USA Men – Potential Is Still PotentialPosted: November 15, 2020
This week the USA men got together for the first time since …so long ago it feels like decades. Actually , it was February of this year, not that long ago, but the match against Costa Rica was 1) played with a team made up of MLS players only – thus was devoid of many of our best people and 2) before the pandemic, therefore back in ancient times, or so it seems.
As pointed out in our last post “The USA Is Quietly Building A Powerhouse”, a number of youthful American players are doing very well in Europe and for some highly regarded teams. USA fans have been waiting anxiously to see these developing stars get together and show us what they can do. The situation is not one of immediate need as the USA doesn’t see any real competitive action until late next spring, but the sooner the better as far as coach Gregg Berhalter is concerned. He wants to see how the players work together, what positions they fit in best with their teammates and, like all of us, he wanted to see what the caliber of this USA team really is, given that perhaps they are the most credible bunch as far as world club credentials are concerned that the United States as ever put together.
So lets take a look at this match with eyes on the US as an up-and-coming world power.
First- the opponent. Now no one is going to confuse Wales with France or Brazil or Belgium, but against mediocre competition they have done very well lately. While England handled them quite easily (3-0), they have beaten Bulgaria (twice), Finland,Hungary, Azerbaijan and drew with highly regarded Croatia during the last 12 months. They aren’t Argentina but they aren’t the weakest team in the world either. And the side they used against the USA was almost the same side they played in those games. However, there was one major exception. Wales has only one world class player – Gareth Bale. Bale is capable of turning a match around all by himself as he demonstrated against Liverpool in the Champions League final in 2018. Bale didn’t play against the Americans which reduced the offensive threat that Wales possessed by about 100% (not joking about that either). The rest of the Welshmen are a capable bunch, particularly on defense, but without Bale the ability of Wales to provide a meaningful measuring stick for Berhalter was definitely reduced.
Second – the USA. The team that started for the Americans was one of the youngest lineups the USA has ever put on a field. Two 17 yr olds were among the starters and the rest were not that much older than the teenagers. While Wales was missing it’s biggest offensive threat, so was the USA. Christian Pulisic, while only 22 himself, is undoubtedly the guy that the American offense will revolve around. Unfortunately Pulisic ( who plays for English powerhouse Chelsea) pulled his hamstring while warming up before a match one week before the Wales encounter. In addition, Josh Sargent who is a legitimate striker and plays for Wolfsburg in the German league, could not make it to the match either as he was detained by Covid quarantine. This left the US without two of it’s best forwards. Unfortunately, Berhalter’s system and selections did not make up for those losses.
The USA starting lineup as a 4-3-3
As seen above, the Americans used a 4/3/3 formation as their basic system of play. However, once the game started, it was apparent that the actual positions of the players varied a lot from the pictured setup.
First of all, by design Lletget did not play in a traditional Center Forward role. He was the only MLS player on the squad and in the US , playing for the LA Galaxy he plays as an attacking midfielder. So, it would seem that playing him as a “false 9” ( a central forward who comes back to link up with midfielders) could suit him well. And it might have done just that, except that his wings did not cooperate. The false 9 concept works best when the wings become dangerous recipients of the “9”‘s work. In teams such as Barcelona and Liverpool who use this idea regularly, the false 9 has striking partners who have pace and scoring ability. This often leads to the back defenders being forced to spend extra effort on those wings and therefore those defenders leave open space for the 9 to come forward after the initial attack. Against Wales, the system did not work like that at all.
When young players play a certain position and role on a team, it becomes somewhat difficult for them to change their play once game action begins, even if asked to play a different position. The younger the player, the more that individual has a tendency to adopt the role that they have become accustomed to playing. Gio Reyna plays a similar role for Dortmund in Germany that Sebastian Lletget plays for LA Galaxy, that being an attacking midfielder. For the USA he was positioned as a right wing. But he ended up moving inside often into the more familiar spaces that he occupies for Dortmund. This is not a bad strategy when the right back behind him can move up into the space created by the movement and can act as a deliverer of crosses and passes inside to the forwards waiting for them. And Sergino Dest was more than willing to do just that. The problem was that Reyna dropped back when he went inside instead of moving laterally or forward. Thus he wasn’t available to receive any balls played by Dest or to be a threat to the goal. So, with both Lletget and Reyna playing as advanced midfielders there was only one true forward playing for the USA.
Konrad de la Fuente is a young (another “young” – get the drift?) American player (19yrs old) who is on Barcelona’s roster although he isn’t getting the minutes that Dest is getting for the same squad. But he has shown enough ability to rate a start in this game, And, he was the only forward positioned player on the field for the USA who was playing his normal spot – on the left wing up high. This left him as the sole go-to-goal threat for Berhalter. He got the best chance of the game when he was the recipient of a Welsh turnover that put him close to the goal although on the corner of the right post. He fired the somewhat difficult shot over the top and other than a couple balls from Dest that was it as far as scoring chances for the US. When one looks at the actual positioning of the Americans for most of their offensive game and when one considers Wales defensive ability, it is no surprise that our team came up empty on the scoreboard.
Ok, the score ending 0-0 wasn’t quite the result USA fans were looking for. But, how about the play? It is here, in the work, that we find the quality and the possible future success that we were hoping to see. The youthful Americans displayed a confidence and a possession game seldom seen in our sides. Berhalter wants to play from the back, maintain possession and create spaces for his attacks. His team got ( WARNING – shameless plug coming!) Concepts 1 and 2 from the Soccer Yoda’s successful book “Concept Soccer – A Step by Step Method to Score Goals and Develop Players” right. (Concept Soccer is available from Amazon in print and ebook) They had 61% possession against a decent international opponent. Concept 3 was spotty, although there were some spaces opened by the Americans, they didn’t take much advantage of them. Yunus Musah , 17 yr old player for Valencia in Spain, did a superb job of supporting teammates with the ball, Weston McKennie was very active in looking for openings to play the ball and Tyler Adams helped control the midfield from the defensive point of view. The Yanks won the midfield and shut off virtually all of Wales attacks, but it was their strikes on goal that were missing.
Perhaps if Pulisic and Sargent had played or Jozy Altidore had come from the US to participate ( he was tied up with the MLS playoffs) the USA would have had more scoring chances with more attacking threats. As it was, the squad showed it’s ball skill, its confidence with ball possession and it’s energy to play hard even in a friendly in the middle of a hard-to-mange Covid-affected season. They clearly knew that they represent the future of American international men’s soccer and were eager to show what they could do. In the end, their potential was there for all to see even if it is still unrealized. Considering they had only two days preparation and were missing some integral parts, that potential is very real and that is just fine – for now.