Armchair Analyst: What the USMNT learned from Mexico & Uruguay

You probably feel a little better following the US men's national team's fairly languid 1-1 draw against Uruguay on Tuesday night than you did following the 3-0 beating they took at the hands of Mexico on Friday night. Drawing the fifth-ranked team in the world – even one down a few key players, and even in a friendly played in third gear at a baseball stadium – ain't bad. It's especially not too bad when much of what head coach Gregg Berhalter has been talking about with regard to creating meaningful chances via possession is on display, and when it's being done by guys who are largely second or third-choice at their spots, and especially when there are three promising teenagers on the field (and a host of other high-upside young players as well).

We're gonna get to all of that in a minute. But we've got to start with the frustration.

The frustration came on Friday in that loss, as the US repeatedly played themselves into trouble against what started as a five-man high press and eventually morphed into a seven- or sometimes eight-man press, and did so dogmatically and without wavering. It's a frustrating international date overall because the US got smashed by Mexico like they haven't been smashed by Mexico in a decade. It's a frustrating international date overall because it's a reminder that, after nearly two decades of relative stability in this rivalry – it was about 50/50, and if anything had tilted in the direction of 55/45 US for a while – it's clear that Mexico are just better right now.

That is the first thing that everyone will justifiably remember from this international date, and that’s as it should be. When your biggest rival takes you to the woodshed, it leaves a mark. It's disappointing.

But "disappointment" wasn't all that was on display. Let's dive in:

"The Way We Wanted To Play"

The dogmatism the US showed against Mexico was a 180 degree adjustment from the loss in the Gold Cup final. In the Gold Cup the US too easily and too often settled for just booting long-balls over the press and were never smart or patient enough to stretch El Tri horizontally; everything was too vertical too often.

In the friendly on Friday it was the opposite of that; the US just tried to play through everything. And the players bought into it.

“We could’ve played to our forward a little bit more, play a little bit more direct, change it up a little bit," is what goalkeeper Zack Steffen said afterward. "Obviously the scoreline is what it is, but we played the way we wanted to play.”

Emphasis mine.

The idea is that by wanting to play that way against Mexico, and trying like hell to make it work, they would begin to unlock the requisite courage in terms of using the ball to break down even good, committed teams. It's, uh, a work in progress:

Look at that clip again. Mexico are pressing with seven, and they've cut the field in half. But if there's a little more comfort and a little more awareness (born of reps) from Weston McKennie, he'd understand that he can either play short and square to Alfredo Morales advancing out of the box and into space, or that the big switch – the horizontal switch – to left back Sergino Dest is on. Or he could've kept the ball, drawn in his own defender, spun to his left and drawn in Reggie Cannon's defender, then slipped Cannon up the wing.

Those second and third options would've been tough individual plays, but you have to be able to make tough individual plays in order to use the ball to beat very, very good teams. The US, for about 20 years, had gotten pretty good at not using the ball to beat very, very good teams – good enough to make it to the knockout rounds of the World Cup three times in four tournaments, and to make a miracle run to the Confederations Cup final, and to Dos-a-Cero Mexico to death in Gold Cups and Hexagonals.

But there appeared to be a ceiling on how high a team like that could climb. At its apex (2002 and 2009), the US were a fringe top 10 national team, but more often were somewhere from about 15-20. Becoming a legitimate, year-in, year-out top 10 team is hard; in the past 50 years, only really France and the Netherlands have gotten the password to that exclusive club. Mexico have thrown everything they have at it, and have a more robust soccer culture than the US, and they're still not there yet. It takes courage and commitment and a willingness to go beyond what you already do well.

The US still need to be a good counterattacking team – being good on the counter is part of the way to get into that top 10 – but it can't be the only part. The US need to get better and braver and smarter and more ruthless on the ball, and Berhalter's gambit, his "internally, we believe we're making progress" rationale is that taking the lumps now against Mexico is worth it in the long run because it's the best way to get the US into a higher tier of international soccer.

And thus, this:

This is a rehearsed pattern of play. The US did it to Uruguay so much in the first 20 minutes of Tuesday night's game that Oscar Tabarez eventually changed his team's defensive shape (they started in a 4-5-1 and moved to a 4-4-1-1 to take away some of Jackson Yueill's time and space on the ball) and line of confrontation (they went from a low block to a mid-block) in order to take this away. Berhalter countered by pulling Cristian Roldan deeper into something of a double pivot, which forced Uruguay back into the low block.

And then when Uruguay really did try to push upfield...

Tim Ream had what was, I think, pretty easily his best game in a US uniform. But more importantly: There's no dogmatic aversion to playing over the top of a team that's asking for it in this game. Perhaps the lessons of the two Mexico games had been synthesized at least somewhat.

Don't read too much into this: the game was played in third gear by both sides. Don't read nothing into this: Uruguay don't become Uruguay because they're ok with losing. These were good and promising and repeatable moments, and an idea of what the US need to do with at least some regularity against even the best teams over the next decade if they want to climb back into the top 15, and then make that unlikely-but-still-possible leap into the top 10.

On a more practical level, this:

Losing to Mexico at home didn't cost the US a trip to the 2018 World Cup. Losing to Costa Rica at home did, and losing to Trinidad & Tobago on the road did, and only managing draws at Honduras and Panama did. All of those teams bet that the US couldn't beat them with the ball – they absolutely weren't going to let the US get out in transition against them – and they bet right.

