The United States Men’s National Team took on Switzerland in a friendly match in St. Gallen. Alas, the USMNT walked away in defeat, falling 2-1 to the home side. It was a match that showed both a lot of promise, but also a lot of points to improve on.
Over the past year or so, I’ve had to put in a bit of a disclaimer about the quality of the opponent in this part of the article. Because of COVID-19, the USMNT hasn’t been able to play many matches, and they’ve all come against either relatively weak opponents or opposition fielding a weakened side for whatever reason. Against Switzerland, that wasn’t the case. I don’t know if the starting 11 that we saw from the Swiss was necessarily their best, but it was most certainly a very strong team. Every single Swiss player who took the field plays with a Champions League team or with a top flight club in England, Germany, or Italy. While Switzerland isn’t stocked with any superstars, they are stocked with experienced professionals plying their trade in the top clubs at every position. For the first time in a very long time, the opposition’s players come from clubs that are just as prestigious as the USMNT’s, if not more so. This was a stern test for the national team, with the USMNT ranked as the underdogs, and we should evaluate the match as exactly that. With that said, let’s get started.
What’s with Sebastian Lletget?
We came into the match knowing that there would be a few changes from the expected starting lineup. Christian Pulisic and Zack Steffen were with their respective clubs for the Champions League Final just the day before, so we knew they were going to be out. We also knew that Tyler Adams very well likely was out due to a back injury. The only real question for the lineup seemed to be who would step up and take Aaron Long’s centerback spot now that he’s out with a long-term injury (evidently, it was Mark McKenzie that earned the start). However, Berhalter threw in another wrinkle into the lineup that caught me by surprise. It had seemed like Yunus Musah was the starter for one of the two box-to-box midfield roles alongside Weston McKennie. And you know what? I was a bit disappointed that Musah didn’t start the match. He’s consistently been a good presence in the lineup, even though he’s still only 18. He meshes with the other starting midfielders (Adams and McKennie), he presses well, and he is so deft while on the ball that it’s extremely difficult to take the ball away from him. Sitting him on the bench seemed wrong. But to Sebastian Lletget’s credit, he took his opportunity. Not only did the Galaxy man get the MNT’s early goal, he arguably was the team’s best player through the first half. It looked like the swap worked. But why though? What’s the logic behind starting Lletget?
I think the key here is to think about overall midfield composition and about the team’s overall offensive/defensive balance. On the offensive side, the USMNT is missing their most threatening player, Christian Pulisic. On the defensive side, the team is also missing their most proactive player, Tyler Adams. To compensate for those two absences, the team needs to make some adjustments. While you can slot Brendan Aaronson and Jackson Yueill (respectively) into those roles, they can’t replicate what Pulisic and Adams do. Instead, you need to make decisions and sacrifices in order to compensate. On the defensive front, the move is rather clear: have McKennie hang back and contribute more on defense. But if McKennie isn’t making those attacking runs, you now have a bigger attacking deficit.
And I think that’s where the logic is for swapping Musah out for Lletegt. Musah does not have the same offensive output as either McKennie or Lletget. He doesn’t make those runs dangerous into the box. And the numbers reflect this. In the five games he’s appeared in with the national team, Musah has 0 goals and 1 assist. And that one assist has a pretty big asterisk given the nature of that goal. In those exact same games, Lletget has 4 goals, 0 assists (he has an additional goal in that time frame against El Salvador in a match that Musah was unavailable in). Offensively speaking, Lletget is just doing more things. You can see exactly that from this game. Lletget led the team in shots. And his goal reflects this.
At the start of the clip, Lletget is already in the box, moving to present a possible option for Gio Reyna to pass to. Before Lletget can get to that spot, Reyna puts in a cross towards Sargent. Lletget responds to that by turning past his man and tucking in towards Sargent, in the exact place where the ball would most likely go if the defense can’t clear it on the first try. Lo and behold, that’s essentially what happens. Nico Elvedi gets to the ball well ahead of Sargent and makes a poor effort to clear the ball, pinging it straight into Lletget’s foot. Lletget does well to react quickly and play the ball straight to Aaronson before receiving the ball back and scoring.
