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USA v. Canada, CONCACAF Nation’s League Group Stage: What we Learned

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The USMNT inflicted some revenge on Canada through a pivotal 4-1 win in Orlando. Here’s what we learned.

Canada v United States - CONCACAF Nations League Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Whew, that was a relief. On Friday night, the USMNT posted a 4-1 pasting on Canada in Orlando, taking revenge for a miserable 2-0 performance in October in the CONCACAF Nation’s League. The scoring started early, with Jordan Morris nailing in a tap in off a corner in the 3rd minute to take the lead. Morris turned provider soon after, latching onto a brilliant cross field switch from Arriola and putting in a cross for Gyasi Zardes to head home. Aaron Long was able to head home the ball off of a free kick from Tim Ream and the USMNT took a 3-0 lead into halftime. In the second half, Canada came into the game a bit more and, while they couldn’t actually create any clear-cut chances or good shots, they started putting the US into some pressure at moments. Finally, Canada was at last able to at least start their comeback, with Steven Vitória turning in a header off a corner. But it was too little too late. The Canadians couldn’t create anything else and the USMNT were able to seal the game off with a final goal from Zardes.

With this win, a lot of pressure falls off the USMNT and coach Gregg Berhalter. Assuming the team can beat Cuba on Tuesday, the team stands to take 9 points through the group stage, tied on points with Canada (who have no games remaining) and ahead on goal difference (the US is currently +8; Canada +6). With a win v. Cuba, the US will qualify for a knockout match against another group winner (either Honduras or whoever tops the group between Costa Rica and Curaçao).

With that, let’s dig into the game.

Feels Like like Dest-iny

The big news going into the match was the announcement that the Dutch American fullback, Sergiño Dest, had decided his international fate. The Ajax defender, born and raised in the Netherlands (and playing with the nation’s most storied and historic club) had long been part of the American youth program. After breaking into the senior team for Ajax, Dest received a pair of caps in friendlies against Mexico and Uruguay. But he also received a lot of very public interest from the Netherlands national team program. He turned down a call-up for last months games against Cuba and Canada, games that would have cap-tied him, saying that he needed time to make a decision between which nation he would represent.

The choice of highly-touted dual nationals, players that both the USMNT program and another nation want, has a tendency to hit at some of the most anxious parts of the American soccer psyche. The advances of the Dutch program, specifically the public overtures from Ajax/Netherlands legend turned national team manager, Ronald Koeman, along with what was essentially silence from USSF and Gregg Berhalter, left an impression among many that Dest was naturally going to choose the Netherlands.

In the end, of course, he chose to represent the United States. We don’t know much about what happened and why he made that choice. Dest himself says that it was a personal decision to pick the program that he had been with since a youth, that the US program had shown faith in him up to that point. But we don’t know quite what that means, nor do we know what the likes of Earnie Stewart or Gregg Berhalter said to him (and that’s fine; Dest is entitled to his privacy).

Choosing a national team to represent can be a very difficult decision for a lot of players with multiple nationalities. There a whole slew of considerations, ranging from professional opportunities at the international level, to personal and family experience, to the relationships within the program. We don't know what all goes into how players make these decisions. And, when a decision is made, we have to accept them (with grace) even if they go against us. We can demand that the likes of Earnie Stewart (himself a foreign raised Dutch American) and Gregg Berhalter keep tabs on players of multiple nationalities, that they build and manage relationships with dual national players, both based abroad and domestically. But we can’t demand that the players pick us. We can only have faith that they will.

Dest-ined for Greatness

Ah, but I haven't touched on how Dest even played! Against Mexico, where Dest made his debut, I had this to say.

Dest had one very bad moment, but seemed otherwise fine on defense. He didn’t get to do too much on attack, but looked promising.

That was at left back, where the US is very thin. Promising but suspect on defense essentially put Dest somewhere towards the top of the depth chart. Tim Ream (the incumbent) is a good passer and demonstrates leadership, but has defenses lapses, is getting old, and, probably most importantly, isn’t a fullback. Daniel Lovitz is not promising, not an attacker in any sense, and maybe an adequate defender. Antonee Robinson is fast, can cross, but is otherwise limited and is a very poor defender. Jorge Villafaña has fallen off the radar. Greg Garza is constantly hurt. And Demarcus Beasley is retired (they honored him in this game!). So, Dest basically shot to the top in just his first appearance. And the expectation was that he would take that place for this game against Canada.

Except Dest played at right back. Gregg Berhalter decided to slot Dest in at right back, the position he naturally plays for Ajax, playing Ream on the left and leaving DeAndre Yedlin, Nick Lima, and Reggie Cannon (all right backs) on the bench. It was a surprising move, to say the least. How did Dest do? Well! Very well, I might say. He picked up an assist in the third minute, latching onto the ball off a corner and putting in a cross to a wide-open Jordan Morris. He was smooth on the ball in possession, constantly threatening, and incisive, all throughout the night. But he also was tactically flexible. Reggie Cannon has been lauded for how he’s both been able to get forward high up the field and wide on the wing, both helping facilitate attacks and pinning back the opposition winger and fullback. On the other hand, Nick Lima has shown well coming inside and facilitating possession. Dest showed he can do both in the same game. He repeatedly played hard down the right flank, effectively neutering Canadian wunderkind Alphonso Davies (why is he playing at left back!!). But he also came inside to build up play, showing composure on the ball and making good choices to build in attack. There are still some questions about how good Dest is at defense; Canada couldn’t generate anything on the US’s right but it’s unclear how much of that was because of Canada sucking vs. Dest + Arriola shutting them down. But that sill leaves Dest as essentially the first choice left back and, at the least, a good option on the right, right now. With Dest only 18 and playing at the club most highly regarded for raising and incorporating young talent in the world, I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him.

