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USMNT v. Mexico: What we Learned

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Unfortunately, it seems Mexico learned a thing or two since July while the US did not, with the Americans falling 3-0. Here’s what we learned.

Soccer: International Friendly Soccer-Jamaica at USA Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

For the first post–Gold Cup friendly, the USMNT was scheduled to face against a rather familiar foe: Mexico. The last time the MNT played Mexico was ... [checks notes} ... July, literally the last game the team played. How did that go? Well, the team lost 1-0, but it wasn’t really all that bad a performance. I published an analysis after that game and, while the team was outplayed at the end and lost, there were quite a few interesting things to take away. What failed in that game was a lack of depth and bad picks for substitutions. But there was a lot to like, too. Tim Ream had, rather surprisingly, a really good first half, playing as a deeper fullback facilitating possession in the midfield and kickstarting attacks (until Mexico adjusted and shut him down.) And Reggie Cannon had a great game that night, too. Thanks to their play, along with a good game plan and a high speed of play, the USMNT nearly took an early lead and actually walked away from the match with the better chances (and a corresponding higher expected goals stat) inspire of the loss.

So then, how did this time go?

Badly. Very, very badly.

The US fell 3-0, playing terribly the whole match. It looked like Mexico new exactly how to counter the US, while the Americans had no clue what to do. It’s the kind of match you don’t really want to talk much about, but let’s get started and break it down.

Mexico out Berhalter’d Berhalter

Berhalter has very clearly laid out his philosophy for how he wants the team to play. He wants to use possession in order to disorganize opposing defenses and his teams accomplish this by quickly moving the ball to the wings, then centrally, then to the opposing wings in order to exploit space.

That just so happens to be what Mexico did the entire game. Let’s take a look at the first goal as an example.

How does this play start? Well, before the clip, Mexico has stale possession in their own half, playing between the center backs and the goalkeeper. Then they play the ball out wide on the left (the USMNT’s right). The USMNT shifts to respond and try to win the ball back. But, instead, Mexico are able to keep possession through their wide players and star striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, who drops WAY deep to get on the ball. Chicharito (the eventual goalscorer) plays it back to the center back and that brings us to this moment.

This one moment in the broadcast happened to have all ten outfield players for both teams on the screen all at once. And it shows exactly what an attacking team looks like right before it dismantles a disorganized defense.

Let’s start with what Mexico is doing. As I mentioned, Chicharito (circled in white) dropped from striker, down into midfield in order to get the ball. Before he passed to his center back along the centerline, he was about as far deep as you would expect the defensive midfielder to be playing. To compensate for the central attacker dropping back, you have four other attackers who have lined up along with the American backline (I counted them for you.) Those attackers are stretched across the whole field and, with the American defensive block slow to transition and only covering one horizontal half of the field, you have Jesus “Tecatito” Corona left in absolutely loads of space. With the Americans so compact and shifted over to their right, the player on the ball has ample time to pick out his pass.

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 who are, once again, presented with an equal number of attackers. On top of that, you have a midfield line that is a few yards too high up. Including the 4 attackers already mentioned, 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. That yellow box is the dagger.

After that moment, you get the goal. The center back plays the ball to Tecatito, who takes advantage of a 2v1 to beat Christian Pulisic (a very weak defender), before setting up a 2v2 and nutmegging Sergiño Dest (an inexperienced teenager and a suspect defender). Then comes the cross that goes straight to Chicharito, who easily heads it in from 6 yards.

So what could have been done differently?

Even taking the flawed formation and personnel choices in this game, there were a number of things that could have been done differently. The whole team needs to more quickly transition from their right, back into the center of the field. But beyond that, let’s start with the midfield, because that’s where the biggest problem lies. Trapp and Morales are way too high on the play, while McKennie is completely disconnected from the play. Trapp and Morales need to be a few yards deeper, with Morales covering the player on Dest (number 3). In turn, McKennie should be covering Chicharito. This would allow Dest to play wider, closing space on Tecatito. In turn, this would allow the center backs, Long and Zimmerman, to play deeper and be more prepared to defend. Doing all these things would have made the defense far more sound. But, with all those things going wrong, with the midfield so disconnected from the defense, what Pulisic or Dest really should have done here is commit the foul. Take down the man, maybe eat the yellow, and give your team some time to get reorganized.

