Let me start off by saying how excited and proud I am to have the United States Men’s National Team back at the FIFA World Cup.
We all know how difficult it was the for players, coaching staff, and the federation to go through an unsuccessful qualifying campaign during the last cycle, and a lot of things have improved since that fateful night in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago.
Regardless of what I say next, because my headline is rightfully harsh, I am fully rooting for the USA to win their group and make a deep run into the knockouts. The players and coaching staff have earned this opportunity and I want them to succeed. A few weeks ago, this was actually going to be much more critical of the US and its head coach after their performance in the final two friendlies. But I think those two games served as a wake up call for Berhalter in particular which is a good thing.
While most of this player pool will be back in 2026, which should unease a lot of teams when North America hosts the next tournament, I don’t know if Gregg Berhalter will be around to see it.
A lot of the success the USMNT have had in recent years has, in my opinion, come in spite of their head coach’s preferred style of play. Berhalter’s 4-4-3 possession based system has proven to be too slow and too demanding players operating outside their skill set to simply keep the ball, let alone generate consistent attacking moves with it. This was evident during the USA’s final two friendlies in which they were dominated by Japan in a 0-2 loss and held scoreless by Saudi Arabia 0-0 in a game that featured few scoring chances for the young Americans.
Overall, I don’t have any problems the players Berhalter has elected to bring to Qatar. Do I like the fact that several of these players weren’t brought in last window, absolutely not. A veteran like Tim Ream should have been in and around camp the moment Miles Robinson went down if not long beforehand to help along a very young stable of centerbacks. There isn’t another US left back even close to Antonee Robinson in the pool so not having a true backup to Jedi doesn’t bother me though I would have brough Tim Ream as the fifth centerback and utility defender rather than four right backs.
Basically everything Roger Bennett says right here - soccer does not have to be overly complicated and especially so at the international level. Get your best players onto the field into a collective system that can make them better as a unit then all eleven players individually. And too often Berhalter’s system is a negative in this regard, forcing his players out of what they can do best.
We’ll get into more specific things as I go through the next few points with players who aren’t going to be in Qatar but the general point here is that coaches and national teams are judged on what they do at the World Cup. Just because the USMNT has a young team and missed the last tournament doesn’t mean merely getting here is an accomplishment. This is a group the USA can absolutely win...but they can also come in dead last in Berhalter doesn’t have this team prepared from the start.
STARTING MATT TURNER IN GOAL
When I first started outlining this piece, Matt Turner starting in goal was not guaranteed. He was coming off an injury and missed a couple of Europa League games with Arsenal and Zack Steffen’s form with Middlesbrough was improving.
I was as stunned as everyone else when reports started coming out that Steffen was going to be cut from the roster. I had assumed it was a lock both he and Turner were going to be there even though Matt’s heroics during that 0-2 loss to Japan should have been enough to solidify him the starting job.
I’m not going to speculate why Berhalter left Steffen off the roster, it’s not fair to Zack in particular who fully deserves to be at this World Cup regardless of whether I think he should be the starting keeper. I have never liked the argument that Steffen’s passing ability outweighs Turner’s shot stopping ability for a team that shouldn’t be a possession based team in the first place.
Using Opta Post-shot xG data, here is the shot-stopping performance of the keepers going to the Qatar World since the previous World Cup in 2018.— VisualGame (@avisualgame) November 17, 2022
Matt Turner is one of the best pure shot stoppers in the world. This is not an opinion it is a fact - Turner prevents more goals according to the analytics than anyone in Qatar (that plays in the above first tier leagues cause I assume there’s places where people smarter than I either haven’t or can’t track every single soccer shot).
I don’t think there should have been any debate as to who the USA would give the #1 shirt going into this World Cup and it seems Berhalter has also come to that conclusion and given a full confidence vote to Turner despite not doing so after the friendlies back in September.
Turner will be in line to go from an undrafted Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference keeper out of Fairfield University to the New England Revolution and the EPL and a World Cup where I’m sure he’ll make a handful of saves that will be on highlight reels for decades to come.
START CHRISTIAN PULISIC UP TOP
I am going to keep saying this until morale improves because the United States does not have a clear cut starting #9 but it does have a clear cut world class talent that can play in the middle of the attacking third.
Pulisic is not going to push the backline as an advanced forward, I don’t entirely need him to do that. The USMNT should be a counter attacking team which means getting the ball up the field quickly and creating overloads, 1-on-1 opportunities, and crashing the box with late runs from the midfield. The USA needs a presence up top that is going to command the ball and create space for his teammates at the same time.
There is only one player in the US talent pool that can pull this off effectively and it’s Pulisic. Deployed as a False Nine/#10 CAM, Pulisic can lead the line, drop back and open up space out wide and in behind the defense and also combine with whoever happens to be with him. Whether it’s the fullbacks overlapping to find a Tim Weah making the central run or Pulisic playing in Weston McKennie on a neat 1-2 combination, the US can not afford to have a black hole in the middle of the field at the World Cup for fifteen minutes let alone a whole half.
