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United States v Canada, 2022 World Cup Qualifying: What we Learned

The USMNT hosted Canada in World Cup Qualifying and played to a disappointing 1-1 draw. Here’s what we learned from the game.

Canada v United States: 2022 World Cup Qualifying Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

So... how was everybody’s Labor Day weekend? Yeah, I had some takeout, watched a cute movie or two, got to see some...
Sorry, that’s my phone. Give me a sec... Oh, that’s my editor. Hold on...

What’s that? Where’s the “What we Learned” ? Well, it went up the day after the El Salvador. What? No, no, there wasn’t a game over the weekend. No, the next game’s tomorrow, away to Honduras. What’s that? Canada?

Two hours of existential dread later

Yeah, ok, I’ll get it out as soon as I can. Yeah, I’m sorry, yeah, ok. Ok, Talk to later.

Alright, where were we? Oh, USA v. Canada. The draw. Right. Ok, let’s do this, I guess.

Fine, Let’s do the Klinsmann Comparison

A lot of people are calling for Berhalter’s job for this result, citing Klinsmann’s sacking after the first two games of the previous World Cup qualifying cycle. After all, under both managers, the national team dropped points in both their first two matches. On a surface level, there’s obviously a comparison to be made.

So, fine, let’s make the comparison. But if we are going to do this, we are going to do this properly. Let's be clear for a moment. Any conversation comparing Berhalter with Klinsmann is fundamentally tainted due to preexisting bad faith. A subsection of the MNT fanbase has consistently called for Berhalter to be sacked since day one. For whatever reason (no, I’m not going into it), this group of fans has resented the manager since he was hired, independent of competitive results. Much of this criticism has come in the form of comparison between Berhalter and an idealized version of Klinsmann. While it might seem like the narrative has flipped (instead of praising Klinsmann, it’s citing his dismissal), the agenda remains the same: Berhalter should be axed. I have no interest in such an agenda.

While I can be convinced of a coaching change, any such opinion change will be based on a critical analysis of events and results, not on a cynical agenda. And that’s what we will do here, a critical analysis comparing Klinsmann’s firing with Berhalter’s first two qualifying games.

For starters, while it is often stated otherwise, Klinsmann was not sacked merely for losing two qualifying games. Even before the losses to Mexico and away to Costa Rica, it was clear that the USMNT was under steep decline. While Klinsmann had always had a penchant for trying players outside their normal positions, this grew both more common and less successful: Mix Diskerud at defensive midfield, Jermaine Jones at center back, etc. The team lost to Jamaica in the Gold Cup semifinal, and then failed to win the third place match. Then, the team lost to Mexico in the 2015 CONCACAF Cup, missing out on the Confederations Cup in the process. While fans remember Klinsmann’s two games in the Hexagonal, they often forget that Klinsmann’s team lost to Guatemala by multiple goals and drew to Trinidad and Tobago (ahem: foreshadowing) in the previous group stage.

These errors apparently nearly cost Klinsmann his job ahead of the Copa America Centenario, where Klinsmann temporarily suspended his tinkering, beat the opponents the was supposed to beat, and rode a favorable draw to the semifinals. This brings us to the opening qualifier vs. Mexico in Columbus, where Klinsmann fielded what players said was a completely unfamiliar formation before eventually blaming the 2-1 loss on the players. Finally, following an expected loss a humiliation away vs. Costa Rica, where the players visibly seemed demoralized and disinterested, Klinsmann was sacked. The US was tied for last place in the Hex, 3 points out of a play off spot, and 4 points out of one of the automatic qualification spots.

Now, let’s do the same for Berhalter. He has had two Gold Cups. He led the USMNT to second place in the 2019 Gold Cup, falling 1-0 to Mexico, before winning the 2021 tournament with a B team. The team did not have a preliminary round of World Cup qualifying. Instead, Berhalter saw his team go through the initial CONCACAF Nations League. That tournament saw a bad loss away to Canada, before eventually culminating in a victory over Mexico this summer.

