Unfortunately, the United States men’s national team lost against Canada away in Hamilton, Ontario on Sunday. It sucked.
While the USMNT came out with an aggressive stance to try and suffocate Canada, Canada were able to exploit a bad mistake by Matt Turner during a goal kick and scored in the 7th minute. From there, the Canadians put numbers behind the ball and limited opportunities on goal. The USMNT was able to throttle the Canadian attack and hold possession, including possession in the final third, but wasn’t able to turn that into many dangerous moments. The standout chance for the US in the first half came off a great header by Weston McKennie off a corner, which Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan kept out with a fantastic save. In the second half, substitute Paul Arriola came close with a pair of acrobatic chances, first a scissor kick, and then a bicycle, but couldn't test the keeper. With the US pushing forward, desperate to equalize, Sam Adekugbe was able to attack on the counter and put the game away in the last minute. From the American standpoint, it was a markedly frustrating game. Canada seized their moment when it was presented and then managed the rest of the game.
After the game, there was a lot of attention on something that USA coach Gregg Berhalter said during the post-match press conference:
It’s hard for me to remember a performance away from home this dominant without getting a result. So... the result hurts, the performance doesn’t hurt. I’m proud of the guys; proud of the way they competed.
A lot of people are upset about that, but, quite frankly, I don’t care. I don’t think there’s much in that statement aside from encouragement for Berhalter’s players. I think statement that Berhalter made almost immediately after is a more accurate description of the match:
That dominance in possession, we want to translate that into more chances in front of goal, and that was lacking as well.
I myself don’t have a big long tactical analysis for this one. I’ve watched the game over 3 times at this point, probably 2.5 times more often than is healthy, and I don’t want to keep poring over what happened. Frankly, both the good and the bad seem straightforward. The simple answer is that Canada parked the bus and the USMNT couldn’t generate enough danger to get onto the scoreline. Watke explained it far more simply and straightforwardly than I ever could.
Three of the reasons we lost to Canada pic.twitter.com/Xyj2FcQhGR— chris russell (@watke_) January 31, 2022
Instead of doing my usual breakdown of the game, let’s look at how this game compares to how the US has played Canada in the past. This is the fifth time Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT has faced Canada, posting a record of 2 wins, 2 losses, and 1 draw dating back to the fall of 2019. In that time, the team has changed substantially in interesting ways. Unlike the 5-game series v. Mexico, where there’s a clear arc of the US getting better and better results, the matches vs. Canada do well to highlight both the improvements and the limitations of the US program at different moments over the last three years. Because I covered all of these prior games, there’s also a consistent record, my record, of the games. As such, I’ll be revisiting what I said after those games.
Nations League Group Stage, 2-0 Loss away
If you want to pick a low point over the last three years, it would have to be the Nations League loss to Canada. After that match, I even went so far as speculate over whether to fire Berhalter. Here’s what I had to say after the match:
At a basic level, coaches, not just in soccer but in all sports, are supposed to serve as elevators of talent. A good coach is able to take a collection of talent and have them play beyond the sum of their parts. But the USMNT is still losing to inferior competition. No offense Canada, but on paper the USMNT, with its cadre of starting Bundesliga players, has you beat on talent. Against bad teams, the United States can put together those passing sequences that Berhalter wants and win blowouts. But against more skilled opposition, or talent equals, the team mostly just muddles about. The team often has more possession than the opposition, but that doesn’t automatically translate to actually winning games. The whole point was for the team to be better able to take on CONCACAF talents. And yet, they are struggling just as hard as ever.
Does that sound familiar? A lot of these issues remain in place. The US can put together long periods of possession, but they can also end up just muddling about. However, the team’s more consistent about how it plays. We’ve since beaten Mexico three times in a row, with the third match a thorough domination over El Tri. Yet, there are still games where the team struggles, particularly on the road (ex. away v. Panama and Jamaica). However, there’s a big difference between what went wrong in that deux à zéro and what happened most recently. Here’s what the problem was back in 2019:
The USMNT went soft in midfield. The midfield of Michael Bradley, Weston McKennie, and Cristian Roldan was disjointed, out of position, and poor in contesting for the ball. Both goals came after the backline was forced to deal with an emergency situation and cleared the line, only for the ball to fall to another Canadian player. Those are scenarios where the midfield should be ready and present to break up plays or advance the ball and take advantage of the exposed space. And yet, that didn’t happen on Tuesday, and it has been a consistent problem for the last 6 months. Yeah, I get Tyler Adams hasn’t been there and he’s expected to be a big help. But, you can’t have the team be so frail that missing one player makes the whole thing fall apart.
The current USMNT midfield most definitely is not frail.
Since that game, the US has shifted formation, shifted personnel. The current midfield of Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie, and Tyler Adams (MMA) is very tough for teams to play through, and that’s helped make a far more stable national team overall. Now, the US plays on the front foot, eliminating many of the problems from that game.
Nations League, 4-1 Home
If the Nations League loss v. Canada was the low point for Berhalter’s team, the return fixture was the pragmatic one.
Gregg Berhalter discarded his oft-criticized possession system and put the USMNT into a defensive stance, ready to counter. The team was able to take a very early lead and, from there, sit back, absorb pressure, and hit on set pieces and the counter. The team had dropped the high-concept, pleasantly progressive possession-based program.
The win proved pivotal in advancing to the knockout rounds of the Nations League, so that pragmatism was greatly rewarded. However, while this match marked a big change from the previous one, it still didn’t look like how the team currently plays. I don’t have a lot to say about the match otherwise, but one of my closing thoughts proved prescient.
The fact of the matter is, the game would have looked very different if the US hadn’t taken such an early lead. That goal forced Canada’s hand and let the US sit back. The game states have to be taken into consideration.
