Can I go back to writing about women’s soccer? It’s much nicer to try and complain about a team that strolls to a 3-0 win than to dig into the kind of infuriating loss that the United States Men’s National Team just put us through. The one thing about a performance like this is that it gives some very clear things to talk about. Here’s a couple of takeaways from the game.
Where’s My Wingman?
Look, a lot of players had a garbage game. Zack Steffen made a bad mistake trying to pass out of the back and was fortunate to not get scored on. The midfield was utterly disconnected and sluggish. The only (relative) bright spots were from the centerbacks (who dealt with everything in front of them) and Sargent, who was bright and lively those few times the midfield actually got him the ball. But, for all of Mihailovic’s missed passes and Trapp’s passivity, there was one player who particularly frustrated me.
I am not high on Antonee Robinson. He’s gotten 7 caps over the last 18 months and it looks to me like he’s a one dimensional player. Left back is a position of need and Robinson is still just 21, but he’s not shown that he’s a good fit for this job in past games. And, against Jamaica, that was very much the case.
For much of the game, the left side of the field looked simply lifeless. And a big reason for that was because Robinson was not demonstrating the quality the USMNT needed. When playing with a back 3, teams usually depend on the wingbacks in order to provide width. In Berhalter’s possession system, even in a modified system like against Jamaica, the wide players are the vital outlet that the midfield (read: Trapp) are supposed to be able to ping the ball to in order to stretch the field. Robinson, however, was rarely in such a position to get the ball. Instead, he played around the halfway line, rendering the US midfield flat and static. When did get the ball, he did very little with it. I mean, you can see all the red in that photo, particularly anywhere near the final third.
Robinson’s one standout quality is that he is fast on the ball. But he’s a weak defender, doesn’t have the positional nous to take advantage of openings for himself, and is a poor passer. He is not a good fit for this job.
I do not mean, however, that Robinson has no potential to be an effective USMNT player, nor that he even really is a bad player. It’s just what I said, he’s a bad fit. If the USMNT played a deep backline and countered with pace into space, Robinson could fit right in. And that’s something that actually infuriates me. I absolutely hate it when a coach takes a player and sticks them into a situation that absolutely does not line up with their skills. Berhalter threw Robinson into the deep end and asked him to do a job that he has not had a chance to learn how to do, a job that he does not have the skillset to successfully accomplish. It’s wrong and messed up to screw over a player, particularly a young player, like that.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about the system. The whole point of Gregg Berhalter’s formation tinkering was to help elevate the USMNT. That’s the point of all tactical systems. A good system takes the talent on a given roster and somehow makes it better. A good system figures out how to put the players together like a puzzle so that they have more strengths than they would just by their talent alone.
The system Berhalter sent out against Jamaica absolutely did not do that. I don’t know if it was because the team switched from that hybrid 4-3-3 to a 3-6-1 or if it was because of how many new players were there or because those players couldn’t make it work, but the squad went out there and played like they didn’t know where they were supposed to be on the field. Players were consistently getting marked out by Jamaican defenders. Their passing frequently missed the mark. And players looked clueless when they did manage to get on the ball. It was astonishing to watch the squad take the field a watch Jamaica figure out that the team could be squelched with a little bit of pressing and a pair of fast fullbacks. Point blank, if the system is not working when playing against worse opposition, you make changes.
A line of thinking that I absolutely hate is the argument that when the players lose to some CONCACAF opponent, it’s evidence that the players are not good enough. I despise this argument. Every single player on this USMNT roster is a full professional playing for a club either in MLS, the English Championship, or Bundesliga (except Jonathan Amon in Denmark and Joe Gyau in 2. Bundesliga, neither of whom started). In contrast, Jamaica fielded FOUR USL players in their starting lineup. It’s one thing when you compare the USMNT with the world’s best; I have no qualms with saying that the US’s talent isn’t good enough against the likes of Argentina or France. But it drives me bonkers when people come out and say that the USMNT’s talent is not good enough to beat teams that field USL level talent. All of these players have demonstrated that they are, at the least, more accomplished than the likes of the USL simply by being regular players in MLS. The players and the coaching staff are responsible for putting out a level of quality that matches that kind of pedigree. Getting outplayed by markedly inferior opposition is simply not at all acceptable.
Berhalter went into this game apparently with an unorthodox attitude. We already knew before the game that this lineup was going to differ from the final Gold Cup squad. Jackson Yueill wasn’t even eligible to go to the Gold Cup as he wasn’t on the 40 man roster. Meanwhile, the likes of Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Weston McKennie were left out. Tyler Adams and Christian Pulisic weren’t even with the team. Instead, Berhalter played a bunch of players that we now know didn’t make the final roster: Josh Sargent, Antonee Robinson, Djordje Mihailovic, Joe Gyau, and Jonathan Amon all missed the cut. I have a couple of guesses why he trotted out a line up based on so many depth players: maybe he wanted to see which players would make the final few Gold Cup roster spots; maybe he wanted some players that were leaving to get a runout; maybe he wanted to send the message that, while those players weren’t in the plans right now, they could be in the future; or maybe he just wanted to see if those players could hang in a new formation. I don’t really have any idea which of these ideas are close to the truth, but there’s some reason out there.
The fact that so many of these players were depth means that this game isn’t representative of the quality we should expect from the USMNT going forward. And it isn’t even necessarily representative of the actual depth of the national team pool. There were a bunch of players who weren’t called up or who are playing with the U-20s. Frankly, I can’t help but look at this Gold Cup and minimize its importance. There is so much talent coming up from the youth national teams that the USMNT will look seriously different two years from now. The likes of Tim Weah and Paxton Pomykal will force their way into the team, along with a number of other names, I suspect. This performance isn’t representative of what or who we will see in the future (at least, it had better not be).
Well, those are my thoughts from the game v. Jamaica. What did you think? Let me know in the comments below. I’ll be back to talk about Sunday’s game versus Venezuela. And, of course, the Women’s World Cup starts tomorrow, with the USWNT taking the field against Thailand on Tuesday, so stay tuned!