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Three Thoughts On USMNT’s Three September Qualifiers

The USMNT almost began the start of another World Cup qualifying cycle in calamitous fashion until some second half substitutions saved the day in Honduras.

United States Training Session Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images

Gregg Berhalter’s United States Men’s National Team finally had a breakthrough performance fans were expecting in the second half of their third CONCACAF World Cup Qualifier in San Pedro Sula, Honduras. It just came on the back of perhaps the worst performance the team has had all year surrounded by a lot of underwhelming matches hidden by the success of winning the Nations League and Gold Cup.

But wait, the USA won the Gold Cup and the Nation’s League. Well, yes, but they didn’t look good doing it, needed a late winner in the NL semis against Honduras to get to that classic final against Mexico and then needed five 1-0 wins out of six games in the Gold Cup. The United States is, was, and always will be a press and counter team and need to be deployed as such like they were in the second half - playing quick and getting forward in numbers. Not a slow, plodding, and predictable build up from the back via possession.

This is not a side that is going to be Spain circa 2009 that went on a 35 game unbeaten streak, won the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. But both Jurgen Klinsmann and Gregg Berhalter think it can be and quite frankly, they’re wrong. One of them is no longer employed and the other hopefully has realized this.

1. Gregg Berhalter Needs To Bin His Possession Style Tactic

Make no mistake, the second half against Honduras does not erase the previous five halves of qualifying or quite frankly an entire summer’s worth of games at the Gold Cup and Nation’s League that show the USMNT is not built to be a solely possession based team.

The lineup Berhalter used to start in Honduras was poorly constructed, overly complicated, and destined to fail. It was a mircocosm of Berhalter’s overall system for a team that should be stressing simple organization and tactics. Not your best midfielder at wing back and your best three-man backline centerback as a box-to-box midfielder.

And the goals they scored after many halftime substitutions prove exactly how this team should and is capable of playing:

GOAL #1 - Antonee Robinson (48’)

Breakout after a good hold up and turn from midfield, USA gets a 2v2 situation led by Pulisic that finishes with a 5v5 and Robinson cleaning up the spill on the back post. Time from midfield turn to cross and finish - 12 seconds. Have a hit, young padawan.

GOAL #2 - Ricardo Pepi (75’)

This is the possession based build up that I want to see, quick passing and movement in the final third - the ball switches from the left flank to the right in three passes and the entire sequence from Robinson to Aaronson to Yedlin to Pepi to the game winner being in the back of the net takes maybe 10 seconds. And in that span the USA gets six, yes SIX, established attackers and runners into the box.

GOAL #3 - Brendan Aaronson (86’)

Classic turnover and counter, Alex Roldan doesn’t get on the scoresheet but he should get a secondary helper for his dispossession here. Pepi latches on and slides the ball over to Aaronson (barely) to finish off the 2v1 break. Time between turnover and goal - 7 to 8 seconds.

GOAL #4 - Sebastian Lletget (90+3)

This goal is caused by demoralizing Honduras who definitely switched off, but the US latch onto a loose ball near midfield and Pepi gets free down the left and despite his initial shot being blocked, the US has too many runners in the box unaccounted for and Lletget cleans it up. Time between Adams gaining clear possession in the open field to tap in - 7 seconds.

Not since the 6-1 game against Martinique have the USA really been able to generate a number of these types of quick transition goals and line breaking passes that open up opposing teams. Particularly in the Gold Cup, the flaws of the USA’s possession tactics and system kept themselves under pressure and unable to break down opponents consistently because they were always running up against an organized opponent sitting back and well entrenched and the same was true in the first two games of WCQ. Sure the USA found ways to win a lot of those games over the summer, but aside from routing Martinique they rarely dominated play.

Remember that long Spain winning streak back in the late 2000s? You know who ended it? The USA did in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal in South Africa. You know how they did it? By playing good defense, getting a few quick chances upfield and being opportunistic. The US put two shots on target that day, both went in. Yet somehow in the last decade it has been determined that the USA can and should play that kind of style and yet in the rigors of CONCACAF that has constantly been proven false.

The USA’s shooting numbers of 2/13 against El Salvador in a 0-0 draw and 2/11 against Canada in a 1-1 draw pretty much tell the story. The MNT’s possession system is inconsistent and ineffective at generating good chances and Berhalter needs to bin it. Let your team do what they are good at - press, create turnovers and run. While it’s nice to be able to create chances from possession or earn set pieces it can never replace the handful of great chances this team can produce on the run.

