The USMNT went into the fourth game of the Berhalter era facing the first seriously good opposition in a game Chilean team on Tuesday night. Both goals came early, with Gyasi Zardes putting Pulisic through to chip the keeper before Chile equalized after a loose ball in the box, all in the first ten minutes. After those opening minutes, the USMNT’s fortunes waxed and waned, and then mostly waned. After the bright start, Pulisic was pulled as a precautionary measure due to a quad injury. And, after that, the USMNT lost a lot of their attacking verve. The team was still able to grind out a draw, though. Here’s what we learned from this first serious test.
When the World Needed Him Most, He Vanished
In the previous match against Ecuador, the USMNT attack was, ah, let’s go with stifled. There was a big question about whether Christian Pulisic could take up the reigns as the center attacking mid with the new coach and the new set up. Against Ecuador, results were less than inspiring. Pulisic got a second go of it against Chile. And, this time, he got to show a lot more of what he can do. Pulisic wasn’t perfect on the night, miscueing on what should have been a great opportunity. However, he was frequently dangerous, making great runs in between the midfield and defensive lines. He bagged a great early goal and was dangerous throughout.
There’s probably the biggest difference between this match and against Ecuador. With Ecuador, he was constantly running into two organized banks of defenders. With Chile out and actually playing into the US, there were spaces there for Pulisic to exploit, and exploit he did. This could possibly be signs of what to expect in the future. Against teams that are organized and defensively packed, the spaces aren’t there for Pulisic to play through the center. And in those kinds of games, it might be best to play the Dortmund man out wide where there is more space. But against quality opposition, opposition that’s looking to impose themselves against the USMNT? Well, there’s where Pulisic can shine. And that’s where he shined in this game.
That is, until he went down with an injury. That blow kind of deflated the US, with the team coming out of the half well off the front foot. Without Pulisic making small plays in the middle and serving as a serious threat, the US totally lost control of the middle of the park, utterly ceding possession to Chile. Berhalter was able to bring a course correction around the hour mark, putting Wil Trapp on the field and shifting to a back 3. The US had a dangerous flash or two after that point. But the point still stands. The US isn’t nearly as dangerous as they need to be without Pulisic there to make the pass. It’s a dilemma that’s haunted the USMNT for years by this point, yet it still needs to be solved.
Of course, we can’t move on without mentioning the goal. Phew, this one is gorgeous. The team spent most of the game trying to play the ball methodically out of the back, trying to control the middle of the field and create chances through switches and overloads. But the goal instead came from a long ball out from Horvath to Zardes. Pulisic made a run in behind and chipped the keeper. World Class finish.
WATCH HIM WORK! @cpulisic_10 puts away the opener in Houston! pic.twitter.com/SDGPLa6MGt— U.S. Soccer MNT (@USMNT) March 27, 2019
And Zardes’ assist? Look, I’ve compared Zardes’ first touch to a brick. Well, that’s the most cultured and elegant of bricks I’ve ever seen. Zardes was great throughout his time on the field, making unselfish runs throughout the match and stretching the field with his pace and his pressing. I still think Altidore is the more talented player (he’s got a better passing range and is a more versatile finisher), but Zardes is clearly making a case that he’s the starter. He understands the system and he’s putting in the work. He’s performing far above the level that Klinsmann or Arena got out of him. And, so far, it’s working.
There was a lot made about Berhalter’s hybrid system, warping from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 with the right back cutting in centrally during possession. One of the big talking points was about whether that system would lead to points for opponents to target and whether Berhalter would stick with it against better opposition. Well, not only were Chile a seriously talented side, they also happened to be the team that pioneered an attack-minded back three formation at the international level ten years ago. If anyone would punch holes at Berhalter’s experimental formation, it would be Chile.
Except Berhalter didn’t run that hybrid system. He played DeAndre Yedlin and Tim Ream as more conventional fullbacks, depending on Bradley, Roldan, and Pulisic to combine and hold their own in the middle.
#USMNT's passing networks vs Chile and Ecuador. Very different shapes and locations for very different opponents. pic.twitter.com/UhkMHpQtUF— Paul Carr (@PaulCarr) March 27, 2019
The US didn’t really succeed in dominating the middle, however. Chile are among the best (if not out right the best) teams at pressing and contesting 50/50 balls at the international stage. With Pulisic going out injured after just the first half hour, with McKennie out injured, and with Adams back in Germany, the US was at a bigger talent deficit than expected. Adams and McKennie were particularly missed. Adams is a quick and physical force in the middle (I hope it’s not out of place to make a comparison between the young New Yorker with the fantastic Arturo Vidal from the opposition.) McKennie, meanwhile, has made a name for himself at Shalke by contesting and winning physical duels and aerial balls all over the midfield.
