Warshaw: USMNT in transition need to balance process and results

The US men’s national team got outplayed by Mexico on Friday night at MetLife Stadium. The game ended 3-0 to the visitors; it could have been more. Here are three lessons from the game:

The US need to find a new defensive plan

The middle block — having the forwards start their defensive pressure at the front of the center circle and keeping the 10 field players compact in the middle of the field — didn’t work. The US neither kept Mexico out of key areas nor won the ball in good spots. (I would argue that middle blocks almost never work, but we’ll save that conversation for another day.)

Everything about the shape, including when the USMNT stepped forward to press, was too predictable. They didn’t give Mexico any confusing pictures. Mexico always had a premeditated answer in their minds. Conversely, Mexico changed their pressing patterns multiple times throughout the night and the US center backs never knew where the pressure would come from — the US couldn’t figure out how to cope. More on those problems later, but it seems clear that the US aren’t particularly close to bossing a game against Mexico by controlling the ball; they need to find a way to cause problems against the ball.

The number one lesson coming out of Friday night needs to be that the middle block needs to get scrapped. Either sit deeper and play on the counter, or unleash the young hounds and press. My thought is that it should be #2.

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Mexico put on a fouling clinic 

Every time Christian Pulisic got a step on a player, he got fouled. Every time Weston McKennie broke a line with his dribble, an El Tri midfielder “accidentally” got his legs caught with McKennie’s. On the other end, the US never took those fouls. When a Mexico player turned goalside of a US player, he continued into a dangerous position. Take the foul in an early position! Mexico weren’t just better on the ball, they were smart and ruthless.

The US couldn’t pass out of their own defensive third 

This is the most complicated part of the conversation. It was the most glaring part of the game. Time after time, the US tried to build from the back. Almost every single time, the US either gave the ball away or kicked it out of bounds. There were very few instances of the US successfully playing through Mexico and using Mexico’s press against them. It was hard to watch... 

...But I’ll go ahead and say that I really liked that the US didn’t give up on it. Would it have increased the USMNT’s chances of winning if they played direct off goal kicks and played for second balls? Absolutely. But I was tired of watching the USMNT play that way 10 years ago. I understood it, and it was right for that moment in history, at some point you need to say that it’s time to move on. 

If there’s anything we learn from watching the US play Mexico it’s that El Tri are just better on the ball. The US need to develop more passers, and more players who are comfortable playing in tight spots. It’s not going to be easy turning the US into a passing country. There are going to be a ton of ugly games along the way. But man, we have to do it, and you have to start somewhere. 

It’s 100% fair to wonder if this player pool can do it. The answer is probably no at this point.

But I’ll say it again: you have to start somewhere. As Gregg Berhalter said after the game, “for me, it’s about developing players.” I’ll add to that — it’s not about developing these players, per se. The 20-somethings on the field probably aren’t going to get that much better on the ball. It’s a statement to everyone else around the country, from MLS teams to Development Academy teams to youth teams, that this is how the United States plays, and these are the players the USMNT needs. If you can’t pass, if you can’t control a difficult ball, if you can’t keep your calm in a tight area, then we will find someone else.

To be honest, it might not work out for Berhalter. He’s making a giant, giant gamble. It could also really stink along the way. Friday night stunk as a USMNT fan. But it's a process that needs to take place, and I’ll never blame someone for running through a wall that needs to get knocked down. 

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