The US was able to walk away on Tuesday evening with a 1-0 victory over Mexico. Both sides actually played a young line up, with Mexico fielding 4 players 21 or younger, the US, 6. The first half started rough, with Mexico dominating possession. However, after Weston McKennie was forced out for Julian Green due to an injury late in the first half, the team began to play better. But it’s hard to say more about what we got from this game because, in the 67’ minute, Angel Zaldívar committed a bad tackle on Wil Trapp and was sent off, reducing Mexico to 10 men. From there, it was all one-way traffic, with Tyler Adams scoring his first international goal to win the game. Still, there are some things to take away from this match. Here’s what we learned.
“Let’s Play 4 Holding Midfielders” is (Still) Not a Winning Strategy
“Let’s Play All Our Best Midfielders” is generally regarded as a decent strategy in soccer, I think it’s safe to say. But it doesn’t work when all your best midfielders play the same position and do similar things. Which is exactly what Dave Sarachan did with his starting line up. The US trotted out a 4-5-1, with all of Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Kellyn Acosta, and Wil Trapp. The first three of those players all serve as dynamic presences to push forward, while Trapp is more of a distributer and tempo keeper. When you put all of them together, they cannibalize their positioning and their runs, while their positional limitations are highlighted. Playing all of these players meant that the team could press and recover the ball, but couldn’t keep possession and made no forward progress in the first half. It wasn’t until McKennie came off and Julian Green, a dedicated attacker (even if we can’t figure out if he’s a striker or a winger), that the attack got a sense of urgency, even though Green didn’t do a whole lot until the second half.
Speaking of an inability to keep and advance possession, let’s take a look at the USMNT’s pass map from the first half.
That map shows all the passes from the team in the first half, minus Steffan and the centerbacks. You can see, there’s almost no connecting passes in the final third. There's barely any connecting passes in the Mexican half of the field at all. There’s a clear emptiness in the center, with most of the activity pressed far against the wings. And you can see that there’s a clear right side bias. I’ve pointed this sort of right-side bias before. In this case, you could understand why the USMNT tilted towards the right, given that Lichaj didn’t push forward much on the left. However, this is becoming a trend. And given that this right side imbalance doesn't actually seem to be leading to any chance creation, this is probably something opposition is going to start noticing and exploiting against the team. If this isn’t intentional, this needs to be sorted out. And if this is intentional, then its effectiveness needs to be sorted out.
I should note, the second half was much more balanced, but I’m not making any conclusions from that because of the red card.
Still Lack Creativity
In case the last segment didn’t drive home the point, let’s look at another map, this time, for touches from the first half.
Tell me, can you see where Pulisic goes?
A lot of this has to do with playing four (!) center midfielders. But this has been a reoccurring problem. The team needs to find some avenues for creativity without Pulisic. If the team can’t, they are going to struggle without him. And, even with him, if the Dortmund man is the only one making plays, the other team is going to decide to kick him until he’s ineffective. There has to be other players who make things happen.
When Green came on, there was indeed more dynamism to the US in possession. But I’m not so sure that was because of Green so much as it was having an attacker on the field taking up more attacking positions instead of a central midfielder. Green didn’t actually do a whole lot.
There’s maybe a place for Julian Green on the national team, even as his struggles in club soccer continue. But the question becomes, are there better options? I get the feeling the answer is yes.
But enough negativity. After all, we beat Mexico!