There are about 400 lessons that fans were able to learn about the U.S. National Men’s team last night. And they spread across the spectrum of infinite hope of things we never imagined to accomplish and of total disaster that we are unfortunately all too familiar with. Projecting this team into the future, because of everything that has happened, is probably as hard as it was before the game with Mexico.
Where we should start is that for all its promise and pedigree this edition of the USMNT has now, with players scattered throughout Europe and in some of its most sacred places, has not even played well. At least not for a whole game. A large part of this could be attributed to playing only friendlies in a pandemic season that was a mess from start to finish. And there were flashbacks here or there in those friends. But more than 90 minutes into it, this U.S. list hasn’t been really close to putting it all together. International football is weird, and it’s almost impossible to put a united team together in a few days of practice with players flying from all over the place and playing with the different tactics and positions of their club.
The League of Nations was the first time we saw them with anything on the line, and some time together, but it didn’t change the questions much and they weren’t answered so well.
The United States is in one of the most awkward positions in international football. In their region, especially during qualifying, the U.S. men will be the team that will get the most out of the ball and will have to crush a bunkered-down defense. But when they get to the World Cup, if they get to the World Cup, that reverses and suddenly it will be the team on defense, trying to play at the counter. Few teams should be able to do both. Mexico does, and seeing as how their World Cup record isn’t really more impressive than that of the United States, it’s not something they’ve been able to break. In the past, the United States wasn’t really smart enough to beat teams consistently, and not fast or lethal enough to make teams pay at the counter. They should be now, and for both of them.
The United States will try both in these two games, and neither looks good. In Thursday’s semifinal, Honduras were only interested in defending and countering. But the United States seemed decidedly reluctant to attack and unable to break through.
Against Mexico, the United States has had to defend a lot more and try to counter, which shouldn’t be a major issue considering where Gio Reyna and Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent play nationally. And yet it was. And the reasons for the two struggles are the same. The midfield is very goofy.
We salivate at the thought of Reyna and Pulisic terrorizing teams from opposite wings, but that involves keeping them dancing consistently. And the United States could not do that, unless it was a fall too deep. The Hondurans have been actively trying to cut off every passing path from the defense to Jackson Yueill at the base of midfield, which has been much easier for Yueill showing all the mobility of a bot stop to try to catch the ball . But his midfield teammates Weston McKennie and Sebastian Lletget had already escaped among the forwards whether he had the ball or not. There was a big gap between the defense and the five attackers. It was just a row of five staring blankly at the back of the ball that they hadn’t gotten even the Honduran defense they couldn’t get past. That’s why we saw Reyna and Pulisic fall back and try to run along that line.
Manager Greg Berhalter shifted to 3-4-3 against Mexico, with the idea of Kellyn Acosta and McKennie being a double pivot in the middle. That worked in pieces, but overall it was pretty messy, because either the United States would win an attack or intercept the ball and donate it right away, or they just wouldn’t win the ball. Acosta isn’t really a defensive midfielder at this level, and McKennie would isolate him too much. When they looked dangerous they were the few times when they won the clean ball, and then ran with it through midfield and into the third attack.
The problem in both cases, strange as it may seem, is that McKennie doesn’t really have a position. In games against teams that will only try to defend the United States, it’s not really good for a passer to tie the game from midfield to attack. His touch isn’t so good at playing between midfield and defensive lines. In games where the United States wants to defend and fight, it’s not really good for a dealer. Think of it with his incredible energy and mobility that would be the U.S. version of N’Golo Kanté, a midfielder who plays the game of two or three players in one. But he doesn’t have those skills except to spin a lot.
What can turn around a lot can be its arrival in the box late and reaching the end of things, which leads to things like this:
While two of those are from certain angles, McKennie’s instincts and the aerial bow in the box are incalculably vital. That’s why their struggles, or just their inability to do much of everything a midfielder has to assume, are the price you pay for achieving the only thing that really matters, goals.
But it means everything has to be agreed, and the United States doesn’t have enough players now to do it. It depends too much on Tyler Adams, who plays a maintenance role and wasn’t fit enough to start both games in the League of Nations. And he would also need a third midfielder either to act as No. 10 (Aaron Aaronson, hello) with McKennie linking him to Adams, or someone to link Adams to McKennie as the most advanced midfielder. However, the United States still lacks anyone who can dictate the game with the ball in midfield. Put your foot down, as the British would say. Someone like Luca de la Torre, or what de la Torre has promised for a while now, but that actually makes the team the opposite of the Tower.
When both in defense and against, the United States would need another keeper in addition to Adams to help break the game, but that’s not really McKennie. And Yueill and Acosta spent the weekend proving that they aren’t either. And this is the international football. The guys get hurt, the guys lose shape, so putting all the eggs in a Tyler Adams-shaped basket has a huge risk.
It’s not the only problem, of course. We don’t even know if Berhalter is an imbecile, or not, of course, and his insistence on using Tim Ream first for everything and then exposing him completely in the second half with a step to a back four that led to the second goal of Mexico would have had to earn an immediate blow with an alligator. There isn’t even a central striker who can count. But the center of it all needs to be resolved first.