, not just whether you're carrying a knock, etc. etc. It's all of it, and everything else besides. It all matters, and in the second 45 the US carried themselves in that exact way, and they made sure T&T knew it.

I want to see more of that henceforth.

A few thoughts from the game:

• Once again this was not The System™, but rather it was a pretty standard (if asymmetrical) 4-1-4-1 that the US played. The asymmetry stemmed from Nick Lima pushing way up high on the right while Tim Ream mostly stayed home at left back. 

Lima, of course, ended up getting very high upfield throughout the match:

He's been good when asked to play the RB/DM hybrid role, and was very good in this more traditionally minded overlapping approach. We're going to see him continue to earn a lot of minutes under Gregg Berhalter.

• The goal of the pushing Lima (or any overlapping fullback) high is to create overloads on the flank and drive the ball into those areas alongside the 18 (my colleague Bobby Warshaw calls them "The Man City Zones" because Pep Guardiola's team has about 300 assists from these spots over the last few years).

On the left side obviously the movement leading to overloads was different since Ream was pushing up. Overloads were created by Christian Pulisic, playing as a kind of No. 10, floating out wide to combine with left winger Paul Arriola. Removing one player from the central midfield is a calculated risk, with the idea being that the defensive midfielder and three remaining defenders (remember, Ream's staying back pretty much all the time) can handle any break-outs. Obviously on this night, against this opponent, it was a risk that paid.

• I thought Arriola and Pulisic's combination play (both on and off the ball) was a little mechanical in the first 45, and Pulisic in particular wasn't decisive enough/playing with enough conviction. He seemed to be waiting for the game to unfold rather than making it unfold.

In the second half he made it unfold, then doused it with kerosene, lit a match and burned the whole thing to ash. There's only one player in the US pool currently who can completely demoralize and dominate a team that way, and it's him. Maybe (hopefully) someone else will get there eventually, but for now it's Pulisic or no one.

• That said I'm not even certain that Pulisic was Man of the Match, nor was his second-half evolution the biggest on the team. Weston McKennie was fine in the first 45 – he won most of his duels, produced one moment of real inventiveness and skill, and played with a decent amount of intensity. But he just didn't get a lot of the ball, and thus didn't really affect the game all that much.

He came out in the second half determined to get more of the play, and the US benefitted. There aren't many guys in the pool who hit this pass:

It wasn't just that dose of playmaking, though. In the 58th minute there was a minor (and ridiculous) scuffle after Gyasi Zardes came together with a T&T player at midfield, and tempers flared. The whole Soca Warriors team surrounded Gyasi.

The first one into the scrum for the US was McKennie, and he was throwing himself around like Clint Dempsey used to (nothing as iconic as DeuceFace, unfortunately, but still).

This matters, too. If, someday, we're asking the question "When did Weston McKennie become the emotional leader of the USMNT?", I bet this is the answer.

• Of course, a slight tactical change had something to do with that as well. It seemed like McKennie was dropping a little bit deeper a little bit more often in order to get on the ball, which gave the US a better rhythm through midfield and a little bit more dynamism.

Simply: With the 4-1-4-1 playing how it did in the first half, there was never any real threat of a deeper-lying US player getting on the ball and eliminating a closing-out T&T defender off the dribble. Michael Bradley's the safety valve, so he can't take that risk, and no one else is back there with him. So in order to pull the defense apart the US had to constantly ping the ball back-and-forth amongst the defenders before eventually launching a diagonal to one of the overloads, then hoping it happened in the right spot/with the right timing to create a chance.

With McKennie back a little deeper, suddenly there was the opportunity for the US to eliminate defenders before those big switches were played, or even to get into situations where a switch wasn't even needed.

It was a nice adjustment from Berhalter.

• Another nice adjustment was bringing Jordan Morris (who was excellent) on for Tyler Boyd (who was very good) at the hour mark. As soon as the Soca Warriors started chasing the game just a little bit it opened things up, and at that point Morris used his pace and quickness to find gaps in the final third.

• Shouts for Zardes and Aaron Long, who each had their first USMNT brace. Long, after struggling against Guyana, looked like his pre-injury self in this one, while Zardes had probably his best game in Red, White & Blue. Look up at that Lima clip, and then at that McKennie clip and you'll see both times that yes, it was Gyasi who started the sequence. And those weren't his only instances of good hold-up play on the evening.

And then, of course, this finish:

Lots of folks didn't think he had a performance like this in him. I am one of them. I am happily eating crow.

• That said, I'm also happy that Jozy Altidore is back and building toward fitness.

• That's it for now. My newsletter will come on Monday morning. You can sign up for it here:



 

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