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Anticipating USMNT Tactics with Berhalter

With Berhalter set to take over as the head coach for the USMNT, why don’t we go ahead and make an educated guess for how he will play with the player pool?

2015 MLS Cup - Portland Timbers v Columbus Crew SC

Gregg Berhalter has been the expected next head coach for the USMNT for what feels like forever. The process has been long and heavily criticized, with lots of stuff said about USSF and the coach selection. But what I haven’t seen a lot of is a break down of what we should actually expect from Berhalter in terms of tactics. With that in mind, let’s take a moment and predict what kind of tactics we might see from the new coach based on his time with the Columbus Crew and the current national team pool.

Every Man in his Place

In his five years with Columbus Crew SC, Berhalter has been renowned for his system that produces a fairly sophisticated brand of attacking soccer. In each of the five years, excluding 2016, Berhalter has led the Crew to the playoffs and at least past the initial knockout round. The team also made it to MLS Cup in 2015, where they fell 2-1 to the Portland Timbers. This is in spite of a roster made on either a relatively cheap or, at best, middling budget. The trip to the MLS Cup final was made with a budget that fell 12th in the league. This season saw the Crew at 20th, with the other seasons falling somewhere between the two. While other good teams have managed with a limited salary budget, especially the New York Red Bulls, they have done it with far more resources in their scouting, academy, and USL teams. With that considered, Berhalter has succeeded in getting an awful lot out of the players he’s actually had on his bench.

This season looked a good deal like the Crew always looked under Berhalter. In possession, the fullbacks pushed up, the centerbacks went a little wide, and Wil Trapp slid between them. The team tried to hold the ball, play down the flanks, switching the field as needed, until the team team could put the ball into the 6-yard box for Gyasi Zardes to tap in.

Most common Columbus Crew line up based on WhoScored Data.

The focus of Berhalter’s team this year (and each year before) was to maximize the ability for the team to hold possession. Each year, the Crew have been a high possession team (a relative rarity in MLS), 6th in total possession this year, third in pass accuracy. In order to achieve this, the players position themselves to allow for lots of combination making. The fullbacks go up, often way up, to place themselves to receive the ball from the center backs or Trapp. It’s common for fullbacks to be aggressive, but Berhalter has instructed his players at those positions to really emphasis on that aggression. It’s not unusual to see Milton Valenzuela, and particularly Harrison Afful, spending more time in the opponent’s half, even though they are ostensibly supposed to be defenders.

Crew Fullback heat map in the away playoff match v. DC United.

The wingers tuck inside and make room for the wingers, creating natural points to combine and build up play. In a sense, the fullbacks play a lot like wingers, while the wingers play like somewhat-free roaming midfielders. You then have Federico Higuain at center attacking mid. He doesn’t actually necessarily play through the middle. Instead, he combines along one of the sides to create overlaps. As a result, the team has a clear preference for playing down the wings, but, importantly, both wings, as opposed to the middle.

Columbus Crew v. New England Revolution, 2-2, April 22.

Playing down the wings is not at all unusual. Every team spends more time on the wings than in the center, with no team managing 33% in the center, at least in attack. But this is quite interesting given who the players on the Crew are and how they play. Given that the team is so interested in possession, and particularly long strings of possession, one would think that playing down the middle would be encouraged. In the middle, you simply have more players to pass to. There isn’t a boundary cutting off an entire half of pass angles. Instead, the team is making a point to play to the fullbacks, combine when given the opportunity, and switch to the other side when an opening presents itself.

This doesn’t mean that each season has been identical. Instead, Berhalter has tinkered with the system in subtle ways. Somethings have always been the same: Wil Trapp dropping between the centerbacks, fullbacks pushing way up, Higuain pulling defenders apart. But there have been important differences in the team set ups over the years. Perhaps most significant have been the changes at forward. In general, Berhalter and the Crew have remained pretty dedicated to single striker systems. But they’ve rotated out to a new leading striker almost each season. Jairo Arrieta, Kei Kamara, Ola Kamara, and now Gyasi Zardes. Along the way, there has been an astonishing change in how the Crew used their center forward. Arrieta was used sparingly in build up, averaging only 12.5 passes per game while Berhalter got his system into place. Kei Kamara, one of the best hold-up players the league has ever seen, was nearly twice as involved the following season, averaging 20.2 passes per game. That season, the Crew were built to play off of the chemistry between Kamara and Ethan Finlay, with the team dominant in crosses and headers.

Kei Kamara’s replacement, Ola Kamara, was more of a channel running striker, participating far less in the build up with 13.4 passes per game. You can contrast that total with Ola’s time at the Galaxy, where he averaged nearly twice as many passes (23.4). And Gyasi Zardes is infamous for how marginalized he has been made in Berhalter’s system, though he has a very similar number of passes per game (13.3).

Then there’s Ethan Finlay. Finlay didn’t play as a conventional dribbling winger, nor did he cut inside and facilitate build up. Instead, under Berhalter, Finlay served as an off-the-ball threat. He didn’t built up a lot but he was a constant threat down the flank, constantly forcing opposing players to choose whether they were going to press or defend deep. The differences are subtle, but at striker and winger, Berhalter has been willing to change and adapt in order to get the best out of the individuals he had.

