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Three Thoughts on an Up and Down USMNT Qualifying Week

Six points at home was the bare minimum expected but a loss at Panama will leave a bitter taste overall.

Costa Rica v United States: 2022 World Cup Qualifying Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

I do not envy Gregg Berhalter’s job. Every month and a half or so he grabs 25-30 players from around the world, flies them all over CONCACAF, and has to play three matches in basically a week with not a whole lot of training.

International management is different that club management, there’s less time to implement a detailed tactical system and far more emphasis on player management/squad rotation especially with the needlessly forced third game during this qualifying cycle.

That being said, Berhalter’s 4-3-3 system isn’t working. Or at least, we haven’t seen any significant improvement from it during the entire summer. Yes, it won the Gold Cup and Nations League Final but the majority of those performances were lackluster overall as far as attacking prowess.

What Berhalter did not learn from his predecessor Jurgen Klinsmann or from anything this year as we talked about after the Jamaica game, is to keep things simple. Let this United States team get out on the break and run. Whatever tactic or possession style he’s using out of the 4-3-3 isn’t working and has been ineffective for most of the year despite a glut of wins. The United States MNT right now is winning games based on individual brilliance, not team cohesion and against an absolutely old and decrepit Costa Rica team they needed a worldie and a fortunate own goal bounce of the post to win a game they were down 0-1 in the first minute.

I’m not sure what Berhalter is trying to do but it’s not working. There’s no growth or continuity in these games and I find it hard to believe that’s all down to the calendar and fixture congestion. The 4-3-3 again should be scrapped for something far simpler and easier to rotate players through. The USMNT should not fall apart because Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, or Weston McKinnie aren’t in the midfield.

PLAY A 4-2-3-1 SYSTEM

Against an over the hill Ticos team, that’s not good enough. That’s not nearly good enough. This game should have been a rout not just on talent but on sheer willpower and athleticism combined with tactical dominance. 5 of 12 shooting against Costa Rica, 0 of 5 against Panama, and 7 of 17 against Jamaica are miserable and unacceptable numbers for a team of this quality. And Chris Richards should’ve been whistled for a penalty right before halftime, he tackled the man, then won the ball.

Berhalter keeps trying to force a 4-3-3 system that clearly isn’t working onto a group of players that clearly don’t perform well playing in it. My guess is it’s not a lack of positional familiarity so it must be down to specific possession and tactical things Berhalter is doing. Like rarely getting out on the break or getting your striker involved in the game. These are not new problems for the USMNT but no one seems to want to address them.

The only thing I liked tactically from the USA against Costa Rica was when fullbacks Antonee Robinson and Sergino Dest maurauded forward, one of the midfielders went and covered that flank. Usually this was Yunis Musah on the right and Tyler Adams on the left but there was at least some tactical acumen that was noticeable in that game. They can build on that.

I think the biggest problem with the USMNT is there’s no one higher up in the middle of the field dictating the tempo and direction of the game. There’s no target man striker dropping back or #10 type stretching the lines and playing off the wingers. If the ball doesn’t get crossed in from an overlap, it’s not getting into the box all that dangerously.

So play a 4-2-3-1, rotate your central mids throughout the qualifying week to keep everyone fresh and healthy, and get someone into that CAM/#10 spot to start combining with everyone in the attacking third. This should be Christian Pulisic when he’s healthy but find alternative options for when he’s unavailable but somehow Berhalter will probably deploy both Pulisic and Gio Reyna as wingers which the USA has plenty of IMO with the right roster composition. The USMNT can’t rely on their wingers and fullbacks to do everything in the final third. There needs to be more initiative from the midfield to go forward, not just possess. Keep it simple, but also keep the tempo and runs higher up the field.

There needs to be a sense of urgency from the USA on the field as well, you see this from Canada who absolutely bossed Mexico at the Azteca. I don’t see this squad in this formation being either willing or capable of doing that.

ZACK STEFFEN GOT A HOMECOMING GAME, NOTHING MORE, NOTHING LESS

Here at TBM we stan Matt Turner so we have to address this as rationally as possible. Matt Turner is the best shot stopper the USMNT has available. Matt Turner plays every week for the #1 team in Major League Soccer, the New England Revolution. Zack Steffen plays once every other month or so for Manchester City. No, I don’t have a problem with Zack Steffen, playing for the USA under his old club coach, getting a start in his old haunt of Columbus. But, Matt Turner should be the USMNT starting goalkeeper.

Why? For the exact same reasons I laid out above with the rest of the US team and tactical issues. Steffen succeeds in this modern, European possession based nonsense that the USA simply isn’t good at. Matt Turner doesn’t make the decision to head the ball 25 yards off his line on Wednesday in the first minute not because he can’t do it, but because he doesn’t have to. The USMNT far too often gets pinned back in their own half trying to maintain possession because the system is bad.

Another problem with the US tactic is there’s far too much static and passive movement. Matt Turner and the backline should never be under this kind of pressure without the fullbacks and other mids coming back to help. Your keeper can be an asset in possession but they shouldn’t be relied upon or be a focal point at any point. They are a safety valve and when it’s not safe to give them the ball, don’t do it. This has been an ongoing issue since the Gold Cup and it hasn’t changed despite numerous different lineups being used over the entirety of the summer. That’s on Berhalter not recognizing a team or player weakness and fixing it.

Matt Turner is fine in possession and his long throws to start counters have been noticeably effective while with the USMNT. His one bad forced clearance against Panama had him tipping a long distance shot over his bar about 10 seconds later. Steffen’s one bad clearance and decision against Costa Rica had him picking the ball out of his own net 10 seconds later and yes, Panama was onside, Dest was on the endline for that play so it’s not GK interference.

I fully expect Matt Turner to start before the MLS playoffs in November. Just get him some more help on defending corners, my goodness this was an awful goal to give up.

THE USMNT CAN’T KEEP RELYING ON INDIVIDUAL MOMENTS OF BRILLIANCE

The USA needs more team goals. Like their second goal from Ricardo Pepi which featured a nice breakout down the left flank and a tap in finish at the top of the six. There’s not enough of those team plays. There’s not enough of Tim Weah getting a simple ball in the channel and getting a shot inside the box. There’s a lot of passing, a lot a overlaps, and not enough team movement to help create legitmate goal scoring opportunities.

There’s just not enough of these types of plays and movement from the USA. You all rag on Paul Arriola, but he does all of those things as a winger. His spacing and movement created that first goal against Jamaica because it left Sergino Dest wide open to cross in a ball against a retreating Jamaica backline.

If your system Coach Berhalter isn’t good enough to breakdown the geriatric ward of Costa Rica more than once a game, it’s definitely not good enough to break down a World Cup team a year from now. Also, I’d have a qualifying spot locked up before the final week of games in March - because at Mexico, vs Panama, and at Costa Rica looks like 2-4 points right now. The USMNT sits three points ahead of Panama in 4th for the intercontinental playoff spot, which is why that loss to Los Canaleros was such a big deal. Your MLS contingent will be in offseason mode for the January games at least as well.

Like I said at the beginning, I don’t envy Berhalter’s job, but he should be doing better. The USA being in second right now is not indicative of how underwhelming this team is playing right now. The remainder of this cycle will be the building blocks of the team that’s hosting in 2026 and they look far from ready for any international tournament right now.