Armchair Analyst: False starts and frustrations tell the USMNT story for 2019

There are many reasons the US men's national team program got to its modern low point in October of 2017. Some of them are large, overarching, structural problems with regard to player identification and development that, in the long term, must be solved. Some of them were as small and short-term as injuries. Some of them split the difference between those two.

If 2018 was supposed to be about the USSF, in their way, addressing at least a few of those issues, then 2019 was supposed to be about the USMNT program as a whole digging out of their own self-inflicted ditch and making progress toward a better outcome in the 2022 World Cup cycle. On the field, 2018 meant next to nothing. On the field, 2019 was very much supposed to be the start of something.

But underlying all those hopes and expectations is the talent-related structural reality that cost the US so dearly in the 2018 World Cup cycle: There are still too few prime-aged players for the US to compete at their 2009 or 2002 levels, let alone exceed them. The US may be in a different World Cup cycle with a new coach, but the roster's in the same era.

In that light... of course 2019 was going to be this frustrating – the US transitioned out of a cycle in which they didn’t have enough prime-aged players into an era in which they… don't have enough prime-aged players. In the last cycle you’d have expected to see guys born from 90-94 pushing into the XI and taking jobs from the older cohort, and in this cycle those guys are supposed to be the core, foundational pieces. Such is the case for almost every top-20 national team in the world. Too old, as the US were in 2017, and you risk sluggishness and an on-field sense of entitlement. Too young, as the US often were in 2019, and you lack on-field know-how.

That lack of prime-aged players is still the defining aspect of this US roster. Those guys, to the extent they do exist on this team, tend to be role players. Only John Brooks appears to be a “write his name in ink” type of talent, and even that assessment is very debatable. Unless Jordan Morris, Sebastian Lletget, Aaron Long and DeAndre Yedlin all have higher levels they can hit, we’re probably going to stay in an in-between era for the rest of this cycle.

The best US field players, in terms of pure talent, are all at least a year from entering their prime. Many are much further than that. Many won't even be there by the time the 2022 World Cup comes around, if the US even qualify. That is reality.

"Reality" is what Gregg Berhalter signed up for. He knew the above, and I think he was excited to take on the challenge. Who wouldn't want to coach Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Tim Weah and Sergino Dest?

He clearly did, and he clearly does, and I think he pretty clearly over-complicated things. He came up with The System™, a 4-4-2 mid-block defensive shape that morphed into a 4-3-3 when building out and a 3-2-2-3 when attacking with the right back becoming a central midfielder and the US dominating the ball by spraying diagonals from the No. 6 to overlapping fullbacks and and and and...

It was a lot. At times, against minnows (including a pretty tepid "revenge game" against Trinidad & Tobago in the Gold Cup) it was effective. At other times – even after scrapping the inverted, hybrid right back position – the commitment to disorganizing the opponents with the ball and a reluctance to get out into transition was suicidal.

Take 10 minutes to watch this interview with Berhalter from October. His rationale is compelling:

But as compelling as his rationale was and still is, too often the team on the field was decidedly not. Too often they looked like they were trying to remember the steps to an overly complicated dance while their opponents were forcing turnovers, winning 50/50s and transitioning into acres of space. Too often the solution Berhalter had come up with, and the team's fanatical approach to applying it, looked like it was just causing more problems.

In that light, 2019 didn't have to be nearly as frustrating as it became.

So here is the tl;dr version: On one hand, the story of 2019 is the story of the USMNT’s best players not being ready yet, or being too injured to play much. On the other hand, it’s the story of The System™ not really working in the way that the team, the fans and especially the coach had hoped.

I think it’s fair to say that those are the first two things what will pop into people’s heads if they tried to describe this year of being a USMNT fan.

Let's take a more granular look at things...

What Went Wrong

Injuries: Brooks played just twice this year, as he missed his now-customary raft of games due to injury. Yedlin and Lletget played a bit more than Brooks, but like him they were both fairly frequently sidelined.