Jurgen Klinsmann effectively got fired for his constant tinkering and poor lineups and tactics and getting the USMNT into an early hole in WCQ. He also tried to make the USA something that they weren’t. Gregg Berhalter has been granted a reprieve from this same narrative, for now, after his halftime substitutions yesterday. Injuries and roster discipline moves aside, five points from these three games is not the end of the world after making up the dropped home points against Canada with yesterday’s win.

An easier schedule awaits the USA next month, with home games against Jamaica and Costa Rica sandwiched around a road trip to Panama. Berhalter did not do a great job rotating his squad or making substitutions this week, and I know a lot of his players weren’t always available but that makes it all the more important to get your starting lineup, tactics, AND substitutions right from the beginning. Seven points next month is a minimum but the USA is fully capable of getting all nine points available to them. We’ll see how Berhalter sets up in October.

2) The players are not blameless here

I understand there were injuries - Gio Reyna might be out through the October matches, Pulisic left the Honduras games hurt, Yunus Musah would have been a huge help to this team but also is recovering from injury - but there were far too many bland performances from this USMNT squad during the past week.

Josh Sargent does not look like the true striker this team needs up top. Sergino Dest struggled to find the game from either fullback spot, leaving the US with a lot of questions at fullback unless Antonee Robinson and DeAndre Yedlin are going to put in shifts like they did off the bench in Honduras. John Brooks, whose name was etched in stone at the centerback spot can easily take the brunt of the blame for the unmarked finishes against Matt Turner in both the Canada and Honduras games.

Now against Honduras, it’s not Tyler Adams’ fault he was played at right wing back or James Sands’ fault he was asked to play a box-to-box role with Kellyn Acosta in front of three centerbacks instead of at centerback in a three-man backline which might be his best position, or Pulisic’s fault he wasn’t deployed as a #10 centrally... but there are too many individual negatives outweighing any positives aside from that late second half push on Wednesday.

Berhalter didn’t help the situation or formation by over complicating things, but I still didn’t see any one of the USMNT stars step up and start playing up to their ability until the final half of play for the week. That’s a problem. Brenden Aaronson is on the shortlist of players who should get a lot of minutes in October as well as Ricardo Pepi though the US needs to get another option on the #9 depth chart.

We’re going to end with Weston McKennie here, and no I’m not going to go into any of the speculation surrounding his departure for rules violations. This isn’t the first time McKennie has done something like this but it had better be the last. Weston if you haven’t watched this clip from Charlie Davies on CBS Sports please do. And then sort yourself out so you’re ready to play again in November, which is when I would call you back into the national team.

What the first two points have proven is that the USA have the ability to play in a countering style system, without their best players, and be successful. When the USMNT is at full strength that same system should be able to keep the same style of play and have the same success if not more with the tremendous depth and talent the current player pool has.

Both head coach and players were very close to a potential repeat of the last qualifying cycle. Collectively, the first three games of qualifying were disappointing but not disastrous. This team has dug itself out from what was a sizeable hole in Honduras and are on the front foot, and should be able to build and continue to play like we know they can going forward.

3) Matt Turner is the USMNT #1 Goalkeeper

Yeah, you knew this was coming. Zone 14 for the uninitiated is that big space in the middle of the box in front of Turner where Brooks should’ve kept tracking his runners into.

Matt Turner should be the undisputed #1 GK for the USA going forward in qualifying. Unless Zack Steffen starts suddenly playing 4-5 games a month at Manchester City, we can have a conversation about a possible platoon for the heavy workload during a three game week, but until then the number one shirt belongs to Turner.

Turner preserved the shutout in El Salvador denying an Eriq Zavelta header in the second half in the 0-0 draw and then kept it 1-1 against Honduras by parrying away a Marcelo Pereira header also in the second half. These were not routine saves and preserved the scoreline as the United States pushed for a winning goal which they probably should’ve found in El Salvador and found several late against Honduras.

For those that have complaints about Matt Turner’s short range distribution, stop it. As we just detailed above, the US shouldn’t be a possession based team relying on their goalkeeper to begin with to build from the back and Turner’s first half deep ball Mac Jones throw lead to the best USMNT chance in that half.

The USMNT has never been, is not, and likely never will be, a tiki-taka possession team circa 2009 Spain (who the USA beat in that Confederations Cup) and nor should they. We want someone in goal who can recreate Tim Howard’s heroics in the Ro16 against Belgium as a shotstopper, not be Xavi Alonso as a sweeper keeper. In one Gold Cup and one round of World Cup qualifiers Matt Turner is undefeated and giving up one goal every three games and I shouldn’t even have to mention his penalty stopping prowess at this point.

Get the attack humming in front of him, let him use his mid-to-long range distribution as a weapon to start some transition play, and Matt Turner will do the rest in front of goal.