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USA vs. Panama: What we learned

The USMNT came roaring into the Berhalter era with a solid 3-0 thumping of a weakened Panama side.

Soccer: International Friendly Soccer-Panama at USA Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

January camp games always have a tendency to be slow and muddled affairs. The Camp Cupcake players tend to be fringe or squad players, unfamiliar with the usual team set up. The opposition is always a weak side, thanks to the fact that this isn’t an official FIFA date, intent to defend fiercely and foul Americans liberally. To add to the sense of disorder, Berhalter’s the fourth different manager to preside over the last 4 Janaury camps. The team just needed to get in there and grind to some sort of positive result.

Well, at least that’s what we were expecting. Instead, the USMNT came roaring back under the new manager, thumping Panama 3-0 in a one-sided display where the Americans absolutely dominated possession, completely stifled the opposition attack, and repeatedly got decent looks on goal. Across the board, the Americans on the field played well and executed on what was clearly a sophisticated tactical set up. Here’s what we learned from the match.

Welcome to the Secret Laboratory

There had to be changes with Berhalter going in as manager for his first game. There absolutely had to be. After the collapse against Trinidad and Tobago, after a year of throwing youth against the likes of Brazil, Mexico, and Italy, the status quo absolutely had to change. This first Camp Cupcake match had to be different. But I don’t think anybody really expected a starting line up that was this experimental.

Let start with the formation. The USMNT trotted out a hybrid 3-1-4-2/4-4-2. Which is not at all what anyone expected. Most people, myself included, expected Berhalter to run with a 4-5-1, just as he had with the Columbus Crew. While speculating, some people, like Kim McCauley early last week, did suggest a 3-5-2 or a 4-4-2 for the full senior squad. But a lopsided hybrid system wasn’t really what anyone expected.

The way the team ultimately played started with a base 4-4-2. With Berhalter’s history, it was widely expected that he would ask his fullbacks to play way up the field, with a dmid dropping between the center backs to provide cover and passing options. Instead, Berhalter had Daniel Lovitz stay back, playing somewhere between a center back and a conservative fullback. On the other side, you had Nick Lima play the opposite, somewhere between an aggressive fullback and an attacking wingback. Instead of dropping between the center backs, Michael Bradley played ahead of them, constantly facilitating play. It was a clever, unexpected, and unique formation that ultimately reinforced Berhalter’s plan to play by controlling possession and moving the ball across the field to exploit openings.

Berhalter also showed that he wasn’t afraid to tinker with the players in that formation. For the most part, he went and ran with youth and inexperience. Bradley and Zardes were the only holdovers from last cycle. in contrast, you had Ebobisse, Mihailovic, Daniel Lovitz, Nick Lima, and Corey Baird all starting on their first caps. On top of that, you had a number of players playing sort of out of position. Ebobisse, a striker, played out on the left wing. As mentioned above, Lovitz and Lima, both fullbacks, essentially moonlighted as a center back and a wingback, respectively. Mihailovic, a midfielder, played as an old fashioned second striker, drifting all over the field and making late runs into pockets of space in the box.

From top to bottom, Berhalter tinkered with what he had and somehow made it all work in his system. That said, not everything changed.

The Return of Michael Bradley

One place on the field that looked a whole lot like it did in 2017 was at dmid. Michael Bradley returned to take the position as the fulcrum as the deepest player in midfield, connecting offense and defense. And he did so very, very well.

Going into this camp and this match, a lot of people, myself included, were nervous about Michael Bradley’s inclusion in this camp and his potential inclusion in this game. And a lot of people were upset and outraged about those same things. And that was for good reason. Bradley had become a clear point for teams to target, an aging player who didn't wield the same influence he had a few years earlier. On top of that, Bradley had a really weak season with Toronto FC this past year, thanks to a mix of squad injuries, personal periods where he was out of form, and the need to repeatedly play out of position (TFC had him at center back!). In spite of his influence with the squad and his talent, Bradley’s place was rightfully questioned.

