Sports

What’s Wrong With the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team

The team isn’t totally broken. Gregg Berhalter’s scheme might be.

Gregg Berhalter with a bewildered look on his face.
USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter looks on before the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup final against Mexico at Soldier Field in Chicago on July 7.
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The silver lining, when Gregg Berhalter was installed last year as the head coach of the U.S. men’s national soccer team after a frustratingly protracted and opaque hiring process, was that for the first time in eight years the team looked set to have a coherent tactical identity. Berhalter’s Columbus Crew teams always punched above their weight in Major League Soccer, and they did so largely thanks to a clever system designed to unbalance defenses and create easy chances. If he could bring some of that strategic thinking to a team that had looked starved of it, the thinking went, then the young and promising American player pool would be well-positioned to recover from last cycle’s World Cup qualifying disaster.

It’s a lesson to be careful what you wish for. Berhalter has installed his scheme and, after some tweaks––the hybrid right back/defensive midfielder role has been shelved for the time being––seems to have gotten it close to what he envisioned. The fundamentals have remained the same in each of the Americans’ last five games. Alas, the U.S. has lost three of those, two to archrival Mexico (1–0 and 3–0) and, most frustratingly, one last month to Canada (2–0), the first U.S. loss to its northern neighbor since the 1980s. The team finally has a System, but it’s beginning to look as though U.S. Soccer bet big on Betamax.

All of which appeared to make Friday’s rematch against Canada a must-win for Berhalter and his team. The coach called it that himself in a letter to fans apologizing for the USMNT’s recent loss, though U.S. men’s general manager Earnie Stewart contradicted that message earlier this week, telling reporters Berhalter’s job was safe regardless of what happened against Canada and Cuba this month. To be fair, news since the Canada loss had been mostly good. Berhalter and U.S. Soccer secured the commitment of Ajax’s 19-year-old fullback prospect Sergiño Dest last month, beating out the Netherlands. Star winger Christian Pulisic has recently been in $73 million form for Chelsea and looked ready to rebound from a disappointing showing with the national team in October, right up until it was announced that he would miss this round of games with a hip injury. Without the team’s most dangerous player, the System may struggle to create chances for a U.S. roster loaded with more function than flair. But that was always the point of Berhalter’s approach, and now it either has to work or be discarded. If Berhalter proves unwilling to treat his favored tactics as a sunk cost, then U.S. Soccer will need to consider treating the coach as one instead, no matter how many votes of confidence his bosses have given him.

The charitable explanation for the U.S. men’s recent struggles is that they’re still on the upward arc of a steep learning curve. The System looks complex because it is. The team attacks in preplanned patterns of movement. Off-ball runs and passes are worked out in practice so they can be executed at speed on the field. (This feels like a very American football way of trying to play, but many top teams drill at least some limited sequences now.) Players have to keep the ball, then get on the same page as their teammates about what happens next. This takes time to orchestrate.

Unfortunately, national team coaches get only a few days with their charges during each international break, and, as For the Win’s Nate Scott argued, those windows might never be capacious enough to implement what Berhalter wants. That means competitive games are treated as teachable moments. Berhalter continued having his team play out of the back against a lurking Mexico in September in the hopes that it would help the players learn how to break the press in future games. If the Canada result is anything to go by, Berhalter’s teaching didn’t promote much learning.

Perhaps, even within the limits of the international schedule, the U.S. can attain some level of proficiency, and all that time waxing floors and painting fences and hitting cross-field diagonals to the wingers will turn the Americans into a formidable force. Right now, though, it looks like opponents have got the System’s number. The book on beating the U.S. has been out for so long that coaches can get it in paperback by now. All they have to do is press and harass the U.S. defenders, clog the center of the field with as many bodies as possible, and wait for the American apparatus to rattle itself apart.