McKennie missed games. Alfredo Morales finally got called back to a US camp, seemed to win a job, and immediately got hurt. Jozy Altidore, of course, was unavailable for most of the year. Pulisic missed a ton of time. Weah, after making his full USMNT debut in 2018, starring at the U-20 World Cup and getting an eight-figure move to Lille, has spent the entire second half of the year rehabbing. He didn't play a single USMNT minute in 2019.

But no injury was bigger than nearly year-long absence of Adams, who ran himself into the ground for club and country from the start of 2017 through March of 2019, at which point he picked up an adductor injury which has since kept him mostly sidelined. He's played just twice since the end of March – the Bundesliga finale and German Cup final, both at the end of May, and yes I am absolutely certain RB Leipzig exacerbated the injury by rushing him back for those games – and has had numerous stops-and-starts in his return to fitness since then. My guess is he won't play another competitive game until after the Bundesliga's winter break.

It's probably not a coincidence that the best US performance of the year, from a defensive standpoint, came in the one game Adams actually played, a 1-0 win over a pretty decent Ecuador group back in March. He went the distance in that hybrid RB/DM role Berhalter seemed to build for him and led the team in touches.

That was it for Adams, though. In an ideal world he's one of the two cornerstones of this qualifying cycle, but in his first year under a new coach learning a new system with new teammates we got to see him for all of 90 minutes. 

Soft in the middle: McKennie, Michael Bradley, Cristian Roldan and Wil Trapp got the bulk of the central-midfield minutes throughout 2019. All of them struggled to win the damn ball, and most of them struggled to track runners through the midfield:

Nothing drove me nuts more frequently than this. The players themselves rightly took a ton of criticism for these types of performances, but a lot of what we saw came from the overly passive 4-4-2 mid-block defensive set-up Berhalter had pieced together. It didn't make sense for the personnel, and it made the US easy to play against. Teams got super comfortable, and that is never a good thing.

Not modern soccer: I actually remain bullish on the usefulness of the disorganize-via-possession mindset that Berhalter has instilled, but for too long in 2019 that seemed to come at the expense of punishing teams in transition rather than in addition to it.

If a team disorganizes itself, then you should win the ball and play as vertical as possible before they can reset. Even Pep Guardiola's teams play like this when they get the chance.

The US basically didn't bother with this until the end of the year (which I'll get to near the end of this column).

Player progress problems: Ethan Horvath, who was supposed to compete with Zack Steffen for the starting GK job, lost his spot to Simon Mignolet and is now just a back-up 'keeper in a decent league. Tyler Boyd came into the team with fanfare, underdelivered, and now barely plays for Besiktas. Are Yedlin or Matt Miazga any better than they were three years ago, by any metric?

Christian Ramirez got his chance in January camp, scored a goal, and then went into a prolonged and inexplicable slump for his club team, playing himself off of Berhalter's radar. Russell Canouse, who in 2018 looked like a battling, ball-winning future back-up for Adams as a No. 6, never got that look in January, missed most of the year, and finished out the season playing at right back for D.C. United. Darlington Nagbe turned down another call-up.

Any/all of those guys could've helped, but it's Josh Sargent whose situation needs the most watching. Sargent came into 2019 with momentum, having scored two goals in three December, 2018 appearances for Werder Bremen. But then he played his way out of the lineup over the course of one goalless month (late January to late February), looking very un-fit throughout.

Regardless, he was brought to Gold Cup camp, and everybody assumed he'd be a shoo-in given that Sargent was with the full national team at the expense of the U-20s, for whom he was also eligible.

But... nope. After a disappointing pre-tournament friendly against Jamaica (in which he once again looked to be lacking fitness), Sargent was justifiably cut.

The second half of his year has been better, but still not great. Sargent's been in and out of the lineup for club (often as a pseudo winger in Florian Kohfeldt's scheme) and country (always as a center forward), and for neither was he able to lock down a starting job. Berhalter's given him 90 in three of the last four USMNT games, but he's yet to go the distance for Werder, and he's finishing the year nursing a muscle injury.

Is this a five-alarm fire? No. Sargent's not yet 20, and is still talented as hell, and there's every chance he grows into a future Bundesliga starter. That's what Werder envisioned for him when they signed him.

