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The pragmatism of Bruce Arena key for USMNT

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Why the American manager’s five-man defense was a stroke of genius, not preservation

Honduras v United States - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Buoyed by Michael Bradley’s incredible 40-yard lobbed goal in the 6th minute of the game, the U.S. Men’s National Team fought hard to share the spoils against Mexico in a raucous Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.

If the decision to make seven (count ‘em SEVEN) changes from the side that beat Trinidad and Tobago three days earlier wasn’t surprising enough, Bruce Arena doubled down on the madness by deploying three center backs – a formation the United States has struggled to use effectively for years. Competitive matches against Mexico, especially at Azteca, are some of the most daunting and demanding games any of these players will play in for club and country. Understandably, many fans frantically tweeted their displeasure when they saw the likes of Tim Ream, Paul Arriola, Kellyn Acosta and DaMarcus Beasley in the Starting XI. But what none of us knew was that Bruce Arena had meticulously planned for this moment, and it turned out to be a tactical masterclass. The physical and mental preparations were spot on, and the team setup offered the U.S. the ideal balance between thwarting Mexico’s dynamic attack while affording the opportunity to nick a goal or two.

To Bruce Arena, winning is all that matters. In that respect, he’s the antithesis of Jurgen Klinsmann – a pragmatist to Klinsmann’s idealism. What Arena understands that perhaps Klinsmann did not is that the team who displays the most quality on the day isn’t necessarily the team that will win the game. No matter who you support, everyone has seen their favorite team “outplay” yet still lose a match. Sunday, Arena banked on this understanding and put his players in the best position to come away with points.

Playing direct

It was clear from the outset that the U.S. planned to play in a deep block, keeping all the play in front of them and then breaking as quickly as possible. When playing as deep as the USMNT were, the common problem team’s face is that they can’t sustain any attacks because the striker is left too isolated and can’t retain possession or get in behind (usually) two defenders marking him. The U.S. combatted this by play Christian Pulisic as far up the field as he possibly could while keeping close tabs on Mexico RB Carlos Salcedo, always making sure he could cover his mark when the U.S. lost possession. Fortunately for the the USMNT, Salcedo is a natural center back, and wasn’t as aggressive in pushing forward and therefore pulling Pulisic away from Wood. Together, Wood and Pulisic provided the main attacking threat and they combined well throughout the first half. When the ball was cleared down the opposite flank, Arriola was able to effectively chase and push Mexico back to relieve pressure. Arena was smart to favor the physical attributes that Arriola provided opposed to a more skilled, but slower player in Darlington Nagbe (who, remember, was coming off a start three days prior).

Where the term “playing direct” is misconstrued at times is when it’s mistaken for “crossing a lot.” Playing direct simply means going from back to front and going toward goal as quickly as possible, and these players were incredibly well drilled in this respect. The ball rarely moved backward when U.S. were in possession, and Pulisic and Wood carried the ball forward with purpose.

Center backs in support

The additional center back used by Arena gave the United States a much more solid foundation than they would’ve had playing with three central midfielders. That’s because, in Arena’s mind, this was never going to be a battle over midfield. The game was going to be played predominantly in Mexico’s attacking third, and this was by design (which I’ll get to later). But essentially, the third CB (which we’ll call Cameron since he played in the middle) allowed Ream and Gonzalez to offer support to the central midfielders and fullbacks. Mexico simply couldn’t find space between the lines through Marco Fabian and Jonathan Dos Santos – the two Mexicans trying to exploit these areas. Watch here as Fabian receives the ball initially but Omar Gonzalez is there to usher him away from the danger area. The ball is recycled to Dos Santos in the same position on the other side, where Ream does the same exact thing.

Mexico piles on pressure in second half

Arena made a key switch in the second half that helped preserve the point for the Americans, but it wasn’t with a player swap. Instead, he clearly directed Pulisic to play closer to Beasley so that he could offer support to the left back as his primary purpose. Pulisic’s ability to sprint upfield so quickly on turnovers is incredible. The stamina and effort levels from Pulisic, Arriola and Bobby Wood were off the charts.

With everything in the middle so congested, Mexico was forced to be overly aggressive with its positioning at times. The fullbacks were pushed extremely high, and obviously this forced U.S. players back. But since the away side was so well drilled at playing quickly upfield, they needn’t worry about trying to manipulate Mexico to force an opening. Mexico was forced to leave opening themselves as they chased a result they were so desperate to get. Tactically speaking, while the personnel and setup was no doubt defensive on the part of the USMNT, it still offered balance in that the Americans were able to conjure up decent scoring opportunities, even if they were few and far in between. Pulisic, Wood and Omar Gonzalez all had very good opportunities to score – as good as any of Mexico’s wayward chances.

So yeah, Bruce Arena nailed it, and the postgame quotes from the players really tell the story about how well the manager prepared them to achieve such a result. And this isn’t the last time they’ll need to be prepared to play in this style. If this team is to compete with the best teams in the world (like Mexico) at the World Cup, they’ll need this level of effort. But they took a big step Sunday in proving to themselves that they’re more than capable of pulling it off.