Chile’s Arturo Vidal found whole homesteads’ worth of space in front of the U.S. defense when the two teams drew 1–1 in March. Mexico smothered the USMNT’s attempts to build out of the back in both its wins this summer. Canada pinched its midfield narrow and passed around the stranded U.S. midfielders over and over again in its win. Whatever adjustments might have been necessary haven’t happened. The team looks like it’s trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube while its opponents are smashing the same toy with a hammer: They’re not playing the same game, and only one of them is causing any problems for the other.

Berhalter wants to be able to hurt opponents with the ball, but in attempting to do so, he has ceded the other game states to the opposition. The defense looks underprotected at the best of times, but is even more vulnerable in transition after the U.S. loses the ball because the team’s forwards and midfielders rarely win it back high up the field. And because the U.S. doesn’t generate midfield turnovers of its own, it rarely gets a chance to hit a scrambled defense on the break.

All this comes down to ball-winning in central midfield, as MLSSoccer.com’s Matt Doyle points out. Berhalter has prioritized passers in his deepest midfield role: the likes of Wil Trapp, Michael Bradley, and most recently Jackson Yueill. Consequently, the team has put up minimal resistance to teams playing through the most dangerous parts of the park. As countless fans and critics have rightly pointed out, the U.S. no longer feels difficult to play against.

So, if not this, then what? There are a number of alternate universes where Berhalter wasn’t hired that offer possibilities he might bring to bear in this nonalternate universe. Former Atlanta United (and Barcelona and Argentina) manager Tata Martino was an oft-mooted candidate who was never interviewed. He took the Mexico job instead, and his team is running rampant over everyone except longtime national bugaboo Argentina, pressing hard when the opportunity presents itself and throwing numbers forward in attack to either hunt gaps in the defense or pry them open with dribble take-ons and quick passing combinations.

This might be beyond the American player pool, split as it is between aging veterans and promising youngsters, but it’s far from the only way to seize a match by the scruff of the neck. One of the other early favorites for the job was Jesse Marsch. The former New York Red Bulls head coach all but took himself out of the running when he left New York to work as an assistant in Germany––perhaps he saw the writing on the wall––and this season he has led Red Bull Salzburg to the top of the Austrian Bundesliga with a plus-44 goal differential while playing competitive matches against powerhouses Liverpool and Napoli in the Champions League.

Marsch’s New York teams earned their success via their aggressive press, chasing the ball deep into the opponent’s territory and then going directly for goal as soon as they won it. His Red Bulls were something of the opposite of the U.S. under Berhalter, focusing heavily on the defensive and transition phases and earning a reputation for being frustrating to play against. It’s a style that seems well-suited to U.S. soccer culture as it stands today, adapting the hard-running and sheer bloody-mindedness that defined successful U.S. teams of yore into a more modern and proactive style than the old bunker and counter.

The argument against moving to a style based on pressing is that those New York teams often struggled to break down defenses that sat deep and surrendered the ball to them, much like the ones the U.S. has grown used to seeing from its Central American and Caribbean opponents. It’s also difficult to implement in the time constraints of the international calendar. If a cue is missed or a rotation botched, there’s a lot of space for opponents to run into.

But most of the center backs in the U.S. pool excel when defending on the front foot. Pulisic still looks more comfortable attacking scrambling defenses than set ones; he has excelled in the past month for a Chelsea team that does try to press, and that sends numbers forward into attack to a sometimes ludicrous degree. (Chelsea has kept a clean sheet just four times out of 19 games in all competitions this season.) Before he got hurt last spring, defensive midfielder Tyler Adams looked like the paddle from Pong, ranging across the field to bounce opponents’ attacks right back at them. The team, as it stands presently, looks like it would be better served making the game chaotic and seizing opportunities out of that chaos rather than devoting its energy to holding its head coach’s vision of order together against both entropy and sabotage. Give these young players the hammer, not the Rubik’s Cube.

For much of the fall, Berhalter has been throwing paper over and over again and wondering why it can’t beat his opponents’ scissors. In the rematch against Canada on Friday, he either has to figure out how to inject some more aggression into his System, or else U.S. Soccer might need to find a rock it can switch to.