The USMNT took on England and walked out with a 0-0 draw. The scoreline is probably fair, but this was a really impressive performance for the USMNT. Depending on how you model the expected goals stat (xG), you either have a small edge for the US in attacking chances, or a fairly significant one. Either way, the US were visibly better than England.
Football (0.48) 0-0 (0.93) Soccer— The xG Philosophy (@xGPhilosophy) November 25, 2022
This of course gets hedged a little as England played conservatively. A draw was likely enough to put them through to the next round and avoiding nasty injuries or suspensions became the priority. Still, England has quality across the field, and yet, the US was there with them every step along the way, if not a half step ahead. Let’s break it down.
The way that I write these columns is descriptive, not proscriptive. I write about which decisions are made, why, and how that reflects on what happens on the field, both the strengths and flaws. I generally avoid writing about what I think should be done. This approach allows room for the coach and the players to make unexpected decisions.
This game vs. England was one of those games where the coach’s decisions surprised me. Going into the World Cup, it seemed like the choice of formation was already long decided. The USMNT played in a 4-3-3, and that was it. The formation was so stable, the biggest considered change was pushing a midfielder a little bit deeper. Berhalter has tried out a back-3 on a few occasions, but those experiments never yielded particularly memorable results.
Given this record, a 4-4-2 was nothing less than a shock. Instead of a midfield 3, Weston McKennie shifted over to the right, similar to how he is used at Juventus. In turn, Tim Weah pushed up to striker, with Yunus Musah and Adams making up the two-man midfield. Christian Pulisic took up the left wing spot and Haji Wright played as the other striker (in place of Josh Sargent).
In general, the 4-4-2 had fallen out of favor over the last ten years. But huge credit to Gregg Berhalter; against an England side stacked with attacking talent, it was the USMNT’s attacking 4 who had more touches, higher up the field.
The USMNT’s shape was quite flexible and asymmetric. McKennie on the right played deeper and tracked back more aggressively than Pulisic, who was more likely to keep high. This meant that the US could shift into a lopsided 4-3-3 shape, with Pulisic high on the left. As a result, Pulisic was more often already high up the field when he received the ball. The team still lacks that finishing moment (The thing about the US is that they always try to walk it in), but they are getting into those dangerous parts of the field.
On top of that, they are doing all this without conceding many real chances. England’s star striker, Harry Kane, had more touches in his own box than in the US’s. Obviously, a big part of that is the backline, which, to a man, was defensively solid. But the core of that defensive performance was in midfield. Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams were diligent and disciplined in pressing the English midfield. Thanks to Musah and especially Adams, the USMNT were consistently able to get 3 or 4 players to press and squeeze the English attacking and midfield players. As a result, the likes of Mason Mount, Raheem Sterling, and Jude Bellingham were left entirely quiet.
I’ve said this after the Wales game, but I will say this again. Berhalter deserves a lot of credit for the team he’s put out there. This team is impressive, even if the goals haven’t quite been there yet.
While the entire starting XI played superbly vs. England, I just wanted to spotlight a few specific players.
This game really let Weston McKennie shine. You know that heat map above, with so many touches on the right side inside England’s half? Yeah, that’s McKennie.
It’s a shame he didn’t really get a goal, but McKennie really stood out as the key to driving up the field.
Also, this is hilarious.
Matt Turner did not have too many saves to make in this one, but he looked assured when coming out to catch crosses. On top of that, his passing has taken a step up.
There was also the moment at the end of the game where Turner came dribbling out of his box. All around, he looks confident and proactive, and I absolutely love it.
For me, Tyler Adams was Man of the Match. There’s not much else to say here, but Adams was a huge part of why England had so little going on for a solid hour of the game.
I don’t have a particular stat or storyline for it, but Tim Ream was, once again, immense. My take away is that Ream
It has become apparent that Berhalter only really trusts about half his roster at this World Cup. Through two games, we have had minimal rotation. The only starters to change from Wales to England was Josh Sargent for Haji Wright, with Wright making his first ever start v. England. And even in that case, you merely had a role reversal, with the players substituting for each other in the respective games where they started. The other consistent move has been to bring Brendan Aaronson on for Weston McKennie in the second half. No other player has gotten so much as 15 minutes of play, excluding added time.
This is unusual compared to Berhalter’s past substitution patterns. In friendlies, Berhalter would frequently make several halftime substitutions. But even in qualifiers, Berhalter was far more aggressive with his subs. For instance, against Mexico, he made a pair of attacking substitutions at the 60th minute, bringing on Reyna and Jordan Pefok to refresh the attack. Given that there are high-intensity games every 4 days and that McKennie and Sergiño Dest only recently recovered from injuries, you would expect a more aggressive substitution and rotation policy. Instead, Berhalter appears very committed to his starting XI + Wright (or Sargent) and Aaronson.
Let’s talk about Gio Reyna’s minutes for a moment. Reyna has not played very much in this World Cup so far, with his only participation thus far manifesting as a substitution in the 83rd minute against England. This has many people anxious, or even openly pushing conspiracy theories, about the situation. Now, let’s take a step back.
Reyna has mostly been injured since appearing for the USMNT in their first qualifying match away v. El Salvador in September last year. This season, according to WhoScored, he has played a scant 661 minutes between the Champions League and Bundesliga for Borussia Dortmund out of a possible 2070, less than 1⁄3 of the time possible. Last season, Reyna played a mere 442 minutes, approximately 5 games worth. All told, Reyna has had just over 12 games worth of playing time with his club in about 11⁄2 seasons. In the friendly v. Japan, Reyna played just 45 minutes, while against Saudi Arabia, he had just 30 before coming off due to an injury. 30 minutes v. Costa Rica, 45 v. Panama, 30 v. Mexico. This is not a player who has a record of health, or even a record of consistent match fitness.
Now, I should stop for a moment to acknowledge that a major source for this angst is Berhalter himself. He said that Reyna had a little bit of tightness the day before the Wales game and that he left Reyna off as precaution (and that Jordan Morris better fit the game at that point v. Wales). Afterwards, Gio Reyna was asked and he said that he was healthy and that it was the coach’s decision. Finally, before the England game, Berhalter had this to say:
“I think I was pretty clear after the game saying he was available for the match, and it was a coach’s decision that he didn’t play,” said Berhalter. “And he’ll be available for tomorrow’s match, and we’ll see what happens.”
I personally think this is very straightforward. Gio Reyna is healthy, but Berhalter is skeptical that he can maintain that health.
The consternation for this is understandable given that Reyna is such an outstandingly talented individual. However, at this point, he is not a core part of this USMNT squad. All that missed time, nearly the entirety of the qualifying campaign, forced the team to move in a different direction, specifically with Tim Weah on the right. As the team is currently set up, the style complements Weah’s skillsets, not Reyna’s (and explains Berhalter’s preference for Morris v. Wales). Reyna is a very ball-dominant player; he wants the ball at his feet while facing goal so that he can dictate play. Weah, on the other hand, is more about driving at goal, making threatening runs off the ball, in behind the opponent’s backline. While Reyna’s not a defensive slouch, he does not come close to the kind of intensity that Weah brings on the press. You put the question of team fit and fitness together, and what do you get? Well, a coach’s decision.
The USMNT needs a win to progress vs. Iran. A loss or a draw will see them go home, regardless of what happens in the England v. Wales game. Iran themselves can progress with a win, and probably also with a draw, though a large enough Welsh win would hypothetically bounce Iran in that scenario. This makes for a tough game for the US. That said, the MNT has already shown their quality; they merely need to execute and they will be through.
Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, I am proud of how this team had played.