- The United States men’s national team drew 0-0 with Saudi Arabia in their final game before the World Cup kicks off in November
- Ready or not, the USMNT will fly to Qatar to play their first World Cup game in almost a decade
Gregg Berhalter and the U.S. men’s national team entered the September window with some questions to answer, mostly about specific positions and areas on the depth chart.
Who is the USMNT’s best option up top? Why isn’t Jordan Pefok in camp? Who’s behind Antonee Robinson in the left back depth chart? Is Aaron Long really the best choice to partner Walker Zimmerman? How do you replace Yunus Musah?
Many of those questions still exist after the United States’ last two pre-World Cup friendlies. None of the No. 9s separated themselves from the pack. The U.S. tried two left back options and neither one truly impressed Long struggled next to Zimmerman, as did Mark McKenzie in his time on the field. And no one came close to replacing Musah’s presence and progression in central midfield.
After two poor performances ahead of the World Cup, those personnel questions are now joined by a whole new set of questions, ones that get right at the team’s identity (or lack thereof).
What is this team’s attacking identity? What are their strengths on the ball? And why are those strengths so hard to find when you watch them play?
UNPLEASANT BLASTS FROM THE PAST
In the U.S.’s 2-0 loss to Japan last week, they were stubbornly reliant on building from the back in a game that was reminiscent of the USMNT’s 3-0 loss to Mexico three years prior. Then in the U.S.’s 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, they were toothless against a more compact defensive block.
It’s been almost four years since Berhalter stated his tactical philosophy after taking charge of the United States. We want to use the ball to disorganize the opponent and create goal-scoring opportunities. And yet, in their last set of games before the World Cup, the U.S. created few scoring opportunities against two different defensive schemes.
Over 180-plus minutes of soccer in September, the USMNT’s strikers combined for a total of five touches in the opposition’s box. Five. That staggeringly low number illustrates just how poor the United States have been when it comes to creating consistent chances.
They failed to keep up with a dynamic Japan team and they failed to impose themselves on one of the weakest teams that will be at the World Cup. In their final two tuneups, the U.S. looked much more like a team full of players trying to learn each others’ tendencies and a foreign set of tactics than a team that’s had years to prepare for this winter’s World Cup.
They looked like a team that needs time. Time to gel. And to learn. And to develop. But they’re not going to find any more time. A mixture of poor execution, personnel decisions, and tactical choices meant that the U.S. didn’t improve during this camp. Instead, they regressed to a much earlier point in Berhalter’s tenure. The only difference between those low points – say, during World Cup qualifying or bleak moments in 2019 – and now is that in the past, the USMNT had time to get back on track.
This time, they don’t have that same luxury. The next time the United States step on the field, they’ll be facing off against Wales in the World Cup group stage.
READY FOR THE WORLD CUP?
Rob Page was in the stadium in Murcia, Spain on Tuesday to watch the U.S. take on Saudi Arabia.
Wales’ manager got to dissect his team’s first group stage opponent. He got to watch them struggle ahead of their matchup on November 21. You would have to imagine that Page left the stadium feeling very confident in his team’s approach and tactical gameplan going into the World Cup.
Wales don’t like to have the ball. They’re much more comfortable absorbing pressure in a mid or low defensive block before winning the ball and attacking quickly in transition and they’ve only averaged more than 50% possession once so far in 2022. After seeing how the USMNT failed to break down Saudi Arabia’s defensive block, there’s no incentive for Wales to change their approach against the United States.
Simply put, the U.S.’s first World Cup game in almost a decade is going to be played on someone else’s terms.
At this point, there’s no time left for the USMNT to refine their approach to breaking down a low block. Sure, they can watch film and identify things that need to change. But they won’t have the chance to get out on the field and diversify their attacking play to avoid being heavily reliant on crosses like they were on Tuesday. They also won’t have the chance to run through their patterns in the final third to improve on moments like this one, where Christian Pulisic stops well short of supporting Ricardo Pepi in the box.
Getting various players back from injuries will be a big help for this team, but things need to change for the USMNT. Berhalter seems to recognize that, at least judging by his comments after the U.S.’s draw against Saudi Arabia. Now that the dress rehearsals are over, though, the time to make those changes has officially run out.
The United States are heading to the World Cup, ready or not. And right now, it sure looks like they aren’t.