Well that was fun. It was a long time coming, but interim American manager Dave Sarachan finally put out a truly young and experimental lineup. Four players on the starting lineup reviewed their first cap. Four were still teenagers. And not a single player was over the age of 30 on the roster. The new guys were well and truly given an opportunity to show what they could do, and they delivered. The team pasted Bolivia 3-0 through goals from Walker Zimmerman, Josh Sargent, and Timothy Weah, in a lopsided affair featuring plenty of exciting play from the stars and stripes.
But there’s a caveat. Alas, this was against Bolivia, not really much of a soccer power in the world these days. And this Bolivian side was somehow more experimental than the USMNT (though a tad bit older.) That lack of polish and experience certainly showed on the field. Bolivia were passive, they weren’t well organized, and they didn’t connect very well in attack. It was plain to see that they were outmatched by the USMNT, and by the time the third goal went in and the American substitutions started to come out, the game had basically mostly burnt out. That said, there still were some big take-aways from the match. Here’s what stood out:
The Kids These Days
Four teenagers featured in the starting lineup. One of them, you know rather well by now. But the other three are only just starting their national team careers. All three of Timothy Weah, Josh Sargent, and Weston McKennie put in good showings. The first two bagged their first goals (on Sargent’s debut, too!). The third played as the midfield pivot, screening the backline and connecting the offense with the defense. Altogether, they all played exceptionally well.
However, that trio was not perfect. There’s still a level of polish that they each need to find. McKennie had a penchant for bad tackles all throughout the match, and it eventually cost him a yellow. Both Weah and Sargent could use some of that lethal finishing touch, along with some more incisiveness on the ball. But these teens can clearly ball, and they clearly will have a long and bright future with the national team ahead of them.
Opposition’s Playbook: Kick Pulisic
That fourth teenager though, he didn’t have the best night. Pulsic’s had a long, frustrating season, and it showed. He wasn’t quite on the same wavelength as the other players at times. He looked sluggish and misplaced quite a few of his passes. He looked like a player who really needed a rest.
But he also looked like a player who was being specifically and effectively marked throughout the game. In the past, teams have zeroed in and focused on taking Michael Bradley out of the game. But Bolivia decided that the real threat that they needed to put their attention on was Pulisic. They constantly had two players on him, limiting his time on the ball and his passing options. And it was quite effective.
I suspect this is what we will see going forward. Teams will look to specifically neutralize Pulisic with the expectation that, if he’s shut down, the USMNT attack will shut down with him. The way to counter that is to have other avenues of attack. If there’s an extra defender on Pulisic, then there’s one fewer on Sargent or Weah. The team needs to be able to convert that into an advantage and force teams to stretch their defense, or else give up dangerous amounts of space.
Hope You Like That New Refurbished Look
I hope you are feeling nostalgic, because, man, those tactics looked awfully familiar. Just look at the goals. A header off a set piece. A poached goal after an opportunistic turnover. And a tap in thanks to a cross from a fullback bombing up the flank. We’ve seen a lot of this before. In general, you had a pair of center backs set in the defense, a single holding midfielder in front of them, wide players who come inside, and fullbacks who aggressively move up the line and provide space. A lot of this is stuff we’ve been seeing from the USMNT for a long time.
But there also was some new stuff in there. Instead of seeing midfielders played out wide with the expectation of pinching in, we had forwards out wide who pinched in. In general, the play built from the right side, with Pulisic and Sargent drifting wide to combine with Weah and Rubin pinching in and playing from the center. In the final third, Weah made slashing runs at goal, including on his goal. Having forwards pinch inside is a bit different than having, say, Darlington Nagbe come inside. You aren’t trying to retain possession with wide forwards out on the field. You are trying to go at goal. I don’t know if that kind of aggressive lineup will work against a better team — you may need to drop Rubin for another midfielder or a winger in order to either create more secure possession or to stretch the field. But this is certainly a different approach than the USMNT has had before on attacking.
But probably the most important addition was the press. The USMNT pressed high and repeatedly were able to force Bolivia to turnover the ball. Of course, this led directly to Sargent’s goal. But it also helped limit Bolivia’s ability to build up and generate threats, all while creating chances for the US to attack into space on the recovery. This crop of young players all seem to have the skill set for a high press. You’ve got defenders who prefer to play on the front foot, with some speed to get back and make recoveries. The midfield is mobile and willing to get into an opponent’s face. And so many players both have the kind of clean feet that comes in handy after recovering the ball and going on the break, and the presence of mind to move into a good position when they anticipate a teammate will reclaim the ball.
Taken all together, there’s a good chance that the USMNT will be able to take their traditional style of play, but add some elements of modernity and perform in a more attractive manner than ever before. Imagine a US that plays on the counter, unleashing quick and incisive attacks on goal, while pairing that with a real set piece threat. But, instead of counters starting from deep, they come from a high press, actively looking for opportunities to get on the front foot. It would be akin to how, say, the New York Red Bulls or Atlanta United in MLS attack.
Bolivia playing pretty passively, with no pressure put on the defense. Still, there were some good takeaways from the centerbacks. In particular, Walker Zimmerman had some pretty nice moments of distribution. Take this clip that Matt Doyle pointed out over on MLS’s website.
That pass, straight out of closing down an attack, is nuts. And Zimmerman’s distribution was solid all night. He missed only two in the whole game. It’s still remains to be seen if he can do that when he's got a forward in his face. But, against Bolivia, Zimmerman impressed.
Rubio Rubin came back to the national team after being gone for a long time. He didn’t look out of place, coming inside and combining well with Weah and Sargent. He still made a few mistakes and there probably are other players who can do more with the position, or offer the team a different look. But, at 22, he’s still got time to development.
Man, Antonee Robinson can really bomb up the field. He has some serious wheels. He offers a huge opportunity to stretch the field, and that’s really interesting with Yedlin on the other side. The USMNT might finally have a solution at left-back.
This team has the tools to press high and hard. Players have the mobility to do it. They are decent defenders. There’s the speed to recover in defense. Players have good technical ability, the tactical nous to press smartly and win the ball. And players are smart enough to get in good positions on turnovers in order to capitalize.
What do you think? Where there other things you took from the match? Tell us in the comments below.