Well, that was a good performance. After a tepid and weak showing against Curaçao, the USMNT bounced back with a win over 3-1 Jamaica. The US came out ready to put Jamaica to the sword, creating chances at will and bagging an early goal. Considering that the USMNT put out a stinker against a weakened Jamaica side about 6 months ago, I’d say that this was improvement.
However, things got a bit more difficult after that. The threat of lightening suspended the game for 120 minutes. And Jamaica clearly spent time figuring out how to deal with the onslaught ahead of them. When play resumed, things were WAY tighter, with Jamaica pressing the center backs and trying to starve Bradley of the ball. It took a little while for the US to adapt, but they figured it out and were able to get the ball to their advanced players, eventually breaking down the Reggae Boyz two more times to win 3-1. Here’s what we learned.
Setting the Rotations
The complexity of Gregg Berhalter’s system has been widely commented on thus far. But this game showed that system at both it’s most fluid and it’s most complex. Let’s take a look at where all the players were moving.
We are going to start with Christian Pulisic because a lot of the movement reacts to what he does. Pulisic’s way more comfortable on the wing, for the US, the left wing. He vacates the middle and goes left. From that side, he’s got the space to beat defenders on the dribble, cut inside, or put in a cross. He can also combine with Arriola to outnumber and overwhelm the fullback. That is, unless Arriola goes inside. When Pulisic is out on the left, Arriola would often tuck inside to keep numbers in midfield.
Alternatively, Jozy Altidore would check into midfield. This proved to be a fundamental component to breaking the Jamaican defensive line. When Altidore drops into midfield, he helps either preserve numbers in the middle, or even outnumber the Jamaican midfielders. From there, he could combine with Bradley, Pulisic, Arriola, and McKennie, depending on who was where.
In turn, Jordan Morris would come inside high up the pitch, effectively serving as a potential striker occupying the center backs. Morris’ position is fundamentally different from someone like Boyd. Morris, who has played at both the wings and at striker, plays high up the field, completely willing to use his pace to run onto the ball. Boyd, on the other hand, wants to come inside, build up play, do a dribble, and take a shot. And that means that, while Boyd appears to be the better player, Morris makes more sense for the team, at least with these tactics. If Berhalter wants more numbers in the middle, he could put Boyd out there again. (This means that Morris is likely to be a pretty firm pick for the USMNT going forward ... at least until Tim Weah takes his job.)
Finally, Reggie Cannon would come up from the defense and play high and wide on the right. We saw him do this on the opening goal, when he was put in by Bradley way on the right and went in the cross that McKennie scored.
What does all this do to the defenders? Well, it gives them a massive number of problems to deal with.
- Who is marking Pulisic when he goes wide? Does a central midfielder follow him, or do the wingers and fullbacks just have to deal with it?
- Who is marking Arriola when he cuts inside? Does a defender follow him into the middle? Is it now a midfielder’s job to handle him? But what if that mid followed Pulisic out wide?
- Who is marking Altidore when he drops into the midfield? Does a center back follow him into midfield? Or does a center mid keep his head up and mark Altidore? But what if that center mid followed Pulisic out to the wing? Is this supposed to be the spare mid, the one that might be marking Arriola?
- Who is marking Jordon Morris? He just cut inside high up the field, above Altidore. If Altidore is being marked by a centerback, is the other center back supposed to slide over to mark Morris? But that leaves no last defender to cover the goal. What if he gets beat? Or does that left fullback follow him all the way inside?
- Who is marking Reggie Cannon? The wingers normally come inside and do double duty, helping the fullback mark the wingers and the fullbacks as well as chipping in to mark the likes of Bradley and McKennie. If the fullback is preoccupied with Morris, does that mean that the winger has to drop back and cover Cannon? But then, who is supposed to mark the midfield? How big of a deal is it really to mark a defender high up the field?
- Wait, if the left winger has to track back to mark Cannon, the right winger has to deal with Pulisic, and the midfield has to mark Altidore and Arriola (and maybe also Pulisic again), who is supposed to be closing down on McKennie and Bradley in space?
- Wait, who let Bradley get an acre of space in the midfield on the ball? CLOSE HIM DOWN. STOP HIM. DON’T LET HIM PASS THE BALL.
- Whoa, wait, is that Reggie Cannon streaking up the defender’s left side? Wait, THE BALL IS GOING TOWARDS HIM.
- Agh, Altidore is in the box and there’s a cross... wait, IS THAT WESTON MCKENNIE??
When Cannon puts in that cross, there’s SIX attacking players in the final third. The defense is completely disorganized and pulled out of shape... and they’ve lost the number’s advantage. There’s only six defenders back there, plus the keeper. This goal shows, if the defending team can’t answer every single one of those questions (ok, the first 5 or 6), they will get scored on. And that’s A LOT of questions a defense has to keep track of and answer. Berhalter has said that he’s all about using possession to disorganize defenders and create chances. Well, that’s what that looks like.
I have been focused on McKennie through this entire tournament. I’ve written an article for each game and, going back through the whole tournament to the game against Venezuela, I’ve written at least a paragraph talking about Mckennie (excluding the Panama game, where he didn’t start). I have not talked about anyone else this extensively in all these posts. And a lot of it has been critical. Why? Well, I firmly believe that this is the fundamental question for this USMNT side:
Who wins the ball back?