This combination of tactics has led to a statistically successful team, balanced both in defense and offense. The Crew had the lowest expected goals against this season. They took a mere .4 shots per game behind juggernauts Atlanta United (and matched them in goals conceded). However, the Crew weren’t this incredibly successful team this season. While they made it to the playoffs, they finished with a negative goal difference. They were, by far, the biggest underperformer in Expected Goal Difference. In spite of all those shots they took, they finished tied for second lowest goals scored (46 goals), putting them in such dishonorable company as the Colorado Rapids and Orlando City. What happened? Well, you can blame a lot of that on wasteful players. Pedro Santos, Justin Meram, and Harrison Afful took a whole lot of shots. They combined for 5.7 shots per game and managed just 4 goals over the whole season. And that leaves questions about how much of the short comings were because the team was built on a short budget, and how much was Berhalter’s instructions.

At the National Level

What can we make of all this information in regards to the national team? Well, we can start by just see what it looks like when you plug players into Berhalter’s system. I did exactly that, pulling from the players that you, the readers, voted for a few weeks back.

There’s a lot going on with this line up, both good and bad, but let’s start with what works to figure out what we can expect to be the foundation for the United States Men’s National Team.

The defense seems to work out for this kind of play. While there are still questions at left back, along with questions on Yedlin at right back, the team’s fullbacks are generally well suited to a style of play built on bombing forward and letting the centerbacks do the defending. The team has a lot of talent at center back, with Carter-Vickers, Ream, Long, Palmer-Brown, etc. waiting in the wings. It remains to be seen which players can handle the responsibilities in both the defense and distribution that Berhalter requires out of the positions. But the bones are there.

Further up the field, there are some real problems. In particular, there are two holes here in midfield. First, there is no player in the squad who serves to recycle the ball, distribute, and/or hold possession. And, second, there is not a proper creative player.

In a way, it’s easier to talk about the lack of a central attacking midfielder in the player pool. Right now, that spot is filled by Christian Pulisic. However, at the club level, Pulisic plays exclusively on the wing. And that’s ben reflected with how he plays in that central spot with the national team. He plays it like a winger, creating overloads, beating players on the dribble, and bursting through defensive lines. However, under Berhalter, the center attacking mid has served instead as a creative source and an advanced point where possession can be reliably retained. With Berhalter’s kind of system, Pulisic makes a lot more sense on the wing. Put all that together and it becomes apparent that there’s only a handful of solutions. 1) Berhalter can keep Pulisic central. 2) He can push Pulisic out wide and leave that central spot vacant, forcing other positions to take up those duties. Or 3) a new player could emerge and take up that role.

At the Columbus Crew, Wil Trapp is the one tasked with recycling the ball. It’s his job to ping the ball around the field and help make sure that the Crew keep the ball moving. He’s had gotten a lot of time with the national team this year (as the captain, no less), but that’s come with a good deal of overblown hate criticism. He’s not the best defender. He doesn’t have much of a physical presence. And he’s not particularly mobile. It’s clear that Trapp is not as talented a player as Tyler Adams or Weston McKennie. However, he’s used to Berhalter’s style of play and can serve a role that doesn’t fit the other two. If the Berhalter really is wedded to keeping possession, it may be necessary to play Trapp with Adams and McKennie serving as physical enforcers. However, doing so means you’ve already got a midfield trio. That necessitates pushing Pulisic to the wings (or playing a deliberately asymmetrical line up, but I’ve already mentioned the Crew’s symmetry.) Such a lineup might look like this.

On paper, this line up could work. This team has some teeth in the press with Adams and McKennie. That duo, if properly drilled, can shield Trapp, allowing for the ball to be recycled. The center gives room for Adams/McKennie to burst forward, Tim Weah or Pulisic to cut inside, or Josh Sargent to drop deep. However, there are potential problems. This only works if Trapp, Adams, and McKennie can keep that midfield together and avoid getting steamrolled. If they can’t hold possession, there’s not really a point to playing this lineup. There’s only 3 attackers, with the attack depending on the fullbacks pushing up and a midfielder going into the attack. But every lineup will have potential flaws. It remains to be seen how this would work, or if this even is the direction Berhalter will go in.

There is, however, an alternative way to try and reconcile the player pool and the Berhalter style. If you don’t want to play Trapp, you can try to find a way to adapt other players to keep possession. Two veteran players come to mind: Darlington Nagbe and Jozy Altidore. Darlington Nagbe can absolutely be a massive help to keeping possession. He’s not the superbly creative attacker, playing line breaking passes or bursting into the box. He doesn’t have that decisiveness. But he does have superb technical skills. He is adept at keeping the ball and playing short passes that leave opponents running in circles. That gives an outlet for the team, allowing them a way to keep possession when the press gets a little too hot. Altidore somewhat similarly comes in as a more involved striker, one who can drop deep, hold the ball, and play a pass. The problem with Altidore is that he’s always been limited to two-striker systems. If you can find a way to give him a partner, he’s clearly the best striker in the pool. But by himself, and he’s ineffective. This line up solves that problem by pushing the attacking mid up to striker, allowing for a strike partner, here, Sargent (I’m not very hot on Bobby Wood).

Instead of Trapp tucking in between center backs, you have Adams serving as a conventional shield. Nagbe comes inside from the wing, helping in build up and possession. Altidore has room to drop in deep, or play to the sides. This team is less reliant on possession, giving Nagbe and McKennie more room to attack. However, there are also some clear points to exploit, perhaps more so than the other proposed line up. In this plan, the left fullback is completely exposed. That was one thing when it was the eminently experienced DeMarcus Beasley. It’s another when it’s the defensively-poor Antonee Robinson or Jorge Villafaña.

What do you think? Do you think I’m pulling from the right points of inspiration, or will Berhalter go in a different direction? Does the player pool have enough of the right talent right now to pull off a possession style? Or do you expect a more defensive and pragmatic style at the end? Let me know in the comments below.