Sports

The USMNT’s Big Idea for Its Next World Cup Qualifiers

The Americans will be missing their two biggest stars. But they seem to have a plan.

Pepo and Aaronson running and smiling
Ricardo Pepi and Brenden Aaronson celebrate during their World Cup qualifier match against Honduras at Olimpico Metropolitano stadium, in San Pedro Sula, on Sept. 8. Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images

Where does the U.S. men’s national team go from here?

The Americans finished September’s three-game set of World Cup qualifiers with two draws and a win, earning five points and a tie for second in the standings. If World Cup qualifying ended today, the team would make it to the 2022 tournament. (World Cup qualifying is probably not going to end today, but considering we are still living in the fadeout of 2020’s final hammered chord, let’s never say never.) It’s a good place to be.

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Yet the route it took to get there was marred with detours and breakdowns. The team played two-and-a-half games of fitful, spasmodic soccer—failing to finish clear set piece looks against El Salvador and playing too passively at home against Canada—before a four-goal flurry in the second half against Honduras rescued America’s month in the standings, if not in the hearts of its fans.

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The end result is that the U.S. has spent an extra month in neutral. It was a substandard performance that led to a tolerable result in such a way as to make nearly all strong opinions feel excessive. Those who froth with anger over every decision coach Gregg Berhalter makes seem frenzied. Those (fewer, quieter) voices arguing it will probably all work out sound overconfident. Very few minds were changed by those first three games. The team remains poised between success and failure. On Thursday, it takes the plunge one way or the other.

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It will do so without key contributors. The two top American playmakers, Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna, will miss all three October games with injuries sustained on international duty in September. Center back John Brooks, one of the team’s most experienced veterans with 45 U.S. appearances, is injured as well. It’s suboptimal, especially for a team whose No. 1 priority against Jamaica on Thursday has to be maintaining the offensive momentum it finally generated in the final 45 minutes against Honduras.

The big idea for doing that is what Berhalter calls “verticality,” which has become a kind of theme of the month. Discussing the roster last week, this was the concept he hit on again and again when talking about who was selected and who was left at home. Forward Josh Sargent and striker Jordan Pefok didn’t make the cut because they didn’t offer enough of it. Forwards Tim Weah and Matthew Hoppe got the call because they do.

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Verticality as a term is still new enough to be a bit squishy around the edges, where different people might mean slightly different things in saying it. Some, maybe most, use it to describe tactical systems predicated on moving the ball forward as quickly as possible; Leeds United coach Marcelo Bielsa is the most famous proponent of this kind of controlled direct play. Berhalter’s usage is related but not exactly the same. Verticality as he uses it describes an attribute he wants to see from his players: a willingness to attack the space behind a defense by timing runs toward the goal behind the last defender, opening themselves up to receive the kinds of passes that might be played in a vertical system. Think of a foosball game. Those figures lack this kind of verticality, but bubble hockey players can have it.

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Which is something the U.S. struggled with in September. The field was full of players who wanted to check to the ball, compressing the space the defense had to cover, leading to too many backward and sideways passes and not enough passes forward into dangerous areas. Pulisic, Sergiño Dest, and Reyna in the one game before his injury prefer to get the ball in front of the defense and then figure out how to beat them. The threat of a player running in behind makes it easier for this kind of player to work, forcing defenders to stand off a bit to protect the space between the defense and the goal and giving the attacker more room to work with. The defense is pulled in two different directions at once, and has to give up space somewhere. This is why you’re legally required in backyard football games to tell at least one receiver to “go long.”

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Berhalter attempted to rejigger his battered roster on the fly last month into something that threatened further upfield. He tried Sargent, a center forward, out wide in the first half against Honduras, but rather than push the defense back, he kept coming inside into the zone occupied by once and future king Ricardo Pepi, muddling the space like a basketball team without enough shooting. Sargent was pulled at halftime for Brenden Aaronson, while left back George Bello was replaced with Antonee Robinson. Both are players more comfortable attacking space than those they replaced, and their introduction unclogged the U.S. offense, leading to Robinson almost immediately finding the equalizer. By the end of the game, with the Honduran defense gassed, these players feasted.

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But talking about playing that way is not the same as executing it. Berhalter has mentioned his desire for more verticality multiple times in the past year and lamented his roster’s lack of it in September even before the games were played. It’s not as simple as switching out a few players. Aaronson started against El Salvador; both he and Robinson started against Canada, and neither game was a goal bonanza, even if the pair did combine to net one against the Canadians. Finding players attacking that vulnerable space has to be a team-wide endeavor, and the U.S. can sometimes suffer when its best players are unwilling to attempt it.

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But the U.S. might be better suited to pulling it off during this window of games. The return of Weston McKennie after his suspension from the last camp; the inclusion of teenager Yunus Musah, who missed September’s games with an injury; and the arrival of midfielder Luca de la Torre gives the U.S. a trio of midfielders capable of nudging the first domino that might lead toward a defense’s collapse. None of them are showy assist merchants. Instead, de la Torre’s skillset is built on a foundation of a quick first step upon receiving the ball, forcing defenses to shift to meet him. Musah too has excelled at making his first defender miss in his handful of appearances in a U.S. shirt. Once that happens and the next guy steps up to cover him, spaces start to emerge for Aaronson, Weah, and Pepi to attack. A midfield that can give itself time to hit those passes to vertical runners can make them look more like deliberate through balls and less like too-hopeful long balls—the kind that the U.S. defense kept trying in the September window. If the team can find those gaps quickly enough, then another opposing defender has to leave his position, opening up another opportune space. Hit three or four of these passes in quick succession, and you get the running downhill sensation where a goal feels inevitable.

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Yes, it would be nice if the U.S. had its most creative passers—Pulisic and Reyna—this month to play their part in that chain, but even with them, the U.S. couldn’t generate enough of those moments in September. Instead, it scored three of its four goals in that half against Honduras without Reyna, who was already hurt, or Pulisic, who left injured during the game.

The U.S. isn’t better without these players—that’s a counterintuitive step too far—but if it learns how to attack space at speed without them, it can be better when they do return, hopefully in time for the game against Mexico in November. The only way for the U.S. to go from here is forward. Can it figure out how to get the ball there?

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