A lot of people will chock this kind of play up to luck. Indeed, it is a bit fortunate that Elvedi screwed his play up. But Lletget is in that position for precisely this kind of scenario. He’s there to try and snag second balls. While we can say that getting the chance was based on luck, scoring it was not. Because it was a calculated move, a calculated and aggressive move, in order to potentially score a goal. Lletget gets so many opportunities and so many goals precisely because he consistently makes those kinds of calculated and aggressive moves. And we can’t say the same about Musah. Indeed, in this game, the number of shots the USMNT had dropped after Lletget came off for Musah. You can’t go and say that’s because of Musah; there were other substitutions and the Swiss adjusted their game plan. But it does make sense.
However, there are tradeoffs for playing Lletget over Musah and it would be remiss to ignore them. Both Lletget and Musah press energetically and contribute a lot defensively. But Musah presents a far better outlet when the US is being pressed and needs to keep possession. In this game, we had Gio Reyna on the right wing, so the team still had someone who could do that role, so that skill didn’t go missing. But Reyna isn't the same kind of direct offensive threat that a player like Tim Weah or Jordan Morris is. Considering that the team couldn't turn enough of their chances into goals, perhaps it would have been worth it to have Weah and Musah on instead of Reyna and Lletget? That feels too hazy for me to make a call on, especially since Lletget scored while Reyna played pretty well, but that trade off might be worth taking a second look at in other circumstances.
Left (Back) in the Dust
I spent 2019 complaining about how the USMNT under Gregg Berhalter struggled to win the ball back without Tyler Adams, particularly against good opposition. One of the promising things to take away from this match was the fact that, even though the team didn’t have Adams, the team still had a way to win the ball back. The press implemented by the USMNT was startlingly effective at strangling the Swiss offense. McKennie, Lletget, and Aaronson relentlessly closed down Swiss players in possession and contested 50/50 balls, while Yueill stalked passing lanes (I mentioned in the recap that Yueill kicked off the move for the goal by intercepting the ball). Through the first half, the Swiss offense was constrained to a total of two shots. That’s a pretty good record! The problem was that the first shot, while a speculative effort from outside the box with a defender in the way, took a nasty deflection and went in. The second one was a penalty and also should have gone in.
The big defensive concern in this game, all through the entire match, turned out to be Sergiño Dest. The FC Barcelona man did not have a good outing at left back. He repeatedly was caught too high up the field, allowing the Swiss attack to get into dangerous places.
We only saw glimpses of the problem in the first half, but not only were those the only real defensive issues in the half, they presented major failures. On Switzerland’s opening goal, Dest pressed over-aggressively and went way too high up the field, leaving acres of room in behind him. McKennie didn’t shade over to take up the space and that left John Brooks isolated 2 vs. 1, unable to do anything to prevent the cross. Conceding the penalty was more unfortunate than an outright mistake on Dest’s part (under the current hand-ball rules, I think that one’s iffy, and I think the current hand-ball rules are terrible) but nonetheless, Dest could have avoided this by being tighter on his man. With better defending and awareness from Dest, the game could have been 1-0 for the US, instead of 1-1, or, if the penalty had gone in, even 2-1 in favor of the opposition.
In the second half, Switzerland took Dest’s struggles and made it into an entire attack plan. Instead of trying to play through the wood chipper that was the US midfield, the Swiss decided to just bypass it and try and attack down the right as aggressively as possible. If Dest was too high up the field, John Brooks would be isolated and forced to scramble against one of the Swiss strikers. And Dest was often too high up the field. The result was that Breel Embolo skinned John Brooks twice, before forcing some heroics from Ethan Horvath. The third time Switzerland tried to find Embolo matched up against the American left center back, this time Tim Ream, Embolo missed the ball, only for Dest to make a hash of it and hand him the ball. Tim Ream couldn’t scramble effectively enough and Zuber tucked it in.
Look, in spite of this result, we know that Sergiño Dest is going to be a starter for the national team. The question isn’t whether he plays or not; it’s whether he plays on the left or the right. Still, defensive issues like the ones clearly present in this match can’t be allowed to become systemic problems, otherwise good teams will always find ways to exploit them. If Dest is playing but isn't sufficiently defensively sound, it will force changes in the lineup and formation to compensate. I really don’t like a 3 center-back formation for the USMNT. It necessarily requires taking a midfielder out in order to field another defender. And that has ramifications for the rest of the team. Taking a midfielder away mitigates the America press, and neuters the (too-often struggling) American attack. And that means sorting out Dest’s defensive frailty needs to be a top priority.
Pragmatism and Naivety
I believe the USMNT should have won this game.
