NEW YORK — New U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter knows exactly how he wants his national team to play: by passing the ball, building from the back, and forcing other teams to chase them around the field.
It’s the system he used to help the frugal Columbus Crew punch above their weight in MLS over the last five seasons. It’s the style that ultimately sold USMNT general manager Earnie Stewart on Berhalter and landed the 45-year-old former U.S. defender his dream job.
The question is, how realistic is it for the technically challenged U.S. player pool to play a possession-based system? With just one proven elite attacker available in 20-year-old Christian Pulisic, will they actually be capable of keeping the ball on the ground? And not against not just the sorts of global juggernauts — the Brazils, the Belgiums — they’re likely to meet, should they qualify, for the 2022 World Cup, but also on terrible fields in places like, say, Trinidad, where they’ll have to win to make it to Qatar?
“I’m excited to see if we can,” Berhalter told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday, his first day on the job. “There’s nothing I can envision more than playing against a big team and unbalancing them, hurting them, making them chase the ball. If we can stick to positional principles, and we can execute in one-two touches, will be able to do some damage.”
Those are bold words. In the Americans two most recent friendlies, November losses in Europe to England and Italy, the young U.S. squad was chasing shadows. The Three Lions had a 60-40 possession edge at Wembley. Against Italy it was even worse, with the Azzurri keeping the ball a whopping 73 percent of the match.
“Will it be more difficult against the Italys of the world, or Germany or England? Yes,” Stewart said in an interview after Berhalter was unveiled at a gala Manhattan press conference. “I get that. But in the end, I don’t necessarily believe because we’re playing England or Brazil we’re going to sit back. Because I can tell you what’s going to happen: you’ll win one out of 20 games.”
The bigger question, then, is how can Berhalter get the U.S. to be the “attacking team” he wants at the highest level. How will they be able to ping the ball around high-pressing foes when the field conditions aren’t optimal? It’s not like this has never been tried before. After Jurgen Klinsmann was hired in 2011, his first presser, which took place about two miles from Tuesday’s event, was filled with promises about how he was going to transform the USA from a team that had long relied (with relative success) on a defend-and-counter approach to a more “proactive” and stylish side.
That experiment didn’t work out so well. Over time, the U.S. eventually reverted to its default under Klinsmann, most notably in a 2-1 extra-time loss to Belgium in the knockout stage of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. But Klinsmann also liked to change things on the fly and struggled mightily to transmit a consistent and coherent message to his players, who were often left to figure things out on their own. The result was a team that rarely was on the same page. In that way, Berhalter is Klinsmann’s polar opposite.
“The implementation of the system is something Gregg is top-notch at,” Stewart said. “Our players will understand what their roles and responsibilities are. As long as we keep to our roles and people start to believe, we’ll be in good shape.”
The idea will be to paper over any technical deficiencies in the player pool by putting an emphasis on team cohesion and smart decision-making above everything else, while also deploying Pulisic in spots where his individual skills can hurt the opponent the most. The U.S. won’t be a one-man show, however.
“When I say attacking team, I think it’s every position on the field,” Berhalter said. “We want players, even the goalkeeper, playing offense. I think that’s really important. Because it enables us to make the field big, to create more space for ourselves and it makes the opponent run more. I believe we can do it because I believe we can train it. And I believe the players are smart enough.”
It’s not without its risks. Playing with the ball can be like playing with fire: dangerous. Pushing fullbacks high can leave big spaces in the back; during the early part of Berhalter’s tenure in Columbus, the Crew were especially vulnerable to counterattacks, although they got better over the last two years.
“Our structure improved to prevent passes coming centrally. That funnels the opponent to the outside,” said Berhalter, who also noted the importance of his forwards and attacking midfielders pressuring the ball in unison to unsettle defenders. “It’s a combination of the entire group having a structure, sticking to the structure and moving together.”
“We need to make it simple for our players,” Stewart added. “It’s about getting in the right positions and then creating those opportunities where they make the right choices and get to the right places. As long as we have a system where people understand what they need to do, then we’re going to be in good shape. If player X doesn’t move, that means something for player Y and Z. But if everyone’s doing what they’re supposed to, now you have options. Then it’s about trying to do that at the highest speed that there is.”
Berhalter is well aware that there will be challenges at first. He won’t see his players on a daily basis, as he did at club level. Some of them he’s yet to speak to at all. That will change in short order. Berhalter is scheduled to start calling players on Wednesday. He’ll attend MLS Cup in Atlanta this weekend, then jet off to Europe to meet some key members of his new squad in person for the first time.
“I think really getting to know them face-to-face and talking to them about their expectations about what the program is and getting and getting commitment from them, quite honestly [is important],” Berhalter said. “I think our job is to get 23 committed players.”
The success of his system could depend on it.
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