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USA v. Canada, 2021 Gold Cup: What we learned

We break down the good, the bad, and the ugly.

United States v Canada: Group B - 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The United States men’s national team closed out the group stage of the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup with a 1-0 win against Canada. While it was indeed a rather dreary affair, the USMNT walked away with the result. While the team had already qualified to the knockout stages, this victory let the MNT win the group (anything less and Canada would have won the group, whether outright or through tie-breakers).

This game represented the first really significant test for a rather green group of American players. Yeah, neither Canada nor the MNT needed to win this one to advance to the knockout stages, but with second place likely to eventually face Mexico in the semifinals, both teams wanted to win this. And, while Canada was missing a handful of notable names, namely Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, this was still a pretty talented group. At the very least, the players are comparably matched to this version of the MNT, perhaps even slightly ahead. And that made this match up the perfect test to see how if this group of players can play at a higher level than was offered up in the previous two games against Haiti and Martinique and who should stay in consideration for the full senior team.

With that said, here’s what we learned:

Game States Matter

In the tactical analysis for the Nation’s League semifinal against Honduras, I pissed a lot of people off by declaring that the performance was GOOD ENOUGH. The same sentiment applies here. The USMNT was GOOD ENOUGH against Canada. It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t what we hoped for, but it was GOOD ENOUGH. The team walked away with a win, and that’s what’s important.

There were two big moments that dictated how this game played out. The goal was, quite obviously, one of them.

Within thirty seconds, the USMNT took the lead. That means we have to analyze essentially 90 minutes with that context. Because of that early goal, the mindset of the team had to switch from “How do we win this game?” to “How do we keep this lead?”. And those questions lead to very different responses.

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.

Given those incentives, we can, in a game between two comparable opponents, expect the team with the early lead to sit back and seek to limit the number and quality of attacking opportunities, while the team that was behind would seek to try and control more of the game to have more opportunities and try and get back in it. The context for the USMNT demanded an effective defensive performance. And that’s what we got.

Canada led in possession, and they led in shots. But the USMNT managed Canada’s chances such that the Canadians couldn’t get any truly good opportunities. The USMNT led, not just in goals, but expected goals, 0.92-0.65, indicating that the US was both better at making high quality chances and better at limiting Canada’s. When I say that the US was good enough, I’m not making a blithe statement about the result. This wasn’t the kind of game where a team gets an opportunistic goal and is lucky not to concede three or four goals. No, the USMNT didn’t get lucky. When I say that the USMNT was good enough, I mean that they decisions and plays that they made were effective on the day.

I think USMNT fans are really anxious to see the national team crush teams that they otherwise don’t really respect. I think fans should treat these teams with more respect — soccer is hard — but I think the impulse to demand higher things from the USMNT is a good one. But we shouldn’t let our anxieties obscure what are effective performances and good results. I know a lot of people want to see thrilling soccer, with the team driving up the score, and, frankly, I do, too. But I think it is more important and more rewarding to see the MNT progress by beating more teams. By beating better teams. Honestly, I don’t really mind that the USMNT’s performance vs. Canada was merely good enough. That win vs. Honduras was merely good enough, but then we went and beat Mexico in an exhilarating final. Hopefully, this good-enough display vs. Canada is the same, that it leads to the team raising their level and beating the next team.

You Like my New Look?

You know how Gregg Berhalter’s got his whole system, this whole thing where, no matter who’s on the roster, the team comes out and plays the same formation and tries to play the same way? Yeah... Berhalter’s trotted out a different starting formation in each of the three group stage games. Against Haiti, the team started in a 4-3-3. Against Martinique, it was a 3-4-3. And against 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).

However, this game got a bit more weird than just a new starting line-up. Earlier, I mentioned that there were a few really defining moments in this match. The goal was the first, and the second were the pair of substitutions for Walker Zimmerman and Ayo Akinola for the US and Canada respectively.

As it turned out, losing Zimmerman to injury and swapping in Donovan Pines represented a steep drop in quality. Zimmerman is just both a better defender and a better passer. As a result, the team had to compensate, dropping deeper to both better screen the backline and to try and connect the defense with midfield. In turn, bringing Osorio on for Canada, coupled with Tajon Buchanan and Richie Laryea swapping sides, allowed Canada to have much more control of the game.

To compensate, we saw Sands step out into midfield more. In effect, this created a 4-4-2, which you can see with this first half pass-map that I got during the game from MLS’s match stat page.

The map’s a little bit wonky because it still lists Zimmerman in there, but I think it still shows how weird some of the positions are, particularly for James Sands and Gianluca Busio. Sands is in front of the backline like a defensive midfielder, while Busio, the ostensible d-mid, is up with the strikers like an attacking mid. When we look at Sands’ touches, we see that, yeah, he’s quite often sitting in front of the defense.

Ok, so we’ve got a 4-4-2 here. How did that play?

In general, the midfield looked something like a diamond, with Sands staying back, Busio running all over the place, and the fullbacks providing width. Dike would try and tuck into midfield, providing an outlet to hold the ball and allow the other players to advance.

In general, I would say that the 4-4-2 did not work. While Moore played high up the field, Vines was needed for cover in the back. This made the team lopsided towards the right in possession. While Sands and Robinson were generally tidy, Pines proved to be far more uncomfortable in his passing. It didn’t help that Busio didn’t stick to any clear position, while Acosta had a dud of a match. Finally, the strikers were really quite ineffective. With the team failing to hold possession and unable to advance up the field, Zardes was left disconnected. While Zardes didn’t so much as get a chance to show in the match, Dike kind of squandered his chances. He was really poor while trying to hold up the ball, frequently playing bad touches and making miscues. While Dike effectively used his physicality to dominate over the Martinique defenders, the Canadian defenders seemed much better prepared to handle him.

