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USA v Honduras, 2022 World Cup qualifying: What we learned

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A tale of 2 halves.

Honduras v USA - Concacaf 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The USMNT went down to Honduras last night and managed to respond after falling behind in the 1st half, scoring 4 in the 2nd to win 4-1. This puts the United States in a tie for 2nd in the Octagonal standings. What can we take from this wild match?

A Tale of Two Halves

In the What we Learned piece for the Canada match, I talked about how I didn’t think the Klinsmann/Berhalter comparison for the first two qualifying matches worked. Well, here’s a comparison that I think works a lot better. In an important 2016 qualifier, Klinsmann stuck his team into an unfamiliar formation with a back 3. After conceding a goal, Klinsmann was forced to adjust back to a more familiar formation to try and get back into the game.

Similarly, last night, Berhalter stuck his team into an unfamiliar formation with a back 3. After conceding a goal, Berhalter was forced to adjust back to a more familiar formation to try and get back into the game.

Yeah, those look really freaking similar to me. And that is really, really bad. Given the context, I didn’t think this match versus Honduras was a must-win. As it turned out, if the U.S. had merely gotten a draw, they still would have been in 4th (the playoff spot) and behind only the teams that got two home matches in the round (and Mexico). A loss would have been a serious setback, but would have left the team just one win out of the qualifying places.

Still, the problem of that first half wasn’t merely the result. It was the manner of play, the total disconnect between the defense and midfield, and the way the team seemed to be pulling itself apart. At halftime, I thought the USMNT would be lucky to see the game out 2-0 with how they were playing. People were calling for Berhalter’s job. Someone even tweeted at me with one of my own articles that suggested sacking Berhalter two years ago. And, frankly, that was deserved. If a coach is going to go and create a situation where he needs a result, and then tinker in a way that makes the team look terrible, then, yeah, that coach should be sacked.

The difference between Klinsmann and Berhalter is that, after Berhalter made his changes, the team went and actually won the game. While the first half was an abject mess, the second half put up the most dominant display I’ve seen from the USMNT while playing in Central America in the final round of World Cup qualifying. The change in formation and the substitutes that entered the match brought a new life to the team, and they almost immediately equalized. From there, they stymied an increasingly desperate Honduras, before getting three opportunistic goals. Over the course of the half, the U.S. got back into the game, tightened up their defense, scored four goals, and completely demoralized the opposition. It was an incredible — and frankly unforeseen — turnaround. And Berhalter should get credit for that.

I will focus on two problems from the first half that Berhalter successfully addressed.

  1. The three-man backline and John Brooks
  2. A lack of aggressive vertical play

Odd Man Out

Here’s the goal that Honduras scored.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t give the build-up play, so you can’t quite see how Brooks reacted during the build up. Ahead of the goal, Honduras had the ball was trying to build up play through possession. They played the ball back to their backline, before playing it to their man between the American Defensive and Midfield lines. At this point, Miles Robinson, Brooks, Mark McKenzie, and George Bello are all back on defense, forming a defensive line of 4. As the ball is played in midfield, they have a choice: either the entire line steps up and a defender challenges for the ball, or everyone steps back and screens the goal, letting the midfield challenge for the ball. Here, Brooks steps up, while everyone else steps back. Brooks does not win the ball. The ball is played to Diego Rodríguez on the left. Rodríguez puts in a cross and Brayan Moya scores from the place where Brooks should have been. Because Brooks aggressively stepped forward and didn’t win the ball, he was out of position for the cross.

As it turned out, that was just one example of Brooks playing overaggressively. He repeatedly got sucked into midfield to challenge for a duel or close down an attacker, only for Honduras to target the space he vacated.

Fixing this problem required taking Brooks out and adjusting the formation so that there were more bodies in midfield. With Sebastian Lletget in midfield alongside Kellyn Acosta and James Sands, now the American midfield could more easily challenge for the ball and screen the defense. The midfield looked even more solid when Sands (who had a shockingly poor night) was substituted and Tyler Adams shifted over.