Without those talents, the US struggled in the middle of the park. Chile began to really exert themselves over the game, shutting the US out of play for long stretches. However, Berhalter did make further adjustments to bring stability back to the US. Bringing on Wil Trapp and shifting to a back three stabilized the team. It’s hard to say how meaningful the match was at that point, with the US missing much of its best talent and Berhalter making a whole suite of changes. However, the switch did work. The US got back into the game, held more possession again, and showed a few moments where they made the Chileans sweat. It most certainly demonstrated that, at least as far as formation goes, Berhalter is no strict ideologue.
However, there is another thing to pull from this game plan. Look at how structured and symmetrical that pass map is. That is an organized side. And it showed in defense. Even though the US lost the plot for large stretches, the defense mostly held (barring one bad moment where the midfield couldn’t track a run, where the center backs couldn’t clear, and where Yedlin got sucked way out of position and left a man wide open). Chile, as good as they are, only managed three shots on target. Besides the goal, none of those shots was particularly threatening for Horvath. The defense wasn’t perfect, but it held. And that’s a theme for this system.
Through four games, the US has only been scored on once and conceded a mere 8 shots on target (and four of those are from the Panama game, where Panama managed weak and ineffectual shots that technically count.) The defense is solid, even as players rotate in and out, even as the formation shifts. Even against solid opposition. And that’s something to be commended.
The Very Model of a Modern Major-General
Don’t look now, but Gregg Berhalter is making Michael Bradley look like he did five years ago.
Another fantastic pass from Michael Bradley. He combined well with Ream to get out of pressure, drove forward on the dribble, and then hit a perfect diagonal ball to Baird at the far post. Should've ended in a goal.#USAvCHI #USMNT #TheGeneral pic.twitter.com/cSkCFqL3v6— Joga Bonito (@Jasoninho10) March 27, 2019
Michael Bradley played in several balls like that that should have led to shots on target, if not goals. For a brief shining moment, while the US could still hold onto the ball and string together a couple of passes, Bradley looked like he did at his best. I mean, my word, look at his stats from the night.
Michael Bradley in #USAvCHI:— Joga Bonito (@Jasoninho10) March 27, 2019
57/63 (90.5%) passes
1 key pass
Outstanding performance by The General. Sharp passing, two fantastic balls, covered a ton of ground, great defensive effort.#USMNT #MOTM pic.twitter.com/K8ABAnwbJk
Mind you, this was against Chile, one of the best pressing sides in the world. I have said for years that Michael Bradley is not good when teams press him. So what’s different this time? Well, he’s not playing as an advanced midfielder. He’s got defense solidity behind him and has some degree of freedom to roam in possession. And he’s not being specifically targeted as a single individual. Look, if a skilled professional team wanted to, they could mark a single player out of a game entirely. I mean, just look at Argentina and Lionel Messi. It happens to them all the time. The question that comes up when that happens is whether the team can play around the problem and target the gaps that open up.
Under Klinsmann and Arena, everything went through Bradley. Eventually moving him deeper helped, but teams decided to follow him up the field and go after him. With the team otherwise unable to really do anything, the USMNT went limp in possession. But Bradley’s no longer the focal point. He’s just one player on the field doing his thing. And, right now, that’s really working. That’s not to say that the Chilean press didn’t work. It did. Rather, it’s to say that Bradley wasn’t the problem.
I don’t know how long term Bradley’s inclusion with the team really is. He turns 32 this summer and has hundreds of games on his legs. He could start declining hard this season, or keep going for another hundred games. Trapp seems to be doing pretty well (I really, really, really wish they had been a midfield pivot in 2017) and may simply take all the minutes (after all, he really helped calm down that midfield when he came on, as I’ve said several times now). And that’s to say nothing about Adams and McKennie and the other rising young talent. Bradley may simply be content playing as the elder statesman, playing off the bench or in rotation, giving advice to the younger players. I don’t know. But, for now, he’s playing well.
There’s still one big question left to answer, though. What kind of meats do we have?
When you are done reporting on Christian Pulisic, @PaulTenorio and @SebiSalazarFUT, if you see @IanDarke please ask him whether he has ever had a Jamocha shake or the curly fries at Arby's.— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) March 27, 2019
Ian Darke reads an ad for Arby’s during the #USMNT game: https://t.co/4OAIJ91HJl
Let me know in the comments below.