Mind you, this 4-4-2 was an adaptation of the starting line up. It was supposed to be a 3-5-2, and that helps explain why it was so janky. But I think it really illustrates one of the big problems with three-center back systems. You have to take someone from either the midfield or the attack to slot in an extra center back. Normally, the USMNT plays with one striker and two wingers, with three in midfield. With a 3-5-2, we swapped out both wingers, getting one striker and one center back. With the 4-4-2, we pushed one of those center backs in midfield. On the next, that’s still one less attacking player. This shouldn’t be taken as a knock against Sands — he was dominant on the night, one of the best players for the USMNT. But part of that midfield dysfunction, along with individual subpar performances, is simply because there’s not the right mix of defensive, offensive, and transitionary players.

Dual of the Fates

For me, the biggest takeaway on the night actually didn’t show up on the scoreline, nor even with the USMNT’s lineup. You’ve got to look at Canada for the biggest story.

Ayo Akinola started his first game for Canada. Unfortunately, he had an injury in the first half and had to be subbed off, but his starting is a big deal. You might remember, Akinola actually played for the USMNT back in December, even scoring a goal. Akinola was eligible both for the US and for Canada and, while he appeared in that friendly, he has since decided that he will represent Canada. His earlier appearance in the Gold Cup cap-tied him and he is no longer eligible for the USMNT.

I wrote about the USMNT’s approach to dual nationals back in February. The piece was very positive, but it had a warning.

As of late, dual national decisions have gone in the USMNT’s favor. To the best of my ability, I can’t think of a single high-profile case where a player decided to leave the US program in the last two years. That kind of a streak is not going to last. I mentioned in the previous article that Berhalter’s played almost 70 different players. And not all of those players are going to have robust futures with the national team. ... maybe Ayo Akinola decides his heart lies with Canada. Not everyone is going to stick around; that’s just how it works.

Not everyone eligible for the USMNT is going to pan out with the program. And, in this case, Akinola went with Canada. Frankly, that’s good for him. I wish he stuck with the USMNT, but I do not begrudge him for this choice, and may his career be long and successful.

But it’s not just Akinola who the US has recently lost out on. Efraín Álvarez went with Mexico, while Alex Roldan (the brother to Cristian Roldan on the USMNT roster) is balling with El Salvador. All of these players are Americans. We have hit the point where American dual nationals are playing, not just for the USMNT, but for the other federations as well. Indeed, El Salvador had SIX American players fielded last night against Mexico, along with Hugo Pérez, himself a retired USMNT player of Salvadoran decent.

Having so many Americans playing for different national teams is a clear sign of the game in this country. But it’s also a warning that the soccer community and national team program needs to be open and vigilant about recruiting dual nationals within the country and within the federation. The other nations are scouting us. If we are not proactive about expanding programs and reaching out to these players, players already in our country, we will miss out on talent.

But this isn’t just limited to Americans. Canada didn’t merely have Akinola on the line up. They had, by my count, 6 dual nationals in the starting line up, coming from a range of different nations. We see it from the Central American teams. We’ve already talked about El Salvador, but on Costa Rica, there’s also Ariel Lassiter, an American. The Caribbean nations have a strong history of recruiting and we see that here with Haiti and Jamaica. Indeed, even the likes of Mexico, traditionally hold-outs for incorporating dual nationals to the national team, are starting games. While Álvarez didn’t start, the Funes Mori, who was born in Argentina, did. CONCACAF is getting more diverse. That’s going to make teams better, more dynamic, and more varied.

Closing Thoughts

James Sands stands out as the big winner from this group stage. He’s been cool, calm, and effective through all the matches. The fact that he can play in defense and in midfield is a big plus. He’s tidy and defensively sound in midfield, which makes him a good candidate to serve as Tyler Adams’ understudy.

Miles Robinson has also consistently been solid. Up until now, we haven’t been able to get a prolonged run with him on the national team due to injuries and scheduling, but now that he’s here, he looks the part.

On the other hand, Pines looks out of his depth. I just think this is a level too high for him. That said, the USMNT suddenly looks quite good at center back. We’ve got Sands and Robinson currently in camp, along with Zimmerman. They join Brooks, McKenzie, and Miazga (who all featured in the Nations League camp) on the depth chart. We can add Richards and Long as well, at least in the long-term. That’s eight players before we get into more fringe options like Palmer-Brown and Carter-Vickers.

Vines had a solid defensive performance. After a very “meh” performance v. Haiti, Vines came back and showed defensive fortitude. He certainly looked more solid right now than George Bello, who looked a bit lost at times vs. Martinique.

The current roster has a midfield problem. There’s going to be a lot made out about Busio’s poor display. He looked like he didn’t know where to play, which tracks for a 19 year old who hasn’t had a consistent spot in midfield. On top of that, there’s a physicality issue, with Busio not challenging against Martinique or Canada. But that’s not a problem limited to just him:

Berhalter needs to figure out how to get some physical dynamism in that midfield. Right now, it doesn’t look like there’s a clear option, though Sands may be solution.

Speaking of Busio,

It looks like some were a bit too quick to declare Dike as the number 1 striker after the Martinique game. Against Canada, Dike looked like a player who’s barely played with the ball at his feet for the last six months. Which is basically what happened at Barnsley, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Dike needs to work on being more well-rounded, particularly with his passing and his touch. Right now, I think Sargent offers that more well-rounded play, even though we haven’t seen too many of the goals. Getting good transfers will be important for both of them.

That’s it from me. As always, we want to know what you thought of the game. What did I get right, and what am I dead wrong about? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.