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Freezing Win Highlights Shortcomings for Berhalter, US Soccer

In the midst of a Golden Generation bolstered by star wonderkids at the best clubs in the world, the USMNT is getting things wrong in both the short and long term to the detriment of their players.

USMNT Training Photo by John Todd/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Yesterday was a disgrace. With respect to the great state of Minnesota and the city of St. Paul and the tremendous fans who showed up to watch, soccer should not be played outdoors there in the middle of winter.

CONCACAF and/or FIFA should not have allowed the game to be scheduled there, the referee crew should have abandoned the game due to an unsafe pitch/conditions (and certainly should have done this when two players from Honduras were judged to have suffered from hypothermia in the first half), but most importantly US Soccer should never have proposed the game to be played there in the first place.

And no, we’re not going to get into the whataboutism game where teams in Central America play games in the middle of the afternoon at high humidity or why Qatar is hosting a World Cup. This is about the standards we as fans should expect from US Soccer on and off the field and being above this convoluted concept of gamesmanship when it comes to qualification matches. If the USA thinks it’s the best team in the region or should be, then they are beneath this kind of decision to play a game in sub-optimal conditions to win and should be at the forefront of this preventing these types of situations and not perpetrating them.

Same rules as above applies, the administrators of the game have a job to do with respect to player safety from the individual countries to the regional confederations. Soccer and World Cup qualification especially should be a competition that is respected by all parties and settled on as level and safe of a playing field as possible. The United States has the resources and stadiums that few in the world have and should never put their players in such a situation, let alone a visiting opponent. Honduras should have officially protested yesterday’s match from the start and certainly at halftime when they were forced to make two substitutions specifically due to medical issues brought on by the playing conditions.

I don’t know who thought it was a good idea to play yesterday’s game where it was and in those conditions but those people should be ashamed and a formal apology from the USSF should be issued to keeper Luis Lopez and Montreal Impact striker Romell Quioto for the medical emergencies said players experienced during the game. Yes, suffering from hypothermia is a work number call and you should call 911 or your equivalent if you think you are suffering from any kind of cold or hot weather exposure. If for whatever reason either Honduran player even has to pay a penny in medical expenses, I’d throw a lawsuit straight at the USSF, everyone else is doing it, so what’s one more in the long run.

Yesterday’s match was reckless and dangerous to all involved and should never be allowed again. We’re better than this at so many levels.

Furthermore, anyone in the US ranks who thinks the USMNT needs to play any team, but especially one in last place in qualifying, in arctic conditions for some kind of playing advantage, in my mind means those persons lack confidence in this playing squad. Gregg Berhalter can tout travel and conditions all he wants, he’s in the same scenario as 7 other teams in this round of qualifying having to play three games a week with long travel times.

Anyone associated with the USMNT that doesn’t believe enough it it’s players to win a home game against Honduras in non-arctic conditions, should resign on principle. If Gregg Berhalter truly believes that it is necessary to play Honduras in the middle of the Arctic Circle to win the match, he should be sacked. Along with the person who thought this tweet was a good idea.

US Soccer put winning ahead of player safety and that is an inexcusable and fire-able offense for all involved in my opinion. Winning is not as important as player safety. This coaching staff should have enough confidence to schedule a USA-Mexico qualifier at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles and then run El Tri off the field in front of hostile crowd at home. This is arguably the most talented team in the region and yet despite being in second place and on the verge of qualification for Qatar. Yesterday’s match offers tremendous insight into the failings of Gregg Berhalter and the USSF at both the micro and macro level with this USMNT over the last year or so.

They overthink everything to the detriment and safety of their players and they think they’re getting away with it cause they’re winning games. That’s not how it works and Berhalter’s tactics have been holding the USMNT back for over a year now. The possession based 4-3-3 doesn’t work and hasn’t for a long time regardless of the personnel on the field using it. The USA are winning games because of individual talent rather than team cohesion and if it continues they’ll be in for a short winter stay in Qatar.

We’re going to progress into our usual three thoughts column now, but I want to reiterate the massive failure from the top down of not just US Soccer yesterday, but CONCACAF as well. Yesterday shouldn’t have happened and in my opinion it should cost people their jobs. Because they don’t have any dignity left subjecting players, coaches, referees, media, and fans to those conditions yesterday.

THE MACRO AND MICRO FAILINGS ON THE FIELD

I thought we had the winner for most delusional decision of the qualifying week wrapped up after the Canada match and boy was I wrong.

I do not know what game Berhalter was watching up in Canada, but I don’t believe it was the USA’s 0-2 loss to the region leading Canucks. We’re going to get to Canada in a bit in thought #2, but just to recap how poorly the USA were in the first two games might take a bit...

