Nitpicking aside, Gregg Berhalter’s first three games as U.S. national team coach really couldn’t have gone much better. The Americans won all three matches, making Berhalter just the second coach in the program’s 106-year history to accomplish the feat, along with Bob Bradley. They didn’t concede a goal, outscoring Panama, Costa Rica and Ecuador 6-0 on aggregate along the way.
Honeymoons always end eventually, however. And when a depleted U.S. team takes the field against two-time defending South American champion Chile in Houston on Tuesday, it will undoubtedly mark the toughest test yet for Berhalter’s new-look squad — and not just because the Copa America holders boast a stacked and experienced roster headlined by Barcelona midfielder Arturo Vidal.
“We know that they’re a really, really good team that will come out and press us hard,” winger Jordan Morris told reporters on Sunday. “They’re a very high-pressing team and they work hard collectively. They’re going to present a really good challenge for us.”
Hired in December over a year after the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Berhalter has been trying to remake the team in his own image. He immediately set about onboarding the sometimes-risky possession-based system that was the staple of his stylish Columbus Crew teams from 2014-18.
The scheme worked as advertised against the Panama and Costa Rica earlier this year, when Berhalter had only MLS players at his disposable. With his entire player pool finally available for this current FIFA window, a full-strength U.S. side enjoyed even more of the ball last Thursday in Orlando versus Ecuador, which opted to sit deep and look for counterattacking opportunities instead of attempting to keep the ball themselves.
But Chile, which lost 3-1 to Mexico on Friday, won’t be anywhere near as passive. And that could make life extremely difficult for the home team, which is still very much finding its feet under a new regime and will be without two key players in 20-year-olds Weston McKennie (ankle) and Tyler Adams (released to his club). “Chile,” said midfielder Paul Arriola, “is a completely different team than Ecuador.”
Berhalter knows it. With just one more friendly remaining before he has to settle on 23 players for this summer’s important CONCACAF Gold Cup, the coach is as eager as anyone to find out exactly how his side will respond.
“I would expect [Chile] to be pressing very high, very often, and it’s up to us to take advantage of that,” Berhalter said during Monday’s pre-match press conference. “What I mean by that is we need to be brave enough to play, we need to make them expend energy.
“We want to be able to play through pressure,” Berhalter continued. “We know there’s going to be times where it’s going to be difficult. We want to set up to give them problems and then it’s just about the right moments that we’re able to play through them and get opportunities. That’s the key.”
There will be at least three changes to Berhalter’s lineup. Sebastian Lletget or Cristian Roldan will vie to take McKennie’s spot alongside Christian Pulisic in central midfield. Nick Lima or DeAndre Yedlin will be expected to replace Adams at right back. And Berhalter announced Monday that Ethan Horvath would play in goal after the 23-year-old backed up Sean Johnson last week.
Other moves are also possible. Lack of continuity is a legitimate concern. Still, the U.S. has to be encouraged by blood rival Mexico’s performance against the Chileans. The last time those two foes met on U.S. soil, at the 2016 Copa America Centenario, El Tri lost 7-0. As far as Berhalter is concerned, being able to beat the first Roja defender with a forward pass or a quick run off a dribble is imperative.
“You need to continue to break lines,” Berhalter said. “When Mexico did that, they were really successful, and ended up in some goal-scoring opportunities.”
Having a plan is one thing. Executing it is another, especially for a rebuilding team. The Americans don’t want to lose sight of that bigger picture, however it goes in Texas.
“It’s another experience for the group, another 90 minutes to work on things to start to get a feel for each other, to build on the things that we’ve been working on in training,” veteran Michael Bradley said. “We expect things on Tuesday night to get ramped up even another notch.”
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