I love Jesus Ferreria, Haji Wright, Ricardo Pepi, Jordan Morris, Josh Sargent, etc., who have helped get the USA to this point. But at the World Cup, I don’t think any of those players are among our best eleven we can put out onto the field. Ferreria can drop deep, Pepi can push high, Wright can be a more physical presence in the box but none of them have the creative prowess that Pulisic has and this US team desperately needs. Which is why I would like to see Pulisic start up top.
DITCHING THE 4-3-3
Gregg Berhalter’s halftime adjustments over the last few years have been legendarily good. Of course, you wouldn’t need great halftime adjustments if your opening tactics were working.
In 2021 the USMNT won the CONCACAF Nations League and the Gold Cup, the latter with a mostly second choice group where Berhalter’s style really showed to be a negative. Too often in that tournament the USA were dreadful in possession, unable to get forward and create chances, and won the tournament thanks to Matt Turner’s heroics, a great defense, and set piece conversion.
Now, all of those things are likely going to have to happen again for the USA to have success at this World Cup. But the general lack of attacking play and shoddy possession will doom the US if they continue like they did in their last two games against Japan and Saudi Arabia. If your system is barely good enough to dominate games in CONCACAF it is not good enough at a World Cup level.
At times, Berhalter has shown to be unwilling to change from his preferred formation despite going through qualifying with an ever rotating cast of players due to various injuries.
Weston McKennie and Sergiño Dest confirm they are fit for the USMNT's World Cup opener Monday against Wales. pic.twitter.com/KzdEi8F3Gr— CBS Sports Golazo ⚽️ (@CBSSportsGolazo) November 19, 2022
For the first time since basically qualifying began, the United States has essentially every key player available sans Miles Robinson who has been out for months with an Achilles’ injury. While we’ve never answered the question fully as to who the USA’s other centerback is next to Walker Zimmerman, everyone else is here and ready to go. Pulisic, Reyna, McKennie, and Dest among others all missed time at some point during this cycle and now gives the USMNT a full suite of options to deploy against Group B.
This means Berhalter has to get his initial setup correct, and maybe that means specific personnel matchups depending on the opponent or maybe a different midfield look with a double CDM pivot instead of just Tyler Adams behind McKennie and Yunus Musah. A bad opening half could be the difference between trying to get three points and trying to come back and salvage a point with a draw.
The US shouldn’t be afraid of anyone in this tournament. They should be allowed to play carefree and open rather than forced and constricted. If Berhalter didn’t realize this after the last two games, he is going to set this team up to fail and it should cost him the chance to lead this team into the 202 cycle.
I want to end with this - despite all the tactical shortcomings I have with Gregg Berhalter as the USMNT coach, I am sure that there’s a lot of great things he’s done with this player pool the last few years.
Today, I sat with Gregg Berhalter on the eve of another WC. And he considered the same question. And he said, "What I do believe is that we can beat ANYONE in the world." He didn't predict the US would win it all; he said his guys have the ability to win any game they play. (2/7)— Sam Borden (@SamBorden) November 19, 2022
There are a lot of new things about the US team this cycle. A lot of new players. And, obviously, a new coach. There are also plenty of things to knock Berhalter about if you want to, as there are with most coaches. (4/7)— Sam Borden (@SamBorden) November 19, 2022
Regardless of the disaster of 2018 that he picked up, Berhalter has gotten this national team back on track and he should be praised for that. There’s a lot of things behind the scenes that I’m sure he has done well that we don’t get to see or hear about. At the end of the day, this is a results based business, and the USMNT I think should have the expectations to not only get out of their World Cup group but push to be winning groups and competing regularly deep into the knockouts.
Two months ago after two dreadful performances in their last friendlies, I was nearly positive that the USA was going to lose all three of their World Cup games with Steffen in goal and Pepi up top. That Berhalter was going to crash and burn doing things his way and with his players. Then came the stunning roster reveal that didn’t have those two key players on it.
I would have supported the United States regardless of the 26 players Gregg chose to represent this country at the World Cup. I don’t think I would’ve had the balls to leave both those players off the roster, but perhaps Berhalter realized something two months ago... that his system doesn’t work and drastic changes were needed on the fly for the benefit of the squad and its potential as a whole. I don’t know if Berhalter and the US can completely rework their scheme in a few short days before the World Cup begins, but I don’t think the standard tactic Berhalter prefers would be good enough to get out of this group. Maybe the full complement of healthy players do make that system work, well have to find out.
Either way, I hope Gregg Berhalter is right. Because I want the United States to remind England, who has never beaten us at a World Cup, that tea belongs in the harbor as it has since 1773 and I don’t think the 4-3-3 Berhalter-ball formation was going to work unless Rob Green walked through that door.
But maybe, just maybe, Gregg has something up his sleeve for this group stage. Something that might prove to be very magical indeed.
The world is watching, coach, they’re watching what the youngest team in this year’s tournament could be four years from now. The next three games, or four, or even five... will have a lot to do with if Coach Berhalter is around to defend home soil in four years.