The USA scored one goal against El Salvador and Canada from a combined 8 of 30 shooting and generated approximately four expected goals in that stretch, the majority coming against El Salvador. There is no universe except the one in Berhalter’s head where the USA deserved to beat Canada especially after conceding an early goal, which will be thought #3.

Berhalter’s comments were so far off the mark he got dragged by Stephen A. Smith:

I understand Berhalter and US Soccer are effectively doing a rebuild here. They have a tremendously young roster and have been handing out debuts to a lot of players well under the age of 23 and the eventual long term goal is to have a legitimate roster to win the World Cup you’re hosting a little over four years from now. It is not unreasonable to think that talent wise the USMNT wouldn’t be deserving of such a designation because they do have world class players on the field. But it’s not working right now and it’s not even close.

I present the following positional/passing maps:

Okay so from the top moving down we have Jordan Morris (#13) against Honduras and Christian Pulisic (#10) against Canada and El Salvador respectively. The reasons why this is a problem tactically is the US never fully occupying an opponent’s backline and are too slow in the build up waiting for the fullbacks to create overloads. So basically any team can sit in a low block and put 9 players behind the ball and stymie the US attack without really trying as well saw both Canada and El Salvador largely do. Honduras actually did fairly well defensively but fouled too often and let Kellyn Acosta deliver some truly excellent set pieces that deserved a total of three assists rather than just one.

Pulisic was objectively bad in the first two games and that can not happen. Yes, I know he’s been in a little bit of a funk at Chelsea and he doesn’t play a consistent position there either and while I wouldn’t have played him yesterday you could visibly see the relief on his face when he scored the American’s third. But if the US is going to be one of the best teams in the world nine months from now, Pulisic can’t play like he did against El Salvador or Canada both performance wise and tactically. He wants to be in the middle of the field, so let him. Based on Morris doing the exact same thing I suspect the left wing spot living in the middle of the field is by design but it is actually crippling the US tactically and doubly so if Pulisic is ineffective from that position.

The US should not be married to one style that they aren’t that good at and refuse to adjust out of. This team easily has the personnel to make a 4-2-3-1 work, with Pulisic as a CAM, if they want to which it appears Berhalter does not want cause we never see it even to see out games. A big holding midfielder or two on the roster might help as well, like a Darlington Nagbe, Eryk Williamson, or Matt Polster perhaps. The USA has the personnel to easily switch between midfield triangle shapes depending on if they want a holder at the bottom or attacker at the top and this would also act as a buffer for rotation, especially off the subs bench, so Berhalter doesn’t run McKennie, Musah, Adams into the ground playing three games a week.

I have no problem with the USA wanting to incorporate possession based attacks into their playbook, but it can’t be the only play in said book besides free kicks. And the service on set pieces was so dreadful in the first two games and going back further than that to the point where Acosta’s assist was the first such set piece goal of qualifying for the USA.

If the USA can not score consistently from open play against El Salvador and Honduras at home in qualifying, what makes anyone think this system can beat the best in the world in Qatar nine months from now?

At the macro level, Berhalter’s tactic simply doesn’t fit his personnel and he’s been trying to force a round peg into a square hole for over a year. We saw this at the Gold Cup where the US repeatedly could not play out of the back and pinned themselves in trying to adhere to this system. Too often the USA plays too slowly, doesn’t create enough pressure or runs in the attacking third, and sends in crosses to a non-target man striker with little support or second chance opportunities. Refusing to change out of this system when little to no improvement has occurred over the last year is a tremendous failure of coaching.

The US is winning matches because their individual player talent is extraordinary and they are very good at set pieces and Matt Turner saved everything last summer. Not because Berhalter is outcoaching anyone despite his penchant for good to great halftime adjustments.

At a micro level, I don’t think Berhalter has done a good enough job with his squad rotation and lineup choices. Yes, against Honduras yesterday Acosta and Luca de la Torre were very good and probably should have gotten more minutes this week to help carry the load with McKinnie, Musah, and Adams. Too often the US comes out flat, makes very needed adjustments at halftime, and then exerts the dominance we expect from this team.

If the USA comes out as flat as they have during qualification, they’ll be leaving Qatar after three games. Berhalter doesn’t have the luxury against world class opponents to wait 45 minutes before getting his tactics up and running unless he wants to be playing from behind next winter. Like the administrative stadium choices, Berhalter has overthought his strategy and tactics when he lacks the time needed to really practice and evolve his system. I understand the players like the system and are committed to it, which is good to hear for what it’s worth, but the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

The old adage, “Keep It Simple Stupid” should very much apply to international soccer management. The USMNT should not be trying to play Pep Guardiola ball when they are quite honestly, as the evidence has shown over the last year, incapable of doing so effectively. What is the US good at? Running, pressing, counter attacks, set pieces. Get the ball, play it into space, run at defenders, and force the other team into a mistake the gets you a scoring chance or a free kick. Your system should reflect and highlight it’s strengths while you look to improve on your weaknesses and the US in possession is one of them right now.