In short, leading up to this tournament, the competitive results were quite good. In the opening two games, away to El Salvador and at home to Canada, Berhalter’s team played to draws. Unlike under Klinsmann, the team didn’t lose their first two games, they drew them. This leaves the US in a 4-way tie for 3rd (a qualifying spot) in a qualifying format that is expected to be more forgiving for high quality teams. Finally, there seems to be no indication that the players are revolting against their manager.

There’s your comparison. Beyond the superficial “dropped points in first two qualifying matches”, I don’t think there’s much alike. But you can make up your own mind.

Dancing on a Knife’s Edge

Here’s my simplified take for what has happened to the USMNT, not just over the past two games, but over the course of the whole summer.

The USMNT is set up to be a low-scoring, defensive power.
If you go and you look at how the US defends and it’s actually really quite effective. For our purposes here, I will break defending down into a few categories:

Proactive Defending
General Defensive Organization

When I say “Proactive defending” I mean where the team asserts its will over the opposition to prevent opportunities. The most obvious example of this is a high press and a counter press, where the team attempts to win the ball high up the field and where the team attempts to wins the ball back immediately after losing it, respectively. Indeed, the goal the MNT scored is a good example of this sort of proactive defending, with Brendan Aaronson winning the ball back high up the field and playing it on for the counter attack, before finishing the move. But proactive defending can also mean holding a lot of possession to starve the opponent of time to actually make attacks. Holding high possession also mentally and physically tires the opposition, decreasing the likelihood of effective attacks later on. The MNT is quite good at both pressing high up the field and in holding defensive possession.

General defensive organization refers to the team’s coordination in defense. How the team maintains its defensive shape, how quickly players track back on defense, and how many players stay back to keep defensive numbers. While individual players can be inconsistent on tracking back, the team as a whole succeeds in consistently having enough numbers back to prevent attacks.

Scrambling is just emergency defending. When something goes wrong, can someone on the team step in and make a big play and prevent a goal? The defenders are pretty good at this, with Miles Robinson being particularly excellent at scrambling.

Mitigation refers to the things the players do in order to reduce the quality of chances. Sometimes, the defense will not be able to completely eliminate threatening moments. Instead, what they can do is make it much, much harder to execute those threatening moments. This is where those crosses that whiz past the face of goal and terrify everyone go. In general, the USMNT is very good at keeping opposing attackers from having a lot of the ball centrally, right in front of the penalty box. They force them away from goal and towards the wings, where there is less room to operate. And when those players do manage to get down the line and put a cross in, those crosses rarely result in shots on target.

Finally, there’s goalkeeping. All our potential starting goalkeepers are good/excellent shot stoppers. You have to go pretty far down the goalkeeper depth chart to find someone that makes me seriously uncomfortable.

In each of these areas, the USMNT is somewhere between “good” and “highly effective”. While good teams, like Mexico and Canada, sometimes get chances, the team has actually conceded very, very few of them. Four goals, to be precise. Through ten competitive games this year, the USMNT has conceded just 4 goals. Two against Mexico, one against Canada, and one garbage goal in a blowout v. Martinique. That is straight up an excellent defensive record. Mind you, considering how frail the USMNT’s defense looked in 2019, this defensive stoutness is no small achievement. And while the return of Tyler Adams has helped, it’s a team wide adjustment.

The flip side is that the offense is struggling.

While the team is successful in holding a lot of possession, even possession in the final third, they are not very successful at turning that possession into actual shots. The USMNT won 8 out of those 10 competitive games. In the process, they scored 1.6 goals per game. If you exclude the 6 goals v. Martinique, it drops to 1.11 g/game. That Martinique game represents just one of two occasions where the team scored more than one goal. The record is clear: this is a low scoring team.

The main method that the MNT has used to score goals over the course of this year has been through set pieces. All four goals in the Nations League knockout stages were from set pieces. A large majority of goals in the Gold Cup were as well, including the winner in the final v. Mexico. Further, the goals tend to come late. 7 goals out of 16 were scored after the 80th minute, including the two goals v. Mexico in extra time. Again, exclude the Martinique game and that number goes way up (60%).

