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Does the USMNT play better against better teams?

It's starting to look like the U.S. men's national team plays better against higher quality teams. Let's take a look at why that might be.

2 min read

Full question submitted by Kristofer Klein: The USMNT looked super athletic and fluid in the game vs. Morocco (in my opinion). Could they possibly be better suited for playing better teams that play a more open style?

Hey, thanks for the question Kristofer!

I think there is absolutely some truth to the idea that the U.S. is better suited to play against teams who are willing to open up the game a little bit. Usually, the teams who are willing to open up the game are the ones with plenty of talented players.

The U.S.’s performance against Morocco last week is a solid data point – some of their performances against Mexico over the last year are, too. It’s a pretty stark contrast between how the United States played and created chances in those games and how they played and struggled to create chances against Canada in World Cup qualifying (and during stretches against other opponents in qualifying).

Why has the USMNT played better against higher-quality opposition?

Well, when you look at the players in the U.S. pool, the United States has a lot of guys who can do real damage in transition: Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Tim Weah, Jedi Robinson, etc…

They have significantly fewer players who can do real damage in possession. Now, I’m not saying that the U.S. is incapable of playing quality possession soccer. We saw moments of combination play against Uruguay and there were nice sequences sprinkled in throughout World Cup qualifying as well. But it’s more natural for this group to wreak havoc in the press and in attacking transition than it is for them to take a breath and break teams down with their possession play.

Let me be clear: the USMNT will need to be able to do both of those things if they want to achieve much of anything at the World Cup. They’ll also need to do both if they want to start dominating some of the smaller teams in Concacaf.

Still, this young U.S. team likes space. And they like it when it’s opened for them by the opposition more than they like taking the time to open it themselves.


If the USMNT is up for the task defensively – and pressing and creating transition moments against good teams is a big task, one that they haven’t totally completed in this June window – they could cause some problems for higher quality opponents at the World Cup.

That said, I’m not sure the U.S.’s opponents in the group stage will provide them with all that many opportunities to get out and run.

England, the top seed in the United States’ group, play a notoriously conservative style under Gareth Southgate. In AFC World Cup qualifying, Iran averaged 44% possession across their two games against South Korea, who was the only team in their group in the top 50 in the FIFA rankings. Wales, the final team in Group B hasn’t had more than 50% possession in a game against a team in the top 50 in the FIFA rankings at all in the last calendar year.

The U.S. may be more comfortable in open games, but they may not have many of those open games at the World Cup if they can’t get out of their group.