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USA v. Uruguay, 2022 Friendly; What We Learned

The USMNT took on Uruguay to a 0-0 draw. Here's what we learned.

Uruguay v United States Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The United States Mens National Team took on Uruguay and came away with a 0-0 draw. It was something of a tense match, with chances for both teams. However, neither could put one away and the match came up scoreless. Let’s break down what we learned.

Introducing Uruguay

Uruguay are, of course, a distinctly historic side in international soccer. Despite being a small country, they twice won the World Cup in the pre-modern era, including the inaugural edition in 1930. In more recent times, they’ve emerged as a consistently strong team. They’ve made it to the knockout rounds in three straight tournaments, reaching the quarterfinals in 2018 where they were knocked out by eventual champions, France. For sure, this was a stronger test than the (admittedly pretty decent) Morocco side the US battered aside a few days earlier.

In particular, Uruguay is renowned for their defensive prowess. For this match, they put out a defensively solid 3-5-2, anchored by the renowned Diego Godín, formerly the star center back of Atletico Madrid. The side looked to keep an organized and solid defensive shape, conceding possession to attack swiftly on the counter. While the USMNT was, at times, a little exposed, the sides mostly played evenly, with a final squandered attempt from Uruguay pushing them a bit ahead of the US on the expected goals metric.

While it’s not the result the USMNT were hoping for going in, it is still a good sign building up to the World Cup. This is a serious side (Uruguay did just swat aside Mexico 3-0), yet the USMNT played them even. With a little bit of luck — and better finishing — the US could have won this one. And that should be a good sign for November.

Let the Hammer Drop

With two straight clean sheets against World Cup calibre (ie, will be at the World Cup) opposition, I think we have to stop and give some credit to the defensive lines.

Walker Zimmerman in particular has been the standout.

Over the last year, Zimmerman has solidified his place as the go-to Center Back choice for the USMNT. In particular, he’s strengthened his passing game. We’d seen moments of good passing from the Nashville SC lynchpin in the past, but it’s clear that he’s really worked on the skill. In particular, we saw a few really great long balls from Zimmerman to Pulisic. Verses Morocco, that led to the starting goal, and while it didn’t lead to a goal v. Uruguay, it demonstrated a level of consistency there.

Let’s break down how those passes work.

The move starts with Walker Zimmerman in space with the ball in his own half. The USMNT now has multiple avenues to progress the ball, whether that is directly through the midfield, particularly Tyler Adams, or up the flanks through the fullbacks, especially the right back. But if that progress is a bit stymied, there’s the option of going over the top. In general, Pulisic takes a position that’s tucked in from the left wing rather than out wide. From there, he can drop in and assist in possession, or, more crucially/usefully, he can make runs towards the opposition’s backline. If the run goes unanswered, the run still potentially drags a defender out of space, making room for Musah or McKennie to receive the ball. But if a defender doesn’t track him, Pulisic can get in behind, or at least stretch the backline. What he does is burst forward towards the backline, and peels himself centrally so that he splits the backline. In turn, Zimmerman sprays the ball into the exact space where Pulisic arrives. It immediately advances the ball up to the final third.

Long Time Gone

Aaron Long probably also deserves more praise than not for these games. He played a total of 135 minutes (3 halves) without conceding a goal against solid opposition, and that deserves recognition. However, he definitely wasn’t as consistent on defending one-v-one as Zimmerman was, nor was his passing as effective or ambitious as his partner. That said, this is still a good sign for where Long’s abilities will be by the time of the World Cup.

Remember, Long has barely played with the national team over the last two years. While 2020 was cut short for basically everyone due to the outbreak of the (still-ongoing) Covid-19 Pandemic, Long’s achilles tear at the start of 2021 ruled him out for essentially a second consecutive year. In that time, national team has changed considerably, even as Long naturally grew less and less connected with the program. And then there’s the injury recovery itself. It’s not enough to merely recover from an injury; it also takes time to return to that same level of match sharpness as before the injury. And the longer the injury, the longer it takes to get back to that match fitness, even after after the recovery. So with a year-long injury, recovering that match fitness could take upwards of 8 months. This is to say, between regaining that sharpness and chemistry, there’s every reason to think that Long will improve in the coming months.

For now, it looks like Berhalter’s center backs of choice are Zimmerman, Richards (out for this camp due to injury), and Long. The notable missing name is, of course, John Brooks. Brooks has been excluded due to what looks like some sort of feud with Berhalter. I’d personally prefer for Brooks to be in the mix, but I think the urgency of the calls for his return come with rose-tinted glasses. Brooks obviously has quality, as demonstrated by his fairly consistent play for years in the German Bundesliga. However, his last few international matches did in fact feature significant mistakes. And, with his most distinguishing skill (his distribution) replicated by Zimmerman, the need for Brooks to make a return just doesn’t seem to be there, even with the injury to Miles Robinson.

