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USA vs. Canada, CONCACAF Nations League group stage: What we learned

The USMNT lost to Canada in Toronto on Tuesday in miserable fashion. Here are some takeaways.

United States v Canada - CONCACAF Nations League Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

The United States Men’s National Team lost to Canada 2-0 in Toronto during the CONCACAF Nations League. It was bad. The mitigating factors were that it was basically a friendly for the USMNT, while Canada had World Cup qualifying at stake. So, the home side came out and played like it meant something to them, while the Americans didn’t. Simply put, the USMNT played terribly in the match. Again. They had the same predictable problems that they've had for the last six months. Sure, it was a glorified friendly for the USMNT. But that doesn’t excuse yet another display where the team couldn’t do basic soccer things. Let’s just dive right in.

Most of the Time, I Had Better Things to Do

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to piece together the rationale for Gregg Berhalter’s moves with the USMNT. What is the point of all of this, assuming everything is in good faith? I don’t mean that jargon about disorganizing the opposition through possession. Rather, I mean what does this mean for the USMNT program in the big picture? Why play in this specific way instead of another, even when another would be easier to implement with the players on hand and the existing national team culture (Spoiler: I’ve been working on similar pieces for each of Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena, which will come out eventually)?

My guess is that it actually did come out from some degree of introspection. Klinsmann stepped into the head coach position with a mandate to turn the USMNT into a more attractive, proactive team. He had the job for six years and he didn’t do that, but moreover, he left the USMNT in a weird position. Against teams evenly matched with or better than the USMNT, the national team generally took a strategy of playing reactive and counter-attacking soccer. And that worked, to an extent (particularly with Bob Bradley). The thing was, the USMNT only very rarely played against quality opposition in competitive play — basically only Mexico a handful of times between the Gold Cups and World Cup qualifying, and the World Cup itself. Otherwise, the USMNT had to play teams that were, on paper, much weaker. Those teams realized that if they simply ceded possession, defended deep, and pressed specific players (read: Michael Bradley), they could shut down the USMNT. The result was that while the USMNT had plenty of the ball, the team struggled to play dangerous and proactive soccer, struggled to keep the midfield cohesive, and struggled to get goals out of anyone besides Clint Dempsey for most of the last cycle.

So, on the one hand, you’ve got a strategy of play that matches the player’s skillsets and the existing culture, a strategy that is reasonably effective in high level matches, allowing the USMNT to sometimes punch above its weight. On the other hand, you’ve got a bulk of matches where that style of play is essentially redundant, where the team is forced to play in a style that they are uncomfortable with. Playing completely differently in various contexts makes it hard for the team to gel as a cohesive and consistent unit, a factor which might help keep the USMNT from advancing further and which definitely contributed in the team missing the 2018 World Cup in the first place. So, how do you reconcile those things?

And I think that’s where Berhalter comes in with a fairly simple solution. What if you play the same way in both situations? If CONCACAF is going to force you to play one way, why don’t you embrace it all the way, drill it down until it’s a fundamental part of the team, and then apply it to the biggest matches as well?

But the thing is, it’s not working. At a basic level, coaches, not just in soccer but in all sports, are supposed to serve as elevators of talent. A good coach is able to take a collection of talent and have them play beyond the sum of their parts. But the USMNT is still losing to inferior competition. No offense Canada, but on paper the USMNT, with its cadre of starting Bundesliga players, has you beat on talent. Against bad teams, the United States can put together those passing sequences that Berhalter wants and win blowouts. But against more skilled opposition, or talent equals, the team mostly just muddles about. The team often has more possession than the opposition, but that doesn’t automatically translate to actually winning games. The whole point was for the team to be better able to take on CONCACAF talents. And yet, they are struggling just as hard as ever. Again, the point was, you know, to be able to deal with exactly those sides.

Why’d You Have to Go and Make Things So Complicated?

Stop saying that Berhalter’s system is so complicated.

It’s not.

He’s stripped down the “system” a lot from what was trotted out in January Camp. The weird hybrid 3-2-2-3/4-3-3 plan is long gone. Now, the fullbacks play in conventional roles. The midfield went from one holding player and two “number 10s” (they weren’t number 10s...I don’t know why Berhalter called them that.) to two holding players and one central attacking midfielder. The rotations in possession have been simplified, and now the formation is one that is far more familiar to players. And in defense, there wasn’t much of anything all that screwy to begin with, with the team setting up a mid block in two banks of 4.

At this point, most of this is conventional stuff. Playing the ball back and forth, left and right, and finding space to exploit from the wings is not revolutionary stuff. It is the standard at loads of clubs around the world. More importantly, the “system” is still not getting the basics right. At the point, every time someone says that that system is too complicated, they are deflecting. And, in Berhalter’s case, avoiding responsibility.

I’ve been harping about the fact that the USMNT is terrible at winning the ball back for 6 months now. And I’m getting seriously sick and tired of repeating myself. I talked about how nobody seemed to have been tasked with winning the ball back against Venezuela.

Tyler Adams is far and away the most important player on the USMNT. Full stop.
If you take away nothing else from this game, take away that. ... I was screaming ... “WHO IS SUPPOSED TO WIN THE BALL BACK?” Because I have no clue who is supposed to win the ball back. Who’s job is it to defend the middle of the pitch, to recover the ball for the team hone they lose it, and harry and slow attackers while the defense tracks back?