The issue of game states has since proved to be an enduring theme in the series v. Canada.
Gold Cup Group Stage, 1-0
Ok, you know how I mentioned that game states matter in that previous game? Well, in this one I had it in big and bold as a header.
At 0-0, there’s a balance where a team needs to balance their priorities between scoring and defending. When you have the lead, that shifts so that defending becomes more important than scoring. Racking up goals is nice, but if you concede, you are no longer winning. On the other hand, the opposing team, the losing team, needs to get a goal. The difference between a 1-0 and 1-1 game is huge (in this case, that would have let Canada win the group), but the difference for a losing team of 1-0 and 2-0 isn’t quite so significant. Losing by more sucks, but not-losing is just worth way, way more, such that is justifies taking more risks and playing more aggressively.
The US took an early lead and kind of just closed up shop. Given how short-handed the USMNT was (the Gold Cup squad was made up almost entirely of reserves), the US was yet again pragmatic about how they approached Canada. However, it came with a tactical wrinkle.
[A]gainst Canada, the team started out in a 3-5-2.
Some of this mix-and-matching is to be expected. Berhalter called in a rather lopsided roster and doesn’t really have much choice. But I think it still highlights how disconnected the stereotype of Berhalter as this inflexible coach really is. Yeah, there’s a preferred style of play, one that, after two years of players getting used to, is leading to results with the A team. But when presented with a limited roster in competitive matches, Berhalter’s made adjustments. He’s twice beaten Canada in competitive matches by having the team sit back (those matches proved to be both the starting and ending points for a string of victories for Canada against CONCACAF opponents).
The tactical wrinkle is a little more complicated, with Berhalter shifting to a 4-4-2 early in the match due to an injury. However, I think the overarching theme remains: Berhalter was willing to experiment vs. Canada when presented with must-win matches or limited talent. And, again, game states mattered.
World Cup Qualifier, 1-1 Draw
Finally, we’ve got our 4th and final match to review. This is what I said after the home match v. Canada way back at the start of qualifying.
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.
It feels like this was just before the USMNT really found their identity. The team had the formation figured, with the 4-3-3, with two box-to-box midfielders that press all across the field. However, there clearly were problems there with personnel and execution. Only Adams was there out of the MMA midfield, with McKennie and Musah missing due to discipline and injury, respectively.
However, it seems that the basics of the identity that we have now were there at the time. The USMNT is mostly rooted in their defense. They remain a team that grinds opponents down and scores the vast majority their goals in the second half of the game. However, the one thing that has changed is how the goals are scored. The USMNT has not scored a single goal off of set pieces during qualifying. Instead, they’ve managed to break down teams during the run of play. This is one area where the team has definitely improved. Set pieces are an inconsistent source of goals, while possession play is more easily repeated. However, there are times where the team’s struggled, particularly in making chances. Which makes the absence of set piece goals a major problem.
Back to the Present
Ok, so what does that present us with in regards to our history with Canada? Well, we’ve got an early period where the USMNT wanted their possession style, but had a limp and ineffective midfield. After that came a pragmatic period, where we took on Canada by sitting back and exploiting game states. That pragmatic period was our most successful in terms of results, but produced mixed performances that were heavily reliant on game states. Finally, there was the home qualifying match where a depleted USMNT attempted to impose a clear identity, but struggled to make threatening moments.
The USMNT that lost up in Ontario seems a clear continuation from these trends. The USMNT has a clear identity at this point, with a high-engine midfield that effectively presses and suffocates the opposition. This is good in limiting chances, but has not led to lots of chance creation. In this game we also saw the continuation of the importance of game states, though this time it went against the United States. In a sense, this was the USMNT’s best performance against Canada, even though it was the worst result. And that makes the early mistake unfortunate because it robbed us the chance to see what the US could do against a Canada that wasn’t sitting so far back. The problems in this match highlighted long term issues with the side, particularly the low chance creation (which is a mix of player and coaching issues). But it also highlighted the clear growth of an identity.
This was the least important fixture in qualifying for the USMNT. The goal is to qualify for the World Cup. Spots 1-3 automatically qualify. It doesn’t matter whether the US finishes 1st or 3rd. Finishing 1st doesn’t give the US a trophy. It doesn’t send the US to some sort of Super World Cup. What’s important is qualifying. And that makes beating our competition for those qualifying spots, the teams on the outside looking in, the most important thing. The priority needs to be staying ahead of Panama and Costa Rica, and to a much lesser extent, Mexico. Losing to Canada sucks, but it didn’t even drop us out of 2nd place. The focus needs to be on winning our home games v. Honduras and Panama. With Panama still having to play us, Mexico, and Canada (with the first two on the road for them), winning those two games should be enough to seal qualification.
Canada is not a good representative of World Cup play. Canada parked the bus. That’s not a mark against their quality nor their ambition. It’s just a statement of how Canada played against the US. Canada looked at their strengths (playing on the counter ) and took advantage of an early mistake to turn the match into one about managing game states. And then they won through a mix of stout defending, opportunism, and pivotal goalkeeping. It’s a lot like how the US beat Mexico through the 2000’s. Canada is playing the way they are because it’s effective against CONCACAF and will get them to their first World Cup in generations. But it’s not how teams are going to play v. the US at the World Cup. For the most part, teams in Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia don’t play like this, while teams from CONCACAF, like Canada, Costa Rica and, in the past, the USMNT, have.
This is the one thing from this game that really, really infuriates me.
Remember the last time the USMNT lost in Canada and the team threw a tantrum and stormed off the field without acknowledging the fans who froze watching them lose then Berhalter swore it’d never happen again?— Ryan Rosenblatt (@RyanRosenblatt) January 30, 2022
It happened again.