At both the big picture (macro) and game-to-game instances (micro), Berhalter isn’t pushing enough of the right buttons to help his team succeed. He and the USMNT can harp on all their recent wins all they want, this team is not playing well enough right now to be competitive at a World Cup level in my opinion and I don’t think I’m alone.

Berhalter has three qualifiers and a few months of friendlies to prepare for the World Cup next winter. Right now, he is the coach of a national team that does not look long for that competition though I reserve my official thoughts until the tournament draw is made. Right now, Berhalter’s system is holding his players back and preventing them from succeeding on the field. If Berhalter really does believe his system plays with a lot of speed I have yet to see it because the only speed I see is the USA checking up from potential aggressive attacking positions to play the ball backwards.

Basically the USA should play a lot more like Canada, let’s talk about the best team in CONCACAF.

YES, CANADA IS THE BEST TEAM IN CONCACAF

This technically does not have anything to do with the standings in qualifying right now, and I feel like we do this after every qualifying week, but it bears repeating cause we’re all Tajon Buchanan stans here. And Cyle Larin if you’re from Connecticut and/or attended UConn but I digress.

Canada understands the assignment and John Herdman isn’t trying to over-complicate or ask his team to do anything they aren’t comfortable with. They know what they’re good at and will bury you at the first misstep and this week they secured nine points with Alphonso Davies streaming his reaction live on Twitch the entire time. This is a merged highlight, no, Davies was not actually streaming the Canada-USA game in violation of basic broadcasting law but this still the best.

Now I want to emphasize the best “team” portion of the section title because I think there is an argument to make that the USA has just as much if not more talent. But unlike the USA, Canada has honed their squad into a fearless wrecking ball of destruction while the Americans are still figuring a lot out.

One thing Canada doesn’t have to figure out is at striker, where between Larin and Johnathan David on top of Tajon, Davies, etc., Canada has the best surefire front line in the region and they have everyone firing on all cylinders. From a confidence standpoint, Canada has it and are effectively one result away from their second World Cup ever, the only other appearance being in 1986. Canada gets their half chances and finish them usually with aplomb and without a doubt have the edge over the USA at the striker/front three positions and likely a significant one when they’re in form.

Canada and Herdman also routinely rotate their squad without missing a beat and have been firing on all cylinders to the tune of six straight wins and an unbeaten qualifying campaign. The six straight wins by the way hasn’t been done in CONCACAF’s final Hex/Octagon round, ever.

And right now, they would be the only team in CONCACAF I’d be fully confident in getting out of the group despite likely having a low ranking compared to their form going into the tournament.

ALRIGHT LET’S TALK ABOUT MATT TURNER AND CANADA’S FIRST GOAL

We’re going to do this objectively and with only slight mercy cause even Matt knows this was bad.

Okay, this isn’t just the kick, which honestly there was a lot of this from both sides early cause you’re kicking a cold rock basically outdoors. But more than the kick being bad is Turner launching this when A) seemingly no one was aware the ball was being restarted and B) the US formation is really, really stretched. The centerbacks are in position for a short ball and should have been sent forward, Gyasi Zardes is the only US player that reacts to the ball even being played, and by the time anyone in a white shirt realizes there’s a problem Miles Robinson is getting burned by Cyle Larin which is a natural happening between a Syracuse grad against a UConn grad.

No the state of Connecticut does not apologize for it’s Canadian soccer recruiting prowess and also pours one out for the legend Stephanie Labbe on her retirement.

Also, this is not one for the “Turner can’t distribute crowd” since he was actually really good this week on that front with about a 90% passing clip (the passing stats I have online are slightly broken for one match) and he did this with his left foot.

So yeah, Turner is fine and spent two game largely doing nothing and one game he really needed some help to clean up a mistake he made after spending a summer cleaning up for the MNT as a whole and didn’t get bailed out. It happens, but the way the USA played against Canada that was at best going to be a draw. Allowing that early goal however did give Canada the ability to sit back and wait for the US to do...something...which they never did.

So let’s let Matt sign all his deals for Snuggies, blankets and hand pouch/muff warmer things that will get confiscated on the field anyway and not make fun of him for having to run wind sprints outdoors in Minnesota to play warm cause the rest of the team wouldn’t let him have the ball.

Or something like that.