And again with Guyana.

Until the US can figure out who else breaks up plays in midfield, Tyler Adams is the most important player for this national team. ... [the USMNT] will run into teams like Mexico and Canada and Jamaica, teams that have good attackers and know to run into that space. The USMNT needs to figure out who is winning that ball back.

And I very explicitly explained how the USMNT midfield was completely disconnected for the opening goal in the friendly against Mexico.

On the American side, however, you have an example of a team that’s disorganized. There’s absolutely no defending player anywhere near the ball, which means no chance whatsoever to press. Then, you have the four defending players on the backline ... On top of that, ... there’s SEVEN players ready to attack that are between the midfield and defense, one of which is completely wide open. That right there is a team that’s about to get stabbed through the heart.

What happened against Canada? The USMNT went soft in midfield. The midfield of Michael Bradley, Weston McKennie, and Cristian Roldan was disjointed, out of position, and poor in contesting for the ball. Both goals came after the backline was forced to deal with an emergency situation and cleared the line, only for the ball to fall to another Canadian player. Those are scenarios where the midfield should be ready and present to break up plays or advance the ball and take advantage of the exposed space. And yet, that didn’t happen on Tuesday, and it has been a consistent problem for the last 6 months. Yeah, I get Tyler Adams hasn’t been there and he’s expected to be a big help. But, you can’t have the team be so frail that missing one player makes the whole thing fall apart.

Near, Far, Wherever You Are

The USMNT went out on the road for the first time since Berhalter took over the national team for this match. But even if this road loss for Berhalter was a first under him, the result plugs straight into a much longer trend. The United States has won exactly two competitive games away from home going back to the start of the 2014 World Cup. We beat Ghana 2-1 in that World Cup in Brazil and St. Vincent & the Grenadines away in September 2016 during the 4th round of World Cup qualifying (where the U.S. entered). That’s it over the past 5 years. That includes matches against Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, and Trinidad and Tobago (TWICE!!). And now, we get to add Canada to that list. The USMNT has been bad on the road for a very long time now.

And the thing was, this was the opportunity to start reversing that trend. Sure, Canada have become a decent side in the past few years. But, this was exactly the kind of match to ease all those new players into the routine of playing international matches away from home. Toronto is only about a six hour drive from Columbus, Ohio, that historic bastion of the USMNT. And, since Toronto FC play in MLS, a bunch of players have played there before. It’s the home field for Michael Bradley’s club! It’s as familiar as you can get, even for domestic stadiums. On top of that, you don’t have the slew of problems that come with traveling elsewhere in CONCACAF. There wasn’t a tropical storm to fret about. The pitch wasn’t a mass of overgrown weeds, nor was it as lumpy as an untilled field. The players didn’t have to play on short breath because of high altitude and low oxygen, nor did they have to deal with clouds of smog. They didn’t have to play in tropical heat or even a snow storm...Toronto is just as temperate right now as most of the rest of the eastern United States. And they didn’t have to deal with fans throwing slurs at them, throwing garbage at them, or staking out their hotel in the middle of the night with drums. No, this was a trip to Canada. It was as nice and pleasant as you could hope for in CONCACAF.

The USMNT has a match coming up in November for the Nations League where the team has to travel to play Cuba in the Cayman Islands (Cuba’s official field in Havana was deemed ineligible) and, given the weakness of the Cuban team, that’s probably an away game that the team wins. But, don’t let that paper up just how poor the team has been outside the States. Half the matches for World Cup qualifying are away from home. And in the last round of World Cup Qualifying for the last World Cup, if the USMNT had won a single game on the road, they would have been at the World Cup tournament last year. The fact that the team can’t handle away games is holding the team back.

Yeah, I Know That I Let You Down

So, closing thoughts:

DeAndre Yedlin: He has a habit of switching off defensively at the wrong moments, and he did so again against Canada. I have to wonder if he just lost his spot to Reggie Cannon.

Weston McKennie: I’m not sure McKennie should start. The USMNT needs someone with more presence in midfield. McKennie covers ground well and he is lively in the final third. But he’s not helping get the ball advanced through midfield.

Cristian Roldan: I know Seattle Sounders fans love him, but I really don’t see what Roldan brings to the national team. I’m sure he’s great at the MLS level, but at the international level, he’s not good enough at anything. You can see, he’s got a load of different skills that could translate all over across midfield. But, he’s not good enough or specialized enough at any one position for him to work. I don’t think he’s been any good since January Camp.

Josh Sargent: Sargent had a bad game. He essentially looked like he didn’t know where he was supposed to be at any time. He was always too deep to be effective as a striker, yet he wasn’t effective in defense. Because he was so deep, Pulisic was frequently completely isolated and left as the only outlet for the USMNT. Without Sargent there to combine with him, Pulisic simply ran into a red wall of players and lost possession. This performance from Sargent was evidence that it’s not so easy to integrate young players into the national team.

January Camp: The USMNT has a set of Nations League games in November. After that, the USMNT won’t have a competitive match again until June, assuming they manage to recover, win their next two games, and top the group. If they finish second, they won’t have any until World Cup qualification starts next September. That means January Camp is going to be a big deal. It’s not acceptable that the team is basically entirely dependent on Tyler Adams turning good and returning to health for the long-term. The team desperately needs to find some depth to do that job, and Camp Cupcake the is the best opportunity to find that depth.

That’s all from me. As always, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.