And this presents a happy problem for the team. Dest can play at left back, and he has for the American youth program for sometime. But he’s also great playing on the right. As mentioned, there’s Yedlin, Cannon, Lima who are all options down that side. And there are young players coming through who might contest there, as well (like Joe Scally, who just was bought by Borussia Mönchengladbach at the age of 16, and will be moving to Germany in 2021 when he turns 18.) The USMNT is suddenly very deep at right back. More prospects might turnout at left back, but there’s a need there right now. Figuring out who starts where will be important going forward.

So, the Nation’s League Matters Now

On Friday, ahead of the game, I suggested that, if the US were to lose to Canada, Gregg Berhalter’s should be fired based on the results so far and the schedule going forward. Thank goodness the team won.

But it goes to show how much my thinking has changed on the tournament. I went from calling the first match against Canada dead rubber, to saying that the return leg is a must win. The old system had the USMNT playing in two rounds of World Cup qualifying, with a set of opponents of similar quality, except, instead of having two games against decent opposition and two against terrible opposition, the US had to play two games against decent opposition and four against bad teams. So the quality per game has gone up. Factor in the two home-and-away rounds in the knockout stage against Hexagonal opposition and you’ve got a big jump in quality. And, importantly, missing out on those knockout rounds would deprive the team of much-needed experience for getting through World Cup Qualifying (particularly in the away games). Losing in this game wouldn’t merely have been humiliating. It also would have cost the team some serious preparation time and would have left the team without a way to figure out if things are working going into the most crucial games for the team.

The mentality of the players reflected that, as well. In the first leg against Canada, the players came out flat, playing as if the game didn’t matter. On the other hand, Canada took the game as a crucial, must-win match in order to qualify for the Hexagonal (which, for them, due to the FIFA rankings and the way they are used to qualify for the Hex, it was). As a result, the USMNT came out and put up a miserable performance, with Canada completely stifling them and repeatedly forcing errors. But in this game, the players came out and looked sharp and prepared. They played the game as if it were a must win match, even if losing didn’t have any particularly important direct consequences. The game and the competition itself had become important enough to take it that seriously.

That shift in mentality is, of course, hugely important. The USMNT lost to a markedly inferior Trinidad and Tobago and missed out on the World Cup in large part because the team did not take the game seriously enough.

Gregg’s Shift

There was also a big shift in how the team was set up and how they played. Gregg Berhalter discarded his oft-criticized possession system and put the USMNT into a defensive stance, ready to counter. The team was able to take a very early lead and, from there, sit back, absorb pressure, and hit on set pieces and the counter. The team had dropped the high-concept, pleasantly progressive possession-based program. And I couldn’t be happier.

The USMNT has been playing such limp and boring soccer for years now. Berhalter’s changes shifted that to a possession system, but the games were still bad, with the USMNT struggling when pressed and unable to advance effectively up the field. With Weston McKennie playing as a hybrid CAM/striker (as a commentator pointed out, probably correctly, this likely was from Berhalter’s instructions), he wound up disconnected from the midfield. That midfield all too often wound up unable to handle physical play and a press and repeatedly left the defense exposed. It made the US dull and boring and predictable and bad.

Apparently feeling the pressure, Berhalter simplified the game. McKennie got pushed back deeper in midfield, where he proved more effective. Lletget took his place and proved, once again, that playing attack-minded players in attacking midfield is better than playing three holding midfielders. Where Bradley and Roldan struggled to handle the Canadian press, Jackson Yueill, paired with tighter and more organized midfield lines, was able to sufficiently fight back to give the team enough solidity and shield the backline. And, finally, with Jordan Morris ready to streak down the left wing, Arriola on the right, the US was willing and able to target the empty spaces, the areas where Canada felt forced to vacate out of desperation. Finally, the team was able to take Canada to task on two (!!) set pieces. In short, he reverted the team to the classic American style, the sort of play that the US has used going back for three decades. It was effective and it was much better to watch.

The question is whether these changes are merely a moment of pragmatism, in part forced by absences from first team players Adams, Pulisic, and Altidore, or by merely an admission that the team needs to reset, figure out a stable base, and build from there. I certainly hope it’s the latter. But, either way, it shows that Berhalter, at least when he feels forced, will demonstrate some flexibility.

Closing Thoughts

Josh Sargent is the future, but Gyasi Zardes is still effective.
I don’t think it’s a big deal that Sargent didn’t play in this game. He’s still young and unpolished and he’ll get more chances in years to come. I certainly hope he starts against Cuba. But, as limited as he is, Zardes is still an effective and useful player. When the team is functioning behind him, Zardes gets results. And, when the team is not functioning behind him, playing Sargent instead doesn’t yet help as much as playing someone like Altidore. At least, not yet.

Jordan Morris continues his fantastic 2019.
Jordan Morris has probably been the most in form American through this year. He adapted to being a full-time winger, he snagged a slew of goals and assists, he scored his first career hat trick in MLS, he won MLS Cup, and, now, he’s got another goal and assist to cap off the year. What a turnaround for a player people worried wouldn’t live up to his potential after some hard, injury plagued years.

That pass from Arriola for the build up to the second goal was insane.
More of that, please.

Game States Matter.
The fact of the matter is, the game would have looked very different if the US hadn’t taken such an early lead. That goal forced Canada’s hand and let the US sit back. The game states have to be taken into consideration.

That’s all from me. If you think there was something I missed or got wrong, let me know in the comments below. The USMNT returns away v. Cuba for the last Nation’s League group stage game on Tuesday.