Attack the Space

The first half saw some astonishingly passive play from the American attackers. In the 2nd minute of first half stoppage time, there was one particularly flaccid play that I felt summed up the whole thing. With the U.S. down a goal and with only a minute left until halftime, Josh Sargent picked up the ball and drove into the Honduran attack. And when he came up against a Honduran defender he laid the ball off to Adams, who passed the ball back to Sargent, who tapped it back to Adams. Finally, Pulisic ran across the field, got on the ball, and lumped it into the box, where nobody attacked it before it trickled out for a goal kick. With the U.S. urgently needing something to happen, you have your attacking players playing the ball back when faced with defenders instead of driving at them. You have your attacking players standing around instead of making runs.

I know everyone loves to blame the coach for the team’s poor attack. And while Berhalter does deserve some blame there, you can’t really blame him entirely when the Premier League striker he put on the field just stands around, not doing anything. If you are an elite attacking player, you should know that you should do something instead of standing around next to the ball. You should know that, if the team needs the goal, you should attack the space towards goal.

Indeed, that’s what the subs did that was so effective. Sebastian Lletget and Antonee Robinson (and later, DeAndre Yedlin) attacked the space towards goal. When the U.S. had the ball, they ran forward, towards goal, into empty space where they could receive the ball. Lletget’s parallel run gave someone for Pulisic to pass to when he ran at the defense for the opening goal, while Jedi’s gut-busting across the length of the entire field was rewarded with his name on the scoresheet.

Why does FC Dallas striker Ricardo Pepi have more international goals this year than 3-year Bundesliga man Josh Sargent? Because Pepi attacks the space in front of goal and Sargent doesn’t. Why did Antonee Robinson get a goal and an assist across two games? Because he attacks the space. Why does Lletget keep getting called up, sometimes even over European-based players? Because he attacks the space.

Closing Thoughts

The 3-4-3 is Bad; Kill it with fire.

Instead of playing through all your right backs until you have to play Adams there, maybe bring in another full back or two. At least one of Reggie Cannon, Shaq Moore, or Joe Scally should have been on this roster. It’s just too important to keep Adams in midfield. If Adams had been in the middle in the first half, he probably would have snuffed out the play ahead of the Honduran goal. His mobility and ability to anticipate the play is just too good to put him over at fullback.

26 players was not a big enough roster for this window. Look, I get that you can’t plan for players to be injured or to be otherwise unavailable. But you can’t grind players down with so many minutes. Tyler Adams and Miles Robinson both have a history of missing international matches because of injuries. Adams missed an entire year. And despite that, both players played every minute across three games in less than a week, after playing for their club teams. Kellyn Acosta and DeAndre Yedlin played in all 3 matches. Christian Pulisic went and played 150 minutes in 3 days after coming back from Covid, and now he might have an injury. Berhalter needs to manage minutes better. Julian Green and Luca de la Torre should have been called up. Waiting until someone is unavailable isn’t good enough. When that happens, you are stuck calling up only the portion of your roster based in MLS because you can’t call someone to fly from Europe to Central America and expect them to play the next day.

This game was a total showcase for MLS Academy talent. The best player for Honduras was Andy Najar, a product of DC United’s academy. Yedlin (Sounders), Pepi (FC Dallas), and Brendan Aaronson (Union) all had at least one goal or assist. Acosta (FC Dallas), Adams (NYRB), and McKenzie (Union) all went the full 90 minutes. James Sands (NYCFC) got about an hour. Out of the players subbed out at halftime, only Bello (Atlanta) was a home grown player.

No goals off of set pieces this match. The first goal came on a counter. The second came through build up play. The third was a fast break after a high press. And the fourth came after Honduras’ midfield got disconnected and let the US pick up a second ball and drive at goal. We do, however, still need to work on scoring goals earlier in the game.

Ricardo Pepi should be the starter at striker. The kid drives at goal and makes the dangerous runs. And he scores! In contrast, Sargent just looks lost out there, playing way too timidly. For me, this is what the depth chart currently looks like at the position:

Pepi
Zardes
Pefok
Sargent
Dike

I’d still like to see Hoppe tried out there sometime, but if Pepi can be consistently dangerous, then he’s got the spot locked down.

I’m coining El Fantasma for Pepi right here. Because that kid straight up just ghosts his mark. The defenders just can’t see where he’s going.


That’s all from me. The USMNT returns for a home World Cup qualifier v. Jamaica on October 7. As always, we want to know what you think. Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.