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USA v. Northern Ireland, 2021 Friendly: What we learned

The USMNT went up against Northern Ireland in Belfast and walked out with a 2-1 victory. Here’s what we learned from the match.

Northern Ireland v USA - International Friendly Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Look, we all know it’s there and there’s no getting around it. The United States men’s program had two games on Sunday; one was competitive and one was not. The United States U-23 team lost in that competitive match in the semifinal for Olympic qualification and, as a result, the United States men’s program will not feature in the Tokyo Olympics this summer. That result is a devastating blow to the youth program. And it sucks for all the fans following from home. There needs to be a reckoning on what happened on that game and there will most certainly be lots of thoughts and reflections from pundits and fans. But there was also another game that day. And while that game didn’t have any comparable stakes whatsoever, that game did happen and we are going to talk about it.

The senior USMNT went to Belfast and took on Northern Ireland and walked away with a 2-1 victory. It is a 5th consecutive victory for the senior program. While the result was nice, the match itself was a little bit more rough. Here’s what learned:

A Little Far From Home

In terms of a result, I would actually say that this game against Northern Ireland was more important than the previous one against Jamaica. The last time the USMNT beat a team in an away match was at the end of 2019, when the USMNT beat Cuba to close out the Nations League group stage. But that doesn’t really count because the match was actually played at the Cayman Islands due to Cuba’s field being declared unsuitable. Which means the last away win was back in 2016, when the USMNT played a friendly in ... Cuba (again). Cuba is a notoriously weak opponent, so let’s try and raise the bar here. When was the last time the USMNT won an away match against a team that was roughly the quality of the hexagonal, the traditional final qualifying round of World Cup qualifying? That would be a match against Germany in 2015, 6 years ago. I’ve mentioned this before but it bears repeating; we’ve been garbage when playing outside the United States for a long time.

Which makes any victory away from home notable, even if they aren’t from CONCACAF. In this case, it was Northern Ireland. And, yeah, that team isn’t great. The best players they fielded play in the middling tiers of English football or in Scotland. Every single player out on the field for the U.S. is with a club at a higher level than their Northern Irish counterpart. But Northern Ireland still came out determined, with a game plan, and with most of the advantages of playing at home. That’s relevant practice for World Cup qualifying.

Something Out of Place

Coming into this game, I did not see the appeal to playing a 3-4-3. Coming out of the game, I still do not see the appeal to playing a 3-4-3. I do not think the formation helped in this match. Indeed, I think the USMNT won in spite of the formation due to just how much more talent the team had. I’m seeing people say that they see promise in it, that maybe with some practice, it could be a viable alternative strategy. And I gotta say, I don’t see it. But I’m going to be straight about it — the 3-4-3 didn’t work.

If you were to put me on the spot and demand that I give a rationalization for the 3-4-3, it would be this: The team is deepest at fullback, with players on both the left and the right favoring playing offensively, potentially as wingbacks. If Northern Ireland are going to sit back and clog up the midfield, the team could simply move their distribution to the backline by adding an additional center back. After all, most of our central defenders can pass decently well (John Brooks, Tim Ream, Chris Richards, Mark McKenzie though he wasn’t in camp). So the team should be able to still move the ball around.

How did that go? Well, let’s take a look at how that centerback distribution plan went:

First half pass map for Aaron Long (3), Matt Miazga (4), and Tim Ream (13). Generated by Opta, retrieved from

Here’s the pass map for the centerbacks in the first half. I picked just the first half because friendlies get complicated with the high number of subs and because legibility will becoming an issue when looking at so many players over the full game. The second half looks similar. You might notice, Tim Ream is a little more aggressive with his passing over out on the left, but the red is all over the field, from all three players. This isn’t because Northern Ireland was pressing so highly. It was because Northern Ireland was marking out all the targets. Northern Ireland was sitting in a 3-5-2 and were perfectly happy to have one or both strikers drop deep and team up with the midfielders to outnumber the American midfield 3-1. As a result, the team struggled to build through midfield at all. Most build up play came through the left, but with Antonee Robinson not great in possession, that didn’t go so well.

In order to mitigate the inability to hold possession and to get on the ball, Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna dropped into midfield. Here’s a comparison between how Pulisic played against Jamaica and against Northern Ireland, with a third pass map from Kellyn Acosta for reference.

Because Pulisic only played the first half against Jamaica, I used only the first halves in order to make the most straightforward comparisons, though his second half pass map against Northern Ireland didn’t look significantly different. Notice, Pulisic’s passing was way higher up the field against Jamaica than against Northern Ireland. Against the Northern Irish, Christian Pulisic had a free role, but he took spaces deeper in midfield, creating maps that actually resemble Acosta’s, ostensibly the more defensive of the two midfielders. Reyna’s pass map is similar, but he stuck far more closely to the right wing. When on the ball, Pulisic did quite well, helping to relieve pressure. But the fact that he was on the ball in such deep places rather than closer to the opposing goal is a problem for the national team. If Pulisic is way out in midfield, who is going to score the goals? Pulling the wingers so deep and so central means that the team loses the ability to connect with the striker. And it creates situations where the team lacks both verticality and width. In other words, the team struggled to stretch the Irish defenders out of position.

The caveat of this is that it was a new formation and the players need time to adapt to it. But I still don’t see the rationale. The way the team has played in the prior 6 or so games, in a 4-3-3 with aggressive pressing, worked. The midfield trio were able to become basically a three-man wood chipper that tore up the opposition’s ability to hold possession. We’ve seen that that style works with the starting choice players, and, against Jamaica, we saw that it also works with the depth options the team has.

Closing Thoughts

I was critical of Gio Reyna against Jamaica, but he was improved against Northern Ireland. I spent a time of time in the Jamaica post match analysis discussing how Reyna made some poor decisions that undercut some of his attacking plays. In this game, he was much improved. He was far more willing to combine with his teammates and he kept a much better eye on making dangerous runs. I don’t think we can expect him to consistently make the kind of driving off-the-ball runs that Pulisic does — that’s just not his game — but it was clear that he was trying to make improvements.

Jordan Siebatcheu and Bryan Reynolds made their first appearances. I don’t have strong opinions on either of them. I need to see more.

Tim Ream plays third center back the same way he plays left back. He shaded a bit higher up the field, on the left and was willing to step into midfield to make a pass or take up space. That’s what you want to see when you move to a formation like the 3-4-3 that requires a lot of distribution from the center backs. Of course, I don’t like the formation, so... I will say, I look forward to Ream taking up a role as an assistant coach or something else with the national team on the sideline.

Aaron Long’s “beard” is bad and must be eliminated immediately. It’s dragging down the team’s already mediocre hair game and that’s just not acceptable.

That’s it for me. As always, we want to hear what you thought of the game and of this piece. Drops your thoughts in the comments below, or maybe (politely) commiserate a little about the other result on the night. The next bit of international actions will be on April 10th and 13th, when the USWNT takes on Sweden and then France in a pair of friendlies. The USMNT will return May 30th with a friendly against Switzerland, followed by the CONCACAF Nations League Finals against Honduras (no comment).

As always, stay safe.