Warshaw: Three observations from the United States' Nations League clincher

The US men's national team's Cuba 4-0 to clinch the top spot in their Concacaf Nations League group on Tuesday night. With the win, the US advance to the semifinals of the competition against Honduras. Three quick points on Tuesday night's game:

  • Josh Sargent looked decisive with his movements around the box. My main criticism of Sargent's play with both the USMNT and Werder Bremen is that he gets languid. He floats around rather than accelerating. It's possible to float around the field, but you have to be freaking amazing on the ball. Sargent could use some more burst to his game, and it was nice to see it happen on Tuesday night.
  • The US continue to push the diagonal pass from the center mid to the weak-side outside back attacking the far post as a main, and probably the key, facet of their attack. 
  • Jackson Yueill is pushing Jordan Morris for the pleasant surprise of the fall/winter. Yueill has been good in all three of his starts in the last two international windows.

Okay, that's all I got on the Cuba game. I want to look back at the Canada game quickly, and two adjustments from Gregg Berhalter.

Defensive

If you follow the USMNT, you hear about the mid block often. Berhalter always seems to default to the mid block, in which his team get organized near midfield, generally in a 4-4-2 shape (or what Berhalter calls a 4-2-2-2 because the wingers cheat forward). Traditionally, the team pressure the ball in an inside-out zone; a striker splits the center backs and pushes the play into a trap near the midfield line. 

Against Canada, Berhalter went with something different. He had his players step to the ball in man-to-man pressure. Instead of a striker splitting the center backs and then attacking the ball from the side, the striker and attacker midfielder went straight at the player on the ball. More importantly, the US mixed up the pressure within the game. When Canada's center backs split wide, the US used Liverpool outside-in zone pressure. USMNT's wingers, Morris and Paul Arriola, not the strikers, would step to the ball to funnel the play back toward the middle. 

These adjustments did two things. They allowed the US to stay more active and aggressive, which then led to more success in duels (something the team desperately needed). They also kept Canada's defenders guessing, as they constantly had different pictures in their brains to process. These aren't the types of moves that win a game on their own, but they help. 

Attacking

In possession, the defenders and goalkeeper moved down their checklist quicker. We saw Aaron Long, John Brooks, Tim Ream, and Brad Guzan bypass pressure and play into the second layer more than we've seen before in Berhalter's tenure. 

Every defender has, or should have, a checklist for passing options when he's on the ball. That checklist should reflect his team's style of play. For Berhalter's center backs, the checklist looks something like this:

  1. Play into the attacking midfielders on the ground
  2. Play the defensive midfielder
  3. Play the outside back
  4. Play into the striker in the air
  5. Hit the long diagonal to the opposite winger
  6. Play beyond the opposing defenders

Against Mexico earlier this year, the US defenders stayed in the first three options to a fault. It took a Mexico attacker putting his finger into a US defender's nose for the US defender to do anything beyond Option 3. We know how that turned out. Against Canada, it only took light pressure for the US to move toward Option 4. 

The interesting follow-up is, "Why?" Not "why" as in "why do it against Canada?" There are multiple obvious answers to that. Rather, "why do we want to prioritize that longer pass?" The "why" here tells us a lot of to expect in the future.

Here's another way to phrase the question: "Why did you hit the longer direct balls? Was it because that's where the space was, or because you wanted to create a second ball opportunity?" It's a question that gets to the core of how people see the game. 

Berhalter would traditionally pick the first; Jesse Marsch, conversely, would pick the second. Many fans have opined for the team to take the second route, with the argument that it fits the player pool better. If it was the first, it was another step in the same path; if it was the second, it was a complete change of direction.

I would guess that Friday night's game was about the space. It wasn't a case of Berhalter "abandoning his philosophy for the sake of a result." It seemed to me that Berhalter used the same book, just turned to a different page; the players had the same checklist, different thresholds. It's the same thing we saw from his Columbus teams. I can't imagine a manager would change this type of thing.

To be honest, this could all just be semantics. Sometimes, though, semantics are everything.

Series: 
Topics: