I think back to the 2-1 loss to Jamaica in 2012 in a World Cup qualifier, a loss that left the US one result from missing the Hexagonal; or the loss to Guatemala in World Cup qualifying four years later, one that left us in a similar position; or the brutal 4-0 loss at Costa Rica in the second game of the most recent Hex, still the worst performance I've ever seen from a US team; or the 2-1 loss in Couva to seal the US's fate and ensure that, for the first time since 1986, there would be no World Cup for the USMNT.
I think about all those games pretty often, and it was especially hard not to on Tuesday night when watching the US' 2-0 Concacaf Nations League loss at a hungrier and better Canada team. Because it has been the same formula again and again for this program over the past seven years.
"I think the first thing that stands out to me was desire. Desire from Canada. Give them credit. But having said that, the minimum we expect is to match that," US head coach Gregg Berhalter said after this latest low point. "I wasn't happy with the desire that we displayed tonight to win the soccer game. Too many 50-50 balls were lost, and that hurt us."
In the first half, Canada won 25 of the 39 50/50s that were contested on the ground. The numbers continued to be that lopsided until Canada got their opener in the 63rd minute, at which point they packed it in, waited for the US to make a mistake and then drove home the coup de grace.
Regardless: too many 50-50 balls were lost, and because of that the game was lost.
The goal for US soccer this decade was to take the things that had defined the program's rise over the previous quarter-century – grit and desire born of necessity (that's the only way we could win), embodied by players who'd run themselves into the ground and fight themselves bloody for every 40/60 ball, while at the same time looking for any/every opportunity to get out on the break – and layer on levels of sophistication and comfort in possession that could elevate the program. It was a noble goal and the absolutely right thing to pursue and it seems fair to say, with only two games left until the 2020s, that it has been an abject failure.
We have now seen the same pattern under four different coaches, and from a strictly tactical perspective here is the only thing that matters: If you lose 50/50s in central midfield, you can not win meaningful games in modern soccer. When I write the big book of USMNT history someday, I will refer to the 2010s as "that entire decade when we lost 50/50s in central midfield."
As Berhalter pointed out, sheer desire is a huge part of it. You know it when you see it, and if you watched that game on Tuesday you certainly saw it from Sam Piette, Liam Fraser, Jonathan Osorio and Scott Arfield. But there are two other things we need to explain that go beyond "try harder."
The Player Pool
Tyler Adams is literally a world-class ball-winner. Paxton Pomykal looks like he will be there soon. If you just slot them into the US midfield things naturally improve by about 90% because winning the ball in those situations is a fundamental piece of who they are as players. It has never been so for Michael Bradley (he prefers to contain rather than challenge) and does not appear to be so for Cristian Roldan or Weston McKennie.
Is it so for Jackson Yueill? He's made huge strides this year, but he didn't win games for the Quakes with his defense the way that Pomykal did for FC Dallas, or that Adams has for the Red Bulls both here and in Europe. Alfredo Morales? He's done dirty work in the Bundesliga, but we may have seen the limit of his abilities vs. Mexico. Russell Canouse was my big hope heading into this MLS season, but Russell Canouse is now a right back.
Hopefully Brandon Servania gets there – he did the job well for the U-20s this spring in the U-20 World Cup – but he played as more of a No. 8 for Dallas down the stretch for a reason. His and Pomykal's teammate Edwin Cerrillo has promise, and North Texas SC coach Eric Quill is specifically working with him on the "be more nasty and inflict some pain" part of his game, but we're talking about a 19-year-old USL player here.
Hassani Dotson was excellent for Minnesota United this season and was, according to a few folks who were there, one of the outstanding players at this most recent U-23 camp for the US playing as a pure, ball-winning No. 6. But Hassani Dotson is not an MLS starter, and as of right now the U-23 are the right spot for him.
With Adams, Pomykal and Morales all hurt... I mean, in retrospect the answer was "play Yueill to see if he can do it against a better team than Cuba or a stuck-in-third-gear version of Uruguay." At least then, even if the US lost in this exact same way, Berhalter could've learned something new about a young, promising player on his roster.
Here is something I wrote last week in a preview of this international date:
For this camp the question is "Can Bradley, Yueill or Trapp show they're a defensive answer – or at the very least, not a liability – against a team with as much attacking firepower as Canada?"