You put all this together and you get a very clear identity. This is a low-scoring, highly defensive team that works to grind opponents down and score off set pieces late in the game. This is a low margin strategy, winning most games by just one goal. This can be a highly effective strategy. Chelsea in the English Premier League built a similar reputation based on stout defending and low margin wins on their way to several Premier League titles in the 2000’s. Similarly, Arsenal fans have the chant “One-nil to the Arsenal” for similar reasons. And we saw how effective it was through the summer, with the US winning two trophies.

However, if you dance on the edge of a knife, you are at risk of getting cut. If you play a low-margin strategy, you will find that there are points where things slip one way or the other and you don’t get those success that you were looking for. This kind of strategy reduces the likelihood of losses, but increases the chance of ties. That’s just a fact. And, indeed, through World Cup qualifying, we’ve seen the USMNT get cut twice, dropping points where, if they had executed better, they could have won.

However, I should point out, outside of the group stages, you couldn’t get draws in the Nations League or Gold Cup. If those games were tied at the end of regulation, more time was added. Given that the United States has a major advantage over most CONCACAF nations in depth and athleticism, Additional time favors the USMNT (a reality that we saw realized v. Mexico ... twice). That means that opposing teams had an incentive to go for a goal as early as possible, while the USMNT had an incentive to be patient and grind the result out. Now, those incentives have flipped. Almost every team will take a draw vs. the USMNT, especially while the US is hosting.

Closing Thoughts

Christian Pulisic looked like a Traffic Cone in a Drivers Permit Exam. By which I mean, he didn’t really go anywhere but got hit a lot. He’s missed several weeks due to COVID and it showed. I am, however, glad it seems he’s recovered fully and look forward to him getting back to full match sharpness.

Our set pieces have not looked good since the Gold Cup. Which, you know, is bad given that’s mostly how we’ve been scoring.

I’m not particularly alarmed by Canada’s goal. Alphonso Davies is on the short list for the best left back in the world. As long as he was on the field, Canada was always going to present a challenge in a way that almost no other CONCACAF team could. Yeah, the defense collectively made a bad mistake there, but mistakes happen in defense. But the real thing is that the attack needs to be good enough to give the defense a little wiggle room to get past those mistakes.

Our depth is strained. Here is a non-exhaustive list of players who were injured for the match vs. Canada.

Gio Reyna
Zack Steffen
Tim Weah
Yunus Musah
Paul Arriola
Jordan Morris
Aaron Long

In addition, Dest had to be subbed out in the first half due to injury, Christian Pulisic was playing for the first time after recovering from Covid-19 (and showed it), and Weston McKennie was suspended after violating Covid protocols and will not be available v. Honduras. Losing so many players will disrupt any national team, no matter how deep. But it does indicate that, even though he talked about the need to prepare a deep roster for these international breaks, Gregg Berhalter brought an insufficient roster for these games. We need more bodies.

I’m not really annoyed by Jackson Yuiell’s addition to the squad. Yeah, he’s out of form and didn’t look good earlier this year. But we need bodies. He’s familiar with the squad and available in a way that our contingent based in Europe isn’t. The real thing that frustrates me is that more players weren’t called in alongside Yuiell and goalkeeper Sean Johnson. Speaking of frustrated...

I am very frustrated with Weston McKennie. All indications are that his COVID violation was very serious. Given that one player on the squad only just recovered from Covid while another tested positive during the camp, I think such a transgression is particularly egregious. COVID right now is really bad in the United States and you can’t be doing things that put yourself and/or your teammates at risk, no matter how talented you are (PSA time: GET VACCINATED if you aren’t already and you can). That said, I’ve seen the rumors floating around on twitter. I’m not going to tolerate salacious gossiping on here. If you are going to say/imply something nasty about McKennie without proof, your comment will be taken down.

That’s it from me as far as the Canada game goes. If you want me to watch for something in particular to include for the post- Honduras article, shoot me a tweet on twitter. I’m trying a new thing where I take people’s questions/suggestions and try and incorporate them into my analysis. But the thing is, it only works if people actually, you know, tweet me stuff. So if you’ve got something tell me. That said, we still want to know your thoughts about the Canada game, etc, here on SSFC. Tell me what you’re thinking in the comments below!