I'd argue, though, that other than Adams and maybe Brooks, Sargent's health and development is the thing that could/should/will go the furthest in raising the US's floor as a national team if we boil it down to individual players. The US player pool has a ton of young players of great potential pretty much everywhere... but not center forward. If you look from the '95s all the way to the '02s, Sargent is easily the best prospect (though there is a slice of the multi-verse in which Mason Toye could pass him).

The US need Sargent to become, at the very least, an Altidore-level Concacaf bully. After what he did in the second half of 2018 I'd have taken that bet with a laugh. Now it feels like much more of a coin flip, and we're just 10 months away from World Cup qualifying.

What Went Right

The Coming Cohorts: Even without Sargent and Adams, both of whom were eligible, the US made it to the quarterfinals of the 2019 U-20 World Cup:

They beat France along the way. Any time you beat France these days, at any level, you have just laid down a marker.

This comes after the previous U-20 team, in 2017, made it to the quarterfinals without Pulisic and McKennie, both of whom were eligible but neither of whom were released by their respective clubs at the time.

All of this, taken as a whole, speaks to the sudden glut of talent coming through the pipeline. Making the U-20 World Cup quarterfinals in three straight cycles isn't a perfect predictor of future national team success, but it's a pretty good one! From this spring's group, Weah had already made his USMNT debut, while Paxton Pomykal got his first cap in September, and Dest now looks like a full-time starter for his country (he's working toward that for Ajax).

From the 2017 group, the biggest leaps this year came from a trio of guys – Reggie Cannon, Jackson Yueill and Miles Robinson – who were actually cut from their U-20 World Cup team. Yueill looks to have passed Trapp and possibly Bradley in the d-mid pecking order, while Cannon seems at the very least to be even with Yedlin at right back. Robinson is a bit behind those two guys all things considered, but he will have a chance to make a very large statement this spring in Olympic qualifying, and then hopefully in the Olympics proper.

There are other players from both these cohorts – Jeremy Ebobisse, Aaron Herrera, Emmanuel Sabbi, Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson – already in the mix. Hopefully high-upside young players like Richie Ledezma and Chris Richards, who've yet to break through for their clubs but have been US U-23 fixtures, will join them by the middle of 2020. There's no reason to think that's not possible.

From within: Improvement wasn't limited strictly to the newly introduced (all the young guys plus Long, basically). Morris finally got healthy by the middle of the year, and finally looks more than just "comfortable" on the wing: He has been both a match-winner and a problem solver. Lletget, meanwhile, just always seems to look the part when he gets a chance:

I didn't know Lletget could hit that pass – he usually plays it so safe for the LA Galaxy. But he's regularly produced incisive moments for the US, and has done so regardless of the opponent or situation. If there was a World Cup qualifier tomorrow, they'd both be starters. And I'd have confidence in both's ability to deliver.

I feel less so about Gyasi Zardes, but he did have his best year as a USMNT player, and delivered against Canada when he needed to. Same for Tim Ream, who was far less mistake-prone in the second half of 2019 than he'd ever been in his previous USMNT appearances.

Club progress:

  • Pomykal was awesome at the U-20 World Cup, then won and kept a starting job this past year for FC Dallas
  • Dest has been a revelation, and was starting Champions League games before he turned 19
  • Weah was sold for $10 million and a team like Lille doesn't spend that kind of money if they're not going to play you
  • Yueill and Robinson went from in-the-18 to all-star caliber MLS players
  • Cannon went from starter to "Will he be sold to an EPL team?"
  • Adams walked right into Leipzig's XI and was one of the best midfielders in one of the best leagues in the world
  • Steffen's a starter in that league as well

Regardless, the two biggest "whew, that makes me pretty happy!" stories are those of McKennie and Pulisic.

McKennie has, in David Wagner, an elite coach at Schalke, and is primarily being used as a deeper-lying box-to-box midfielder. That is (hopefully) his best long-term spot, and he's made progress both in finding the ball and in influencing the game off of it. Wagner seems content to play him through his propensity for costly turnovers and "chasing butterflies" defensive moments, and hasn't futzed about with his position as much as previous coaches. At this point it'd take a cynic to describe his professional trajectory as anything but "decidedly upwards."