Throughout the first half, the USMNT created plenty of chances and almost entirely limited the opposition’s offensive ability. That first half was legitimately a good display against a top-15 team.
The problem was that the first half was a good display and not a good result. And while the first half was really good, the second half was bad. I’ve already talked about the defensive frailties. But I now want to talk about experience. The Swiss team had it, the American one didn’t. And you know what? I think the real difference between the display and the result, between the first half and the second, was that gulf in experience.
We’ve seen the core of the American side for what feels like a while now. While he missed this game, Pulisic’s still been with the national team since 2016. Josh Sargent, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Zack Steffen, Ethan Horvath, and Reggie Cannon all came into the program way back around 2018. The truth is, while we’ve been seeing some of these players for years at this point, they are almost all still quite young and still quite green, especially at the international level. Among the starters against Switzerland, only Horvath, Brooks, and Lletget were over the age of 22. None of the starting players had 50 caps (including that game), with Brooks (41) being the only one who even gets close.
In contrast, the Swiss team was stocked with experienced players in their prime. While only one player was at least 30 (substitute Admir Mehmedi), none of the players who took the field for Switzerland were under the age of 23. The Swiss lineup also had way more international experience. The American starting 11 had a cumulative 149 caps, including this match. The Swiss lineup had 586, nearly quadruple as many caps as the Americans. The Swiss captain, Granit Xhaka, has by far more caps than the entire midfield and attacking line combined. No matter how you look at the numbers, the Swiss team had way more experience.
And that experience made a difference. While the Swiss couldn’t keep back the American attack in the first half, they were able to organize and mitigate the threat. The result was that, while the MNT got a lot of shots, none of the chances were individually all that great, with the exception of the goal. The Swiss were organized and diligent about keeping numbers between the MNT and goal. And in the second half, the Swiss were able to use their experience to identify and exploit a weakness in the American line. The Swiss were pragmatic, limited their risk, and attacked specific weak points after allowing the US to tire. It was a game plan built and executed on experience with the game at the highest levels.
I think one of the big shortcomings that we saw in the game was the relative naivety of the American team. I don’t think it’s an accident that the one player who scored, the one player who demonstrated the most attacking urgency, was the one attacking player who already has a decade-long career. The trouble with youthfulness is that you can’t just swap things around to fix things. To get experience, you have to play through the problems. I think that’s what happened here. And, given the state of the team, I think that requires some patience from us, the fans. It’s good to have expectations of success, to demand that the team perform well. But we should be realistic that the team will struggle at times, that they will fall short. The important thing is to keep a focus on the big picture, to watch that the overall quality continues to improve.
Mark McKenzie was good. No further comment from me at this time.
Ethan Horvath was also really good. Like, really, really good. It’s a shame he doesn’t get regular playing time because his shot stopping was excellent.
Josh Sargent really needs to start scoring goals. You can see from this game that Sargent was making some dangerous runs, but he needs to start scoring them. He hasn’t scored for the national team since 2019 and even then, 3 of his 5 goals came against Cuba.
The attacking shape was really narrow. The USMNT probably could have benefitted from seeing the attacking players spread out across more of the field. With both Aaronson (11) and Reyna (7) coming inside, while Sargent (9) dropped deep, the whole attacking band was too consolidated in one place. One of the reasons having Lletget (17) in the side seemed to work likely was that he makes runs up past the striker, stretching the field vertically. In contrast, both Aaronson and Reyna (especially Reyna) like to come inside, making the shape too narrow. Some balance is needed here. This is one place where Christian Pulisic, or even Jordan Morris, were really missed.
I though Reyna had a pretty good game, but he needs to diversify his skills a bit. It’s really easy to make comparisons between Gio Reyna and Pulisic. They both came out of the Dortmund youth program as wingers. They demonstrated both talent and potential as teenagers. They are both extremely technical competent and skillful on the ball. But the way that they play is really quite different. Pulisic’s game is ruthlessly goal-oriented; he’s constantly trying to move the ball past defenders and towards goal, whether by dribbling or by passing. Reyna is more about having and controlling the ball and creating space for himself to shoot or cross. I’ve noticed he takes a lot of shots from outside the box. In this game, he hit the post. I’m just thinking, if Reyna can make his runs and positioning a little more aggressive, he can turn more of those outside-the-box shots into inside-the-box shots, and thereby turn more of his shots into goals.
That’s all from me. As always, we want to hear what you think in the comments section. What did I get right? What do you think I’m dead wrong about? Let me know down below!