Have you ever gone back and re-watched the victories over Portugal and Mexico in the 2002 World Cup? Those were some of the biggest and most important victories in American soccer history, and certainly the most memorable of Bruce Arena’s reign. Both matches have a similar feel to them when watching in hindsight, but I most vividly recall the game against Portugal. Portugal tried to attack, but a rugged and insistent (and physical) defense, along with some excellent goalkeeping kept them out. When the US got the ball, they played it pensively through the middle, with a packed midfield ready in case of a turnover. That is, unless they got a chance at a fast break. In that case, McBride used his physicality while the youthful Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley raced down the wings. The USMNT took an early lead in the opening minutes. Going into the last 10 minutes of the first half, the US had a three goal lead. While Portugal was able to bring the score within one, the US was able to upset one of the most heavily favored teams mostly playing quick and tough and nervy soccer.
The American performance against Honduras felt like that 2002 showing except on steroids. We saw the same explosiveness, the same packed midfield, and the same potential weaknesses, the same athleticism and physicality, except all at a much higher level (and against a much weaker opponent).
It makes sense that the team would look similar to 15 years ago considering that Bruce Arena is again at the head as manager. Let’s look talk about how Arena set up his team and why that was such a smash success against Honduras.
Pulisic and Dempsey will get all the attention, and rightfully so. But it was the players behind them that created a platform for the attackers to succeed. Arena put his team into a diamond 4-4-2, a familiar formation for USMNT under Klinsmann. However, Arena made use of different skill sets to create a cohesive team, with simplified roles allowing players to better express themselves.
Let’s start in the midfield. Michael Bradley formed the base of the diamond, with Nagbe and Lletget (Bedoya when he went out for injury), and Pulisic at the tip. It was Bradley’s job to help recover the ball and distribute it to Nagbe and Bedoya who carried it into the attack. Then, the two nominally wide midfielders played into Pulisic, Altidore, or Dempsey, who combined with the other attackers to burst through the Honduran defense. In past editions of the diamond, Bradley was played as the tip, the attacking focal point. While this was done in order to maximize Bradley’s creative passing range closer to the box while creating a threat that could force turnovers high up the field, teams quickly realized that Bradley — indeed the entire USMNT attacking force — could be neutralized by using a high press and suffocating him when on the ball.
Bradley reacts poorly under pressure. His technical ability is not sufficient to receive and move the ball between lines of defenders. Meanwhile, his judgement has centered around being able to see the whole field under limited pressure and waiting either for a run to be made or for an opportunity to drive forward. Even worse, teams realized that they could hound Bradley and paralyze the entire USMNT even when he was moved deeper and deeper into midfield. The result has been the years of poor form we’ve seen in Bradley when he’s with the national team, even as his performances with Toronto FC have improved. In the opening 20-or-so minutes, we saw Honduras do exactly this, with Bradley expectedly suffering. However, the formation, line up, and new instructions from Arena helped change this.
Arena is instructing Nagbe and Bedoya to move in tight to support Bradley. Dempsey to drop further back.— Susaeta (@_Susaeta) March 25, 2017
Nagbe and Bedoya tucked in, allowing Bradley more options to pass to while splitting the defensive burden. Bradley had to do less defensive work and was tasked with moving the ball around less. In short, his role was simplified. Because he is on the ball less, he is a worse target to press for the Hondurans and, even when he is pressed, he has teammates on other side who can help keep possession and move the ball as an alternative option. In conjunction, the movement and work of Pulisic, Dempsey, and Altidore destabilized the Honduran defense, forcing their midfield to drop back to keep the formational shape. This, in turn, forced the Honduran attackers to take more conservative positions or risk becoming disjointed, limiting the press on Bradley. In short, Bradley was (finally) given a chance to really succeed. He did exactly that, with an excellent goal from distance, decent work distributing the ball, a limited number of turnovers, and recovering the ball a fantastic 13 times.
I mentioned that the effectiveness of the attack helped create an opening for the midfield by tearing apart the Honduran formation, which was arranged as a 5-4-1. As mentioned above, Clint Dempsey dropped deep from his position as a second striker into midfield. This forces a Honduran defender to either follow him and be pulled out of position, or let Deuce create and roam unfettered in front of the defense. When this happened, Pulisic responded by pushing into that space vacated by Dempsey (and the defender). Simultaneously, Altidore is played high up on the field, physically dominating the center backs, forcing them to double-team him, and dragging them away from where they should be. Perhaps the best example of this was on the second goal, where Honduras allowed Bradley to take a shot from distance because two players were marking Altidore and his passing lane into goal (look at the 3 second mark.)
The result was that, when Altidore and Dempsey got the ball and moved it to a teammate, the Honduran defenders were completely exposed. That teammate quite often was Christian Pulisic. In the early minutes of the game, Pulisic actually struggled in his passing. However, he repeatedly drove into the space created by the strikers, forcing the Hondurans into further disarray. As he grew into the match, his passing improved as well. He applied the relentlessness for his forward movement to this passing, most incredibly in his chip assist for Dempsey’s first goal. What was particularly interesting from this attack was how central it was. The first 5 goals all came straight through the gut, through the place where the Honduran line should have been the most organized. (And the fifth was only nominally wide and directly from a free kick. It hardly counts as a flank attack). Most teams in soccer rely on playing through the wings to attack, especially when in possession. There are fewer defenders out wide and it is easier to create overloads in order to create space to score. The US didn’t do that. Indeed, with Pulisic in the center, the team had no wingers at all. Instead, Pulisic, Altidore, and Dempsey all combined to create space and link passes with devastating consequences. It is very difficult to link and create directly in front of goal. The fact that the USMNT was clearly able to demonstrate that they could do that shows that the team’s attack can be more well-rounded and flexible than it has in years. Opposing teams will have to note this and make a defensive response, something that further opens up space for the midfield.
However, this line up cannot be applied in every circumstance. There will be teams that are better prepared to mark and physically manipulate Pulisic while closing down space through the middle. There will also be teams that can better combine through the wings to attack. The USMNT largely gave up the flanks on defense in order to create more solidity in the middle. This wasn’t a problem as Honduras struggled to complete crosses against a defensive line that included Gonzalez, Brooks, and Cameron, who are 6”5’, 6”4’, and 6”3’, respectively. However, against better teams, this may be a problem. But it is still good to know that this formation is an option. With Pulisic’s apparent positional flexibility, along with the potential availability for the likes of Fabian Johnson, DeAndre Yedlin, Kekutah Manneh, and Jordan Morris, the USMNT has options.
In summation, Bruce Arena created a game plan that put his players in a position to succeed. With players given simplified and clear roles in a game plan that put players in natural positions, the team was able to come together and work as a functioning unit. The well-organized game plan essentially created a domino-effect that completely undid the Hondurans. While this particularly performance will only happen once, the successes can be applied going. Under Arena, there’s a lot of hope for the future.