And then Berhalter came in and said that he was the most technical and cerebral player in camp. That blew all sorts of alarm bells. But when Bradley stepped out on the field, it was as if we were watching the 2013 version of Michael Bradley instead of the 2017 one. Somehow, Bradley seemed to be everywhere. He was constantly receiving the ball in midfield and then calmly playing it forward, breaking through defensive lines with perfectly weighted through balls. And when Panama were able to recover the ball and started to move towards the goal, there Bradley would be to shut down the space and help win the ball back. It was mesmerizing.

Somehow, Berhalter isolated what Michael Bradley was really, really good at, and tasked him with doing only those things. In truth, Bradley is a good passer and a good defender, and essentially always has been. But he’s not good at everything. Bradley is great at making long, accurate passes to teammates and exploiting space when it opens up. But he struggles when opponents put a dedicated press on him. Bradley is great at covering ground and getting where he needs to be so that he can press after a turnover, block passing lanes, and double team an opponent into losing the ball. But he’s miserable when defending one-v-one.

Berhalter took those traits and crafted a complementary system. Bradley needs a teammate to help win the ball back? Well, here’s the energetic Cristian Roldan. Need alternative options that can pass long if Bradley’s under pressure? Well, Walker Zimmerman can do that. It certainly helped that Panama was so passive, but Bradley absolutely made the most of his appearance.

Everything Changed when the Fire Player Attacked

I’m going to be honest. Going into this match, I barely recognized the names of Lima, Baird, and Mihailovic. But I certainly know their names now. I’ve talked plenty about Lima bursting up the flank. Baird certainly made himself stand out with a slew of cutbacks from the byline into space. But I want to take a moment to really appreciate this opening goal from Djordje Mihailovic.

It’s such a deceptively simple run, late into the box. Mihailovic just observes as play builds up behind him in midfield, drifting a little from the backline. While the defenders start backpedalling, Mihailovic kind of just lounges for a second, waiting for the ball to draw level with him. And that’s when he starts to book it towards goal. Suddenly, he’s in acres of space, arriving at the exact perfect moment to meet Baird’s cross and redirect the ball to goal. It was brilliant. It was beautiful. It was fun.

It also wasn’t the only time Mihailovic found those sorts of little pockets of space in the final third. The Chicago midfielder needs some polish, but he has a knack for where to be to create openings and advance the ball. It’s those kinds of instincts that make excellent creators and goal scorers, the kinds of instincts that the USMNT has historically been far short on. And it’s good to see that on display.

I also want to take a moment to marvel at how this goal came from the run of play. The team built up possession, quickly advanced the ball into space, and exploited the back peddling Panamanian defense to bag a gorgeous goal. It has felt for the past year, well beyond really, that the US attack was limited to set pieces and the rare counter attack. Don’t get me wrong, Zimmerman’s thundering header was a sight to behold. But it’s felt as if set pieces have been essentially the only way for the USMNT to break through to goal for way too long. Instead, we got a back-and-forth passing movement to open up the scoring for this new year, along with a surprising dribble and tap in to close out the match. That looks like improvement to me.

It’s Still Only Panama in a Camp Cupcake Match

Look, we still need to be realistic about this here. This was not a full strength USMNT against a full strength top international side. This was a team of role fillers, depth pieces, and fringe players, up against a diminished Panama side in flux. Panama did not try to press and make a game out there. They went into the match with a plan to park the bus and try and grab an unlikely result of some sort. This was, by no means, a particularly stern test for the USMNT. But it was still an important and meaningful moment. We got a glimpse at what the team could be and how they could play, even without most of the squad’s best players. There are still many questions to be asked: what happens when the opposition starts pressing?, who is the starting center back pair?, how does the team manage when they don’t control possession?, etc. But now we have a first baseline for what the expect going forward. We got a taste of what the team can do and what Berhalter wants the players to execute on the field. And that’s something that we haven’t had in years.

What do you think? Were there lessons that I missed? Let me know in the comments below.