A Pressing Matter

What Mexico fundamentally realized in the Gold Cup match was that the US couldn’t handle a full press. Mexico didn’t get to that conclusion immediately — it took a half to figure it out. After all, a full press is risky. Teams had figured out that selectively pressing specific players (read: Bradley) under Klinsmann and Arena would shut the USMNT done. But Berhalter’s side is too good on the ball to be shutdown by focusing down on one player, so a high press must focus on everyone, or else be rendered ineffective. And fast attackers can get in behind the backline with a single long pass. But Mexico realized the the risk was worth it, especially once they shut down Tim Ream from making those long passes.

Mexico took that lesson and applied it from minute one against the USMNT. And it worked. The team simply could not handle this kind of sustained pressure, with the midfield almost completely unable to link up with the attacking line. Yet, the team insisted on playing possession, even way out in the back. And they were punished for it.

The simplest way to beat a high press is to pass over it. If all the players are high up the field, looking to close in space and suffocate players on the ball, kicking the ball over them, into the defensive space that they gave up becomes highly effective. All you need is a fast player who can run onto that ball and attack that open space. If you put a Pulisic or Gyasi Zardes or a Tyler Boyd in a position where they can run onto the ball and get in behind the defense, you will either force the opposing team to reconsider playing so high, or score a goal. And the team does not always have to play long. Just so long as it is a viable option, it will force the opposing team to back a little off, give more respect, and allow for more room to play in front of them.

What did Berhalter have to say about that approach?

Well, it turned out, he’s not a fan of playing it long. Indeed, he somehow PREFERRED the stale possession going nowhere and the poor turnovers:

[I]n the Gold Cup final, I felt like all we did was play the ball long. And that was our only solution. And now, at least we tried to play in the way we’re envisioning.

In the same article, Aaron Long was asked about how the conversation went at halftime.

It’s tough in moments, but that’s how we’re going to grow, that’s how we’re going to learn ... That that is the game plan. We don’t want to just abandon ship, because it’s not working.

Guys, no, I’m OK. I’m cool. I’m calm.

STOP PLAYING WITH THREE DEFENSIVE MIDFIELDERS

Out of all the stupid decision that Klinsmann/Arena/Sarachan (repeatedly) made, this was the one I most hoped would die.

Please, for all that is good, do not ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever play three defense/holding/box-box midfielders in midfield all at once.

When your entire midfield is built around players that naturally take the same positions and are not natural attackers, your attack suffers. We have seen this time and time again. It does not work. And that’s not just a USMNT thing. When Arsenal tried to copy this American innovation, their attack spluttered. Do not do it.

With that said, I’m sure you can guess how I felt about that midfield of Trapp, Morales, and McKennie.

That midfield was broken. And, to make matters worse, each of the players decided to take up various different shades of awful on the night. Actually ,while we are at it, let’s rank them from least to most awful.

1. Wil Trapp

Yeah, I know you lot hate Trapp. And, yeah, he was not good. But he was still the least awful of the three. Why so? Well, he had the good fortune to not be on the field for two of the goals. And, on the first one, he happened to be the only midfielder actually trying to mark someone when the cross came in. Yeah, he let Chicharito ghost right by him. But so did the other two. But at least he was trying to keep SOMEONE from getting the ball instead of just standing there in no-man’s-land.

2. Alfredo Morales

On paper, a central pairing of Morales and Trapp SHOULD work. Trapp is supposed to be able to pass the ball around, while Morales provides some defensive bite in that spine. It did not work out that way. Yes, Morales was all over the field trying to make tackles. But he was also frequently out of position. That first goal is clear evidence of that. Morales decided to hover over the play on the left in the exact position where he neither could react quickly to shut the attack down, nor actually mark anyone. And, while Trapp’s passing was bad, Morales was worse. Somehow, Morales managed to be less accurate AND more defensive with his passes. And, of course, Morales was trash on the press. Do you really need to see that second goal again? Yeah, that’s Morales who placidly lets Gutiérrez Herrera dance right in front of his face as the ball is coming in.

