USMNT’s shortcomings in the forward and central defender remain unresolved
On the surface, 180 minutes of friendly football this week kept the USA men’s national team in good spirits. Two tests against World Cup participants resulted in three goals scored and no goals conceded. An ultra-young USMNT kept two clean sheets with two different goalies behind two different pressing schemes. They created chances in two different forms of attack against Morocco and Uruguay, two of the strongest defensive moves on their respective continents.
It claimed two results that would likely be enough to see it through a World Cup group and that alone will fuel optimism for the months to come.
However, these results were somewhat deceptive.
There were flaws beneath the surface.
Gregg Berhalter, the team’s head coach, knows this and hinted at it after a 3-0 win over Morocco and a 0-0 draw against Uruguay. He spoke about vulnerability on Wednesday and danced around some questions without dishing out his usual praise on Sunday. He probably knows that his team’s expected goal difference was loud in those 180 minutes most models, negative. He knows that, despite all the promises, his players are an incomplete unit that has not yet learned to paint over the cracks that were evident when World Cup preparation got underway.
Of course, there are also reasons for optimism. The liveliest of the crowd is a 19-year-old stuck in a subpar position at his club, but whose potential the USMNT is beginning to unleash.
The concern, however, is that flaws at either end of the field could cloud Qatar’s prospects next November.
Sunday’s row with Uruguay offered no solution to the USMNT’s two most nagging dilemmas. Neither striker, neither Jesus Ferreira nor Haji Wright, seemed able to lead a line under pressure from Uruguay. The two left centre-backs, Aaron Long and Erik Palmer-Brown, looked shaky.
They haven’t been penalized by Uruguay’s B-Plus team, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be in five and a half months.
The search for a second central defender continues
When Miles Robinson collapsed on the Atlanta United turf last month and subsequent scans revealed a torn Achilles tendon, a seemingly steadfast partnership at the heart of US defense shattered. Walker Zimmerman had established himself as one of the premier centre-backs as he took on a leadership role off the field. Robinson is “so valuable” alongside him, Berhalter said last month, because pressing teams “need guys who can win tackles convincingly.” and who have elite speed to clear clutter behind a high backline.
Robinson could do both.
Long tried on Wednesday but was rolled over and twisted by Moroccan striker Ayoub El Kaabi. And the same ignorance that caused problems on Wednesday reappeared on Sunday. In the fifth minute, a split second of indecisiveness dragged Zimmerman to the ball, releasing Darwin Nuñez at the far post.
In the 23rd minute, Long lingered in the penalty area in no man’s land and failed to see Manuel Ugarte, who lurked openly at the top of the penalty area.
However, Long appears to be the main contender for Zimmerman in Qatar, especially after Palmer-Brown’s shabby second half. The 25-year-old was primarily, and sometimes single-handedly, responsible for some of Uruguay’s best chances. An easy, straight ball over the top caught him flat-footed in the 94th minute and almost won the game for the visitors.
Cameron Carter-Vickers looked solid in 45 minutes on Wednesday but he has never started a game under Berhalter. Chris Richards has the greatest talent of all, but he’s 22 and currently injured. They’re the two most intriguing options, but the US will go head-to-head in September, their final window for Worlds tuning, as those two have never faced a Worlds contender alongside Zimmerman.
Whoever shows up will inevitably take responsibility. This US team is at its best when they press greedily. As Berhalter said, the pressing puts a strain on centre-backs – stress that Long didn’t cope too well on Wednesday.
Scoreboards didn’t reflect any of this, but more predictive metrics did. The USMNT’s 3.7 expected goals conceded in the two friendlies, according to Paul Carr of Tru Media, suggest that defensive cleanliness was misleading. Substitute full-backs exacerbated the problems but Sergiño Dest won’t solve them and they could limit Berhalter’s aggressiveness in Qatar.
A not good, very bad day for USMNT strikers
However, the USMNT’s greatest positional weakness is at the front of the pack, where encouraging Wednesday performances gave way to Sunday flops.
Ferreira’s lowlight was an unpredictable header on the Uruguayan doorstep. The real problem, however, was almost everything else. Ferreira can influence games without scoring but on Sunday his influence was mostly negative. He appeared to be fighting in close quarters with European title winners breathing down his neck. His first touch was unusually sloppy.
And that was always Ferreira’s concern – that qualities developed in MLS against weaker competition would crumble in the face of unfamiliar opposition.
Of course, sixty minutes is far too small a sample size to draw any big conclusions. And the conclusions could have been vastly different if a well-placed shot had found a corner in the 19th minute, or if DeAndre Yedlin’s cross had been half a foot lower or half an ounce more controlled. Berhalter knows you can’t overreact to a game. He has said club form will be his main assessment tool – and at FC Dallas Ferreira has been seething.
But he offered no target or outlet for the USMNT on Sunday. He didn’t hit or create.
Wright, who was crisp on Wednesday, then stepped in on the hour and completed a pass in 30 minutes.
He could have counted his touches on one hand.
He was as good as invisible.
USA don’t necessarily need goals from their forward, but they do somemuch more than on Sunday.
The brilliance and intrigue of Yunus Musah
The optimistic aspect of Sunday’s performance, on the other hand, is that developing the ball and creating chances is far more sustainable than finishing. and that the USMNT found a ball development wizard.
His name is Yunus Musah and he is an absolute delight to watch. He runs past opposing midfielders and zooms with the ball on a string from defensive third to attacking third. He has qualities unparalleled in American football and is only 19 years old.
To strengthen him, this month Berhalter has tweaked the form of the USMNT in possession. Musah has fallen lower alongside Tyler Adams in a 3-2-5/3-2-2-3 (vs Morocco) or a 4-2-4 (vs Uruguay) as the US build from behind. He’s now regularly picking up the ball from centre-backs and can thwart an opponent’s pressing with a simple drop of his shoulder and a burst of acceleration.
“When you play the 3-2-2-3 form you have a guy who can dribble deep and dribble the lines, that’s really valuable,” Berhalter said on Wednesday.
On Sunday he gushed: “Yunus is a guy who, at his age, just blows me away with what he can do. Crazy talent.”
The next step, according to Berhalter, is the end product, the last or penultimate pass. It’s the ability to carry the ball down the length of midfield and then offload it to teammates who can use it to cause damage.
In the “Finish Attacks Phase” in general, the team struggled on Sunday, said Berhalter.
But it largely withstood pressure from Uruguay. It won’t perfect any phase of the game, but it’s moving toward dominating the middle third of the field. Here the raw skills of players like Musah, Adams, Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic take over. Her ability is why this USMNT is so tactically flexible and potentially dangerous in Qatar.
However, it is these mistakes that can unjustly throw a talented team out of a World Cup. And they will loom over this youthful, innocent American team until resolved.