Traditionally, defensive midfielders are tasked with controlling the middle of the field, with breaking up plays and recovering the ball. If you are going to play a possession game, you absolutely have to be able to win the ball back, otherwise, you aren’t going to have much possession. It’s also a fundamental part of defending in a possession based scheme. Possession soccer defends by starving the opponent of the ball. But it also relies on breaking up the kinds of fast breaks that happen when a team loses the ball and is not prepared to immediately defend. Because of this, I regularly ponder whether the defensive midfielder is fundamentally the most important player on a team.
The good news is that the USMNT seems to have a ready built player to answer that question in Tyler Adams. The bad news is that, after transferring to the Bundesliga following a full season in MLS (a near continuous 15 months of soccer) , Adams picked up some knocks and had to deal with a chronic injury. He missed out on the Gold Cup roster. That means somebody else has to do the job of winning the ball back.
There’s only a handful of possible answers to this question. You can adapt the formation in order to help compensate for the issue, spreading it out to more players. But if you want a three man midfield, one of the players in midfield has to do the job. That means Pulisic, Bradley, or McKennie. Pulisic’s a CAM/Winger; he’s not doing it. Bradley is old and slow and there to block passing lanes and hit line-breaking passes. He can’t do it anymore. That leaves McKennie. If McKennie doesn’t get the job done, nobody is doing it. Let me repeat that. If McKennie doesn’t do the most important job for the USMNT, nobody else will. And that’s why I’ve been so focused on McKennie. When McKennie plays well, it shows in the rest of the USMNT. It’s the games where he’s not on the field (Panama) or playing poorly (Curaçao) where the US struggles.
But against Jamaica, McKennie was fantastic. He dropped deeper into midfield, essentially level with Bradley (and even deeper than him at times.) This meant he was better positioned to recover the ball. And it meant that he had space in front of him to pick out great passes or make late runs into the box and score. Getting that positioning right was fundamentally key to getting into the game. The US will need to see more of that that from McKennie if they want to win against Mexico. But we’ve seen that he can do it. And when he is doing it, when he is out there playing his game, he’s nigh impossible to play against.
A Healthy Jozy
Jozy Altidore is going to the Gold Cup final, hamstrings intact. Altidore has at least appeared in every game in this tournament for the USMNT save for the match against Curaçao, mostly as a substitute, with Berhalter heavily managing his minutes. When was the last time he played a whole tournament? Let’s count:
2018: United States Missed the World Cup
2017: Joined the Gold Cup after the Group stage
2016: Injured for the whole of the Copa America Centenario, not on the roster
2015: Left the Gold Cup after the Group Stage
2014: Injured in the opening minutes of the first game v. Ghana
2013: Not on Gold Cup roster
2011: Hamstring injury during the Gold Cup; missed the final v. Mexico
2010: Altidore plays in all four matches of the World Cup in South Africa.
This is the first time Altidore has made it through a whole tournament with the United States, from start to finish, since 2010, almost a decade ago. I guess managing minutes here really paid off.
Looking back on the tournament thus far, I’m not sure Josh Sargent gets a minute of playing time. With Berhalter choosing to start Zardes, a player who clearly was comfortable and versed in the game plan, and leftover minutes to bring Altidore to full fitness, I’m not really sure that Sargent gets on the field (especially with him not getting many minutes in the spring). However, Sargent happens to have the skillset to do the job that Berhalter seems to want out of his striker, a good deal more so than Zardes. Sargent can pass, he’s comfortable in possession, and he can check into the midfield. This team functions super well with Altidore out there, but I’m honestly wondering if that striker role is now being specially tailored for Sargent to take it in the next few years.
We’ve now seen great performances from both Nick Lima and Reggie Cannon out at rightback. Right now, I’m comfortable with either of them playing in that spot against Mexico. And that ought to make DeAndre Yedlin nervous for his starting spot. Yedlin’s had problems with the national team. He’s overly reliant on his speed, both in defending and in attack. With Cannon and Lima making these kinds of runs, with the excellent crossing we’ve seen from them through this tournament, I think the Newcastle defender ought to take notice.
The goal conceded was the first, and so far, only goal the USMNT has let in this entire Gold Cup. That far exceeds Mexico’s defensive efforts, and is WAY better than anything people were expecting following the losses to Jamaica and Venezuela in the tune up matches. The US has clearly been strong in defense.
HOWEVER, that goal was an ugly and stupid one to concede. Matt Miazga (who, up to that point, had been good) put pass up to Zardes, who wasn’t in a position to receive it. Zardes, who is not at all a natural possession player, lost it. And thus, the break was on. Leon Bailey was able to get the ball down the left side, where he put in a cross that got converted. From there, the game got testy, at least until Pulisic grabbed his second and put the game away. I’ve already talked about the deficiencies of Zardes and how he doesn’t fit the role. But Miazga also is culpable and has to do better. From the performances we’ve seen in this tournament thus far, I have to say, Walker Zimmerman doesn’t hit that bad pass. Miazga’s got to keep his concentration up throughout the whole tournament. He’s got the chance to be the starter for the USMNT for a decade, but his distribution isn’t as solid as Zimmerman’s (or Miazga’s was perhaps 18 months ago.)
Aaron Long was great, constantly chipping in to cover for an overwhelmed Tim Ream.
That’s all for me. The USMNT return for the Gold Cup final against Mexico on Sunday evening. By happenstance, the USWNT will appear for the World Cup final against the Netherlands that same morning.