That's as crucial a question as Berhalter's of Adams. And if the answer is no, then it's probably time for the coach to start re-thinking what he needs from that spot on the field.
As it stands, this loss as a come-to-Jesus moment on the central midfield is the only possible silver lining I can see for the US here.
It is absolutely essential that the US get ball-winners into midfield even if it means sacrificing some distribution from the No. 6 spot. If Adams gets healthy, write his name in pen. If Dotson can translate what he's done at the club level and with the U-23s up to the full national team in January (yes, he should be there in January, if not sooner), then glory hallelujah we suddenly have a smidge of depth. If Pomykal gets healthy and keeps progressing, we have ball-winners in two spots. If Yueill shows that he can dive into a scrum without the ball and come away with it, then we have depth and flexibility.
If, if, if, if. Nothing is certain except this: There is a four-alarm defensive fire in central midfield that's been going on since 2012. The only way to extinguish it is to win the damn ball.
The Defensive Shape
Canada head coach John Herdman telegraphed exactly what he was going to do in the days leading up to this game.
“From an attacking perspective, the only team that really caused them trouble – against Uruguay, they dominated the number of passes, dominated the possession, dominated the chances – is the Mexicans,” Herdman said in the run-up to the game. “The Mexicans have a very deliberate style and an intensity in how they just won’t let Berhalter’s machine settle into a rhythm. That’s how I’ve seen [the US] develop. They’re like a well-oiled machine: everything works off a trigger, off a cue, and if you’re able to disrupt that rhythm then the team struggles.”
Herdman didn't have his team press quite as high or hard as Mexico did, but it was close at times. And beyond that he flooded central midfield with numbers. The Canadians started in a 4-4-2 diamond midfield that morphed into more of a 4-2-2-2 when Mark-Anthony Kaye went off injured and Fraser came on.
There are ways to deal with a 4-4-2, be it a diamond or a box. One way not to deal with it is to leave the midfield naked and go 2-v-4 in central midfield all night, and yet...
Losing the battle in central midfield caused a cascade of failures for the entire US shape and approach:
- For the US to get meaningful width in Berhalter's system, the fullbacks have to get forward
- For the fullbacks to get forward effectively, they have to be confident that you'll be able to win and possess the ball in central midfield
- If you can't win or possess the ball in central midfield, the fullbacks have to stay deep and defend on the back foot
- If the fullbacks are hesitant to go forward, that means you have fewer options to string together real, dangerous possession the few times you do actually win the ball
- If you have fewer options when you're trying to pass the ball, you will turn the ball over more
Meanwhile, with the US fullbacks pinned the Canadian fullbacks were regularly invited way, way upfield without many worries – that's Orlando City left back Kamal Miller posting up DeAndre Yedlin at about the 45-second mark of the clip.
It was a disaster, and it's an ongoing one. Here's what I wrote after the last set of friendlies:
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.
Why is the US still defending in a 4-4-2 that concedes central midfield and usually looks like a 4-2-4??!!?!!! Why have there been no adjustments made to this approach or defensive scheme even when it's been clear at least since the Chile game in March that it concedes central midfield and allows opposing players to slip too easily in between the lines? Why is there no plan to force good turnovers and use them to create dangerous transition moments?
Let me sum it up:
- Berhalter has prioritized distribution over ball-winning from his central midfielders.
- He's done so while devising a defensive scheme that always has them going 2-v-3 at best, which on Tuesday night was 2-v-4.
- Losing the central midfield battle like that means we no longer generate transition opportunities, while at the same time we can't create the types of flowing, clockwork movements that are supposed to be the defining feature of this new system.
- All of Concacaf now knows it.
I will say again that I am a strong believer in the type of soccer that Berhalter wants this team to play – I think it will raise the ceiling of what this program is capable of, as well as what the individual players are capable of as a collective. But he's building a $10 million mansion on top of quicksand right now, and needs to figure out how to get a foundation down real quick.
That foundation has to be better desire, absolutely. But it also has to be a more sensible defensive structure and personnel selection from the coach, and Step 1 is the same for us as it is for Canada, Mexico, France or any other team in the world: Win the freaking ball.
Nothing good happens if you can't do that.