Is this just a function of how new Morales is to the team and the set up? I don’t know. Will he get better? No clue. Will we find out? Nope. At least not anytime soon. Morales is going back to his club after this match, missing the game against Uruguay. So it’s going to be a while before we can see if he’s actually got what it takes to play with the national team.

3. Weston McKennie

Weston McKennie does not do anything.

I don’t know if this is because of his instructions from Berhalter, the tinkering with this positioning, a misaligned skillset, a complete disconnect with his teammates, the way Shalke uses him, or simply because he’s not good. But, at this point, it’s a consistent problem that McKennie spends most of the game doing nothing.

There are moments where you can see glimpses of his talent, moments where he finds himself on the ball in the half spaces between defenders, when he can rush forward and make a play. But those moments come way to infrequently. Instead, he spends most of the time on the field disconnected from where he ought to be. And this is a particular problem on defense. McKennie is constantly away from where he ought to be in the defensive formation, failing to track runners, leaving space open, and cutting himself off from receiving passes from players under pressure. At this point, I am actively wondering what exactly McKennie is supposed to do.

McKennie is absolutely culpable in the second goal: it’s his weak pass to Steffen that forces Steffen to make a risky pass in the first place. But McKennie is more subtly at fault in the first goal, too. The point of playing McKennie as the attacking mid was, as far as I can tell, to get the Texan into space in the attack and to allow him to close down on Herrera, Mexico’s midfield orchestrator. He did neither of those things well. in that picture above from before the first goal, McKennie is off marking a non-dangerous Mexican player, playing as the most advanced American on the field. But where should he be? He should be sitting in front the midfield ... which is where Javier Hernandez just popped up. If McKennie was actually playing in front of his midfield, he would also have been able to track Chicharitio as the Mexican striker stalked in the space ahead of Morales. And if McKennie had been close by, paying attention, he could have noticed the striker ghosting past Trapp and maybe tracked that late run. Instead, he’s nowhere to be seen.

You know what would have been a real help to this midfield? Playing a freaking attacking player. It turns out, playing a more balanced midfield, with at least one player who has more attack-minded instincts (even if that player is relatively mediocre, like Julian Green) comes with some major benefits. Your attacking and defending lines suddenly and magically become an awful lot better when you have someone who knows how to pass the ball through defending lines. You know who could have done that in this game? Paxton Pomykal. Or Sebastian Lletget. Just start one of them. I mean, Lletget played that pass to Morris that led to the penalty within ten minutes of coming on the field. This doesn’t have to be so hard.

Final Thoughts

Pulisic and Boyd are basically the same kind of player. They both like to dribble, they are prone to losing the ball, and the prefer to come inside from the flanks. Only, Pulisic is clearly much better.

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.

People are going to complain a ton about how little Zardes got the ball. But do you know how many times Sargent made a pass? In 30 minutes, with the team desperate to score while trailing behind a satisfied Mexico, Sargent completed a grand total of 8 passes, two of which were forward (and missed a penalty). There’s a systemic problem here. Complaining about Zardes misses the underlying issues.

Morris is actually fairly good and, more importantly, he plays differently than Boyd. This is a good thing as it gives more opportunities to have a different look out on the wing.

For the life of me, I do not understand why the team defended with McKennie pushing up next to the striker instead of Pulisic. The first goal happened in large part because Pulisic didn’t defend well. But it’s not really reasonable or realistic to expect him to defend well. The CAM should be shifting to cover the wing, allowing Pulisic either a free role, or to defend alongside the striker (where he’s less of a liability.) Both Pomykal and Lletget can do this fairly well.

This team very clearly lacks a veteran presence.

Knowing when to take a foul is important. Having the awareness to realize when your team is disorganized is important. And being able to reorganize Thea team on the fly is important. These are all things that only come with time and experience. Something that most of these players are lacking. Of the players who started, only Zardes and Pulisic had at least 20 caps going into the match. And that lack of institutional know-how severely cost this team. But the good news is that this is something players can gain in time. And, right now, we yet still have a little bit of time before us.