Pulisic's is best described as "rocketized to the stratosphere." I'll let Jonathan Liew of the Guardian tell it

I don't think Pulisic or McKennie raise the team's floor the way Adams, Sargent or Brooks can/do/hopefully will, but both, together, have the ability to raise the team's ceiling to heights never before achieved by the USMNT. They are both better positioned at the end of 2019 to do that than they were at the start of the year.

The Come to Jesus Moment: Even when struggling against Mexico and Chile earlier in the year, the US had been hard to break down. That 4-4-2 defensive block was way too passive for my taste, but it had been doing a more than adequate job of limiting the quality of opposition chances. Throughout most of 2019, that had meant the US were comfortably winning the xG battle in addition to usually winning the games themselves.

Then came September's friendly against Mexico, in which Tata Martino blitzed the US with an eight-man high-press (you can hear Berhalter talk about it in the interview above), repeatedly turning the US over in bad spots. That was followed a month later by a Concacaf Nations League game against Canada in which John Herdman flooded central midfield and brought his fullbacks way up to pin the US wide players, and the Canucks took a deserved and dominant win from the US for the first time since the mid-80s.

It was bad. It seemed like Berhalter's approach was all-or-nothing with regard to disorganizing opponents with the ball, and the Canada loss came just as Dest was deciding whether to pledge his future international career to the US or the Netherlands. Add in Pulisic's frustration over being subbed out of the loss, and then a knock that kept him out of the November games, and it seemed like everything was going to fall apart before anything had actually been built. Canada were talented and confident.

And then they were annihilated.

Yeah, the US beat Canada – big whoop. The US have mostly been doing nothing but that for the past half-century. But the way they did it mattered.

"It's conditioning the players to understand what the situation is giving them, and then taking advantage of that" is how Berhalter talked about his team in the above interview, and it's how he actually coached them in this game. Herdman's going to flood the midfield? OK, let's change the defensive shape so we have a third central midfielder ourselves. Their fullbacks are going to come way up? OK, let's win the ball and immediately transition into the space they've conceded – modern soccer 101. They're going to try to have their CBs pass? Let's press them with our wingers and have Zardes float to prevent easy outlets to their d-mids.

Dest had chosen the US. Brooks and McKennie were bought in and showed it, and Sargent didn't pout when he was an unused sub. Yueill and Long both handled the Concacaf-y-ness of the moment, while Morris and Zardes were match-winners in the open field.

Was it a pure triumph? Of course not – those don't come against Canada. But it was a "OK, we can still do this"-style breath of fresh air, and some reassurance that Behalter's not going to drive the US off a cliff just because he wants to prove that trucks can fly. When he needed to understand what the situation was giving to him, he took advantage of it. And so the US buried a good and desperate Hexagonal-caliber opponent in convincing fashion.

That they did so with only three guys who I'd consider to be definite starters on the field speaks to the player pool – still young, still hurt, but increasingly deep – and where it's going.

What it All Means

There is a way to look at this past year and decide it was all a waste, that The System™ didn't actually work, and so the whole experiment was a failure. I get that, but I kind of think it's nonsense. The US didn't play the exact same way against Canada that they had in the Gold Cup, but the principles of play – spray the ball diagonally so that you can stretch the opponents horizontally which allows you to be more dangerous vertically – were still applicable, and the movement of the front three was very similar despite coming at a faster pace and in a different phase of the game.

So I don't think we're done seeing The System™. It makes too much sense to keep it as a default against teams that bunker in, given how well it worked at times throughout 2019 despite injuries, absences and learning curves (both the staff and the players). And yeah, the US are definitely going to see a bunch of bunkers in World Cup qualifying, just as they did in Couva a couple of years back.

What I do think we've seen the end of is the "disorganize the opponents with the ball at all costs" mentality, which is pretty obviously for the best. That really is the type of dogmatism you can only toss out there during Year 1 of a World Cup qualifying cycle when the stakes are very, very low.

They get higher in 2020 and beyond. The time for experimentation is done – it's time for the US to start winning again.

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