Playing this way right now, against good teams in games that don't really matter, makes sense as long term preparation for facing less-good teams in games that really, really do.

A Touch of Naivete

Roldan's gotta take the yellow here:

It reminds me of a similar mistake from Kellyn Acosta at the Azteca in a World Cup qualifier two years ago. At the highest levels of the game it is now standard operating procedure to just wipe a guy out and eat the card rather than letting a team get out on a break.

Whether it's Roldan or Yueill or McKennie or Tyler Adams or Michael Bradley or whoever else that might be in the mix... you have six guys plus yourself pushed forward, and $100 million worth of Uruguayans about to take off into space. You have to take the yellow.

Expanding the Player Pool

All three of those guys made their USMNT debuts in these games. Dest is still part orange cone, but he is brave and inventive and an attacking force on and off the ball. Pomykal is multi-faceted (I think he ends up as the left-sided No. 8-that's-kind-of-a-10 in the US's 4-3-3 shape) and fearless, and a true two-way player. Robinson looked good defensively, as you would expect, in his two cameos, and also showed courage on the ball to 1) take space, and 2) hit passes that Aaron Long wouldn't.

Dest is 18, Pomykal is 19 and Robinson is 22. They will be back.

Sargent is 19, Cannon is 21, Lletget is the old man at 27, and Yueill is 22. All represent, via both club form and what they've shown in limited minutes for their country, talent upgrades over the previous generation. And there are, perhaps, more coming – the US U-23s drilled Japan 2-0 on Monday night with Mason Toye getting a goal, and Chris Gloster going 90 at left back, and a few other guys showing out.

How many of them will make the leap in the next 12 months? Nobody had Dest, Pomykal or Robinson on their radars in September, 2018.

"Talent" hasn't been the only issue for the US, but it's definitely been an issue. And these guys named above aren't just prospects (with the exception of Gloster, who still very much is); they're pros playing top-flight soccer every week who are pushing their way into the picture.

In two games Berhalter just introduced four brand new players into the team, while expanding the roles of three others. The player pool is getting healthier and the talent level is rising.

For What it's Worth

The US out-xG'd Uruguay 1.73 to 1.05 on Tuesday night as per Opta. If Tyler Boyd doesn't miss from two yards, and if the whistle gets blown on a pretty obvious penalty at the end of the first half...

Wing Work

Jordan Morris got the goal and was generally pretty good throughout. But he still likes to take too long to make his decisions when he gets the ball in space – he takes an extra touch, then picks his head up, then goes. Boyd, meanwhile, is all about taking seven touches when one would do:

That sequence had two separate chances to turn into a very good look. The US did a very good job – twice – of getting the ball into the "optimal assist zones" around the side of the box, but first Boyd and then Morris weren't decisive enough to punish Uruguay.

Christian Pulisic? Tim Weah? Jonathan Lewis? Paul Arriola? One of the kids like Ulysses Llanez? Pomykal on the wing?

It should be Pulisic out there, but for all his gifts "releasing the ball early" is not one of them. He has work to do, as does everybody else that's conceivably in the winger pool. And these guys have to be good, because in this system they're the ones who finish off the kill patterns with either a pass or a shot.

What Needs to Happen

Berhalter's system has proved pretty good at creating pretty good chances, and limiting opposition looks via possession (Uruguay created nothing out of possession, and neither did Mexico). "Bend-don't-break" is a good starting point for any defense.

At the same time, the US haven’t shown any progress in the ability to create useful turnovers. They didn’t do it at all against Uruguay, and didn’t do it at all against Mexico, and didn’t do it at all against Mexico in the Gold Cup final, and even against a team as good as Mexico, you can create useful turnovers. Stuff like this happens when you do:

There has been progress on building out the player pool, and progress on building chances via possession under Berhalter so far, but there’s actually been some regression in using defense to create transition moments.

I’m not leaving these two games worried that the US will try to play through every single press they see, come hell or high water. Berhalter is not an idiot; he countered both Jesse Marsch and Tata Martino out of the playoffs when he needed to. But I am worried that the default US defensive shape and mid-block is too passive. In the modern game “defense” is for more than just being tough to break down; it’s for keying moments into transition, and so far that doesn’t appear to be anywhere on the blueprint for Berhalter.

The Big Question

Beating Mexico anywhere is going to require the US to be good in transition. Getting to the World Cup itself, and then actually getting out of the group stage is going to require the US to be good in transition. Pulisic, McKennie, Adams, Sargent and most of the other high-upside young players coming into the pool now are all, for the moment at least, better players in transition than in possession.

It's all about Adams, though. I'm a huge fan of Yueill, and I think that Michael Bradley still has a role to play, but Adams is literally world class at creating turnovers, and turnovers are the most valuable currency in the modern game. We talked it all out afterward:

I'm actually encouraged by a lot of what I've seen over the past 14 games, and especially by the cohort of new talent coming into the team.

But the next step for the USMNT isn't to become tiki-taka Spain with the ball; it's to become a team that forces bad turnovers and capitalizes on them. It's a team that's not just hard to try play through, but is actually kind of scary to try to play through.

And I think that should mean Tyler Adams as the first-choice d-mid. It is an open question, though, as to whether or not that will be the case.

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