Formation Wrinkles

As has long been the norm, Gregg Berhalter put out his team into a 4-3-3 against Uruguay. In general, that first half formation looked a lot like what was expected, particularly when the McKennie–Musah–Adams (MMA) midfield has been available. Adams forms a decisive defensive shield ahead of the backline, with Musah and McKennie offering a high powered a press. In addition, Musah offers a great, press resistant outlet, while McKennie provides an offensive thrust (and a set piece target). As a trio, the three create a suffocating midfield, and we saw that on display in the first half.

With Jesús Ferreira dropping back into midfield, space opened up for Christian Pulisic to tuck inside. Combined with Tim Weah’s strong play on the right wing, the US was able to generate a number of chances.

However, with McKennie coming off a foot injury, he was limited to just a half of soccer. So on came Brendan Aaronson to take his spot. Against Morocco, we saw Musah tuck a bit alongside Adams, while Aaronson took on more of an attack-centric role. Aaronson’s play was a bit more well-rounded here, but the change, in conjunction with a few other ones made at half time, failed to create a breakthrough for the USMNT. Still, the half, (alongside the one v. Morocco) offers evidence that Aaronson can do a job in midfield. Aaronson already was the first reserve at wing. The ability to play in midfield merely adds to his usefulness to the squad. And it also offers something as an option for the USMNT if McKennie isn’t available.

The big wrinkle with this USMNT squad, however, remains the goals. At this point, the MNT is now much stronger at generating chances than they were at the start of World Cup qualifying. However, those chances are all too often going unfinished. For these two matches, it’s been Jesús Ferreira who’s been up top but not finishing. To his credit, he’s been creating chances and taking shots. That’s generally been more than what we’ve seen from the other options as of late. But Ferreira’s finishing has been lacking. This might be a case where, as long as the chances keep coming, they finishing will follow, at least eventually. That’s been the case to a certain extent in MLS, where Ferreira went from creating loads of shots without scoring at the start of the season, to the top of the Golden boot race in just a few months. But those goals need to come at some point. Finish just one of those opportunities in the first half and the pressure would have severely dropped off the US and changed the match.

Closing Thoughts

Sean Johnson deserves a moment of praise. While he only made the trip after Zack Steffen dropped out due to family reasons, he got the start for this friendly and did well to hold the clean sheet. This second half save in particular stood out as a good moment.

Too many American players switched off on the follow-up play, allowing Uruguay a strong opportunity at goal. However, the NYCFC shot stopper had the exact right positioning to make the save. He’s unlikely to get time in Qatar at the end of the year, but this game was evidence that Johnson’s long been a good and loyal servant for the USMNT.

Erik Palmer-Brown didn’t really look the part in this game, with a bad mistake at the end of the game that gave Edinson Cavani a nearly open look at goal (which he mercifully botched). It was nice, however, to see the Kansas City native get some time out in his hometown.

Joe Scally really didn’t look up to this level. On the defensive side, he looked to be a clear target for Uruguay and frequently either came up short on the tackle or took up the wrong position, letting the ball bounce or whiz past him and to an onrushing Uruguayan attacker. And, on the attacking side, Scally simply wasn’t very involved. At just 19, there’s still more than ample time for Scally to grow into his game a bit, but, for now, I think it’s clearly little premature to be penciling his name into the squad for Qatar.

Big congratulations goes to Christian Pulisic for getting his 50th cap. He’s not quite done it faster than anyone else, but he’s not far off. With some better luck (and one fewer pandemic), he likely would have gotten it much earlier.

There was an odd level of jank with this match v. Uruguay. First, Brendan Aaronson got his shoelaces tied up with Uruguay’s Manuel Ugarte, then Uruguay’s head coach went and made an extra substitution. So it goes with friendlies sometimes, I guess.

There was some big news elsewhere in CONCACAF, with the Canadian Men’s National Team players refusing to appear for a friendly vs. Panama. The players released a letter criticizing their federation over contract negotiations. The letter includes demands for pay equality between the mens and women's teams and marked reforms at the federation level.

Elsewhere in international play, we saw Wales come up just ahead of Ukraine in the final UEFA World Cup Qualifying playoff. This means Wales will head to the World Cup, specifically, the USMNT’s group. Wales was the final team to qualify from Europe for the World Cup, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine forcing the delay of Ukraine’s two play off matches (first v. Scotland, then this one v. Wales). Wales won 1-0 thanks to a Ukrainian own goal and mostly looked like the weaker of the two teams. Which is, of course, a good thing as far as USMNT prospects go. The USMNT will play v. Wales to open their World Cup on November 21st.

That’s it from me. As always, we want to know what you thought of the match. Drop a comment in the comments section below!