The United States Men’s National Team has long been gripped with cultural insecurity. Despite being the biggest power in the world, we are a mid-weight at best in terms of soccer. This manifests in many forms. The constant complaining of MLS and the domestic league’s ties to the national team. Criticism of the team’s counter-attacking tradition, as if other countries haven’t won entire tournaments with far more cynical approaches. Constant culture wars about inane subjects like the comparison of USMNT players to “the best athletes” in other sports or the ever raging argument of “soccer” v. “football”.
This is reflected in how others viewed American soccer, as well. American players have long been viewed as dumb athletes, devoid of the subtleties of tactics and technique, as if players like Claudio Reyna and Landon Donovan didn’t exist.
It was not very long ago that the USMNT could not keep possession in any serious games, a reality that spanned decades. Pre-game "analysis was basically "they're a hard-working team and very athletic." Which is the American version of "pace and power" for African players.— Miriti Murungi (@NutmegRadio) November 21, 2022
Well, what did we learn from USA v. Wales? We learned that the USMNT Has Arrived at the World Stage.
For the first time, the USA took on a World Cup team in a FIFA World Cup and just completely controlled the game. I don’t mean that they merely controlled possession. No, the US completely dominated over Wales, denying them even a touch of the ball for what felt like minutes at a time (at least for the first half).
While Wales are by no means a possession based team, this level of calm control from an American team at this level is basically unheard of. The USMNT has played well before, but they have never dictated terms to this extent. Of course, we’ve seen moments of this kind of heightened play in the build up to the World Cup. Particularly after the home qualifier v. Mexico, when I suggested that we may have something special on our hands. The players and the coaching staff deserve credit for finally, finally, putting out a performance where the US played on the front foot, with calmness and sophistication.
The rest of the article is going to focus on where things didn’t go well (after all, the team didn’t ultimately win). However, I don’t want that to detract from what I think is ultimately the bigger picture here: this team has the potential to be really, really good.
Before we go over the USMNT’s problems, I want to talk about how Wales adjusted in the 2nd half.
In the first half, Wales was pinned so far back, they could barely get out of their own half. Wales absolutely could not play through midfield; the USMNT completely stifled any play through the middle with energetic pressing from Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie, and especially Tyler Adams. However, Wales planned for this, with Gareth Bale and Daniel James selected for their ability to make runs in between and behind the US defenders. Wales expected to be able to lump the ball forward and let Bale and James run onto it. However, the alert and organized play of Walker Zimmerman and Tim Ream (making his USMNT return after over a year away!!) snuffed out any such chances. Nor could Bale or James play into their wingbacks, who were pushed back trying to cover the threatening runs of Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah. As a result, Wales was disconnected and ineffective.
After the half, Wales reorganized their lines so that players could connect. And they swapped out James for Kieffer Moore. Moore played as a real target man, giving Wales a physical presence up top to just lump the ball up to. In turn, he created space for Bale and Ramsey to come into the game and start attacking the US’s final third. Coupled with a more passive approach from the United States, Wales were able to bring themselves back into the game. An injury to Weston McKennie (and slow substitutions from Berhalter’s) didn’t help. They eventually got their equalizer thanks to an individual error from Walker Zimmerman that resulted in a penalty.
There’s a general assumption that possession should equal attacking domination. And I think that misses what controlling possession really does. Holding possession is also very much a defensive move. After all, the other team cannot score while you still have the ball. There’s a level of nuance to this; you can have all the possession that you want but if you turn the ball over in a dangerous spot, you can still get scored on. But a good possession team is able to keep the ball for long spells and only give up the ball in relatively safe spots (like close to the opponent’s goal).
I’m not sure how much I’ve really said it, but under Gregg Berhalter, the USMNT are very much a defensive team. In the first half against Wales, the US was good at controlling the ball for long stretches in a way that prevented Wales from being able to attack on the counter. And they were very effective at winning the ball back on the press. What they were not effective at was creating very many chances. While I’m not sure I’ve talked much about how this team uses possession to defend, I most certainly have talked about how this team struggles to create chances.
Really, the team still lacks an incisive edge. Part of that is on Berhalter. After 4 years, the team still plays too slow in the final third. On top of that, the way Berhalter's set up the team, the big goal scoring load falls, not on the striker (ostensibly the man closest to goal), but on the wingers. The goal is an example of where this works. Josh Sargent dropped in to combine with Christian Pulisic. In turn, Tim Weah made a run to fill the striker’s position. When Pulisic played the ball in, Weah was able to bury it into the goal. When it works, this is really good, effective stuff. But when it doesn’t work, the US is left recycling the ball over, and over. And, indeed, that’s what we saw quite often.
However, you can’t just blame the coach for this problem. The USMNT shifted to more of a counterattacking approach in the second half, which should have allowed for more space for the US to attack. And indeed, we did see that space. It’s just that the players, and particularly Christian Pulisic, didn’t play into that space.
Am on my second rewatch and the second-half decision making is killing me.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) November 22, 2022
This pass… did not get hit. pic.twitter.com/4H9IJTLCOg
This has been a consistent problem with Pulisic for some time. He is a deeply talented player who can create goals like the one earlier in the match. But too often, he keeps his head down and dribbles instead of making the easy pass to his teammate in space.
I really feel like a major source of the issues of this team is how youthful they are. We can see part of that in how attacks just don’t quite come off, as I mentioned above. But I think we also saw that with how the team struggled with game management. Players like Weah and Musah were gassed, despite ostensibly being in mid-season fitness (though the relative short turn-around + travel is relevant for that). The conditions were not bad; when I looked at the weather in Doha during the match, I saw it was around 74°F. Players can’t run themselves down in the first half. That’s a problem that is addressed by experience.
It looks like Berhalter’s taking a very cautious approach with Gio Reyna’s health. After the game, Reyna claimed he was healthy, but Berhalter said that he was concerned about some tightness from the day before.
#USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter says Gio Reyna experienced some “tightness” (presumably in his hamstring) and didn’t play as a precaution.— Doug McIntyre (@ByDougMcIntyre) November 21, 2022
It sounds to me like Berhalter is concerned with how fragile Reyna might be and wants to manage his load.
Tim Ream deserves all the plaudits he’a getting. Going into the match, there was a concern that he’s get exposed for his lack of pace, particularly by Garett Bale. But Ream stood out as a real rock out in the back. He deserves credit for that, especially given that he’s been away from the team for so long.
I’m looking forward to seeing how this USMNT side shapes up v. England.
That’s it from me. As always, we want to know what you thought of the match! Let’s discuss in the comments below!