PHILADELPHIA — Gregg Berhalter didn’t like it. Liked the win. But 30 minutes later, didn’t like the tone.
His U.S. men’s national team had just beaten Curacao 1-0. With Lincoln Financial Field emptied, he marched up to a podium in its bowels to face questions. Probing questions. Questions laced with negativity.
Why did a starting 11 that was playing together for the third time look like they were playing together for the first time, was the gist of one.
Why was the team out of sync?
Your striker registered two shots. Is that satisfactory?
Finally, as his time in front of the microphone waned, he was asked to look ahead to Wednesday. To Jamaica. To the Gold Cup semifinal date that Sunday’s win set up. But first, he had a point to clarify.
“Despite the tone in here,” Berhalter said with a traceable edge in his voice, “we’re happy with the result.”
And in the end, it was sufficient – even if carbon copies of the performance likely won’t be going forward. Weston McKennie’s first-half goal proved decisive:
Sixty-five subsequent minutes, however, were scruffy, disjointed and stale. At times, they were worrying. On the whole, they were underwhelming.
Curacao, an island of 160,000, had several half-chances to equalize. It outpossessed the Americans. Outshot them, 15-10, with five efforts on goal to the USMNT’s three. It had Berhalter throwing on Omar Gonzalez as a third center back in place of a winger to cling to the slender advantage.
The postmatch angst, in that context, was justified. Berhalter, though, did have a point.
“You guys wanted us to go out here and beat them 5-0,” he said. But whereas his first nine games at the USMNT helm were primarily opportunities for learning and growth, Sunday was his first knockout match. It was for winning. And McKennie’s goal – a team-wide beauty – won it.
The U.S. goal was a worthy winner
McKennie’s header came at the end of a 14-pass move that Berhalter likely loved. Of course, nobody asked him about it, because second-half struggles overshadowed it. But it was nonetheless gorgeous.
The final five passes were especially excellent. Gyasi Zardes checked to the ball, and pulled Curacao’s right-sided center back with him. Michael Bradley found Zardes, who played first-time to Aaron Long.
Seconds later, Paul Arriola checked back toward the sideline, drawing Curacao’s other right-sided defender out as well. That left space for Christian Pulisic to run into.
Pulisic, found by a crisp pass from Tim Ream, then crossed for McKennie, who’d arrived to create an overload in the box at the back post. It’s a run, and a ball, that, according to McKennie, the two have drilled in training. “It’s one of my strengths, running into the box late,” the Schalke youngster said. “I always tell him, look for me.”
Pulisic was the best player on the field
To be fair to Berhalter and the U.S., they easily could have been 3-0 up by halftime. Much of their attacking thrust was Pulisic’s. He was the creative engine, as he should be.
Playing in his No. 10 position that allows him to drift wide, he was able to break down Curacao with both on- and off-ball movement. He nearly scored early from close range.
He also created the second big chance of the game by himself, carrying the ball half the length of the field in transition. His shot from the top of the box trickled comfortably wide, but the play exemplified one reason Berhalter prefers to play Pulisic centrally rather than as a winger: It makes him more dangerous on the break.
In the second half, Pulisic snuck into a similar area in semi-transition, and came closer:
But he, along with 10 teammates, relinquished control of the game as the half wore on. He couldn’t get on the ball. They, as a unit, couldn’t press effectively.
The question is how much of that muted, punchless press was by design; how much of it was structurally flawed; and how much of it was due to individual impotence.
The USMNT’s struggles
Berhalter had his explanations. First, for the USMNT’s stilted attack.
“Their midfielders were man-to-man against Weston and Christian,” he said of Curacao. “Our job was to move them out of position to now find Gyasi, or find one of our wingers in the pocket. Especially in the first half, there were times when that came off and it was OK. There were times when there wasn’t enough movement to execute that.”
That lack of movement was especially jarring in the second half.
#USMNT are playing so poorly in 2nd half, with too many situations like this. Bradley looking to play a pass, but nobody moving for him or creating space at all, and then McKennie eventually lost the ball. Way too slow, passive, predictable, and lifeless.#USAvCUW #GoldCup2019 pic.twitter.com/TRZvNwG14A— Joga Bonito (@Jasoninho10) July 1, 2019
On the other side of the ball, “it started with our pressing,” Berhalter said. He had a choice: Press high or concede deep possession. In the first half, he seemed to choose the former. But Curacao keeper Eloy Room, Berhalter explained, “was able to switch fields, find the free players. He’s able to cut it back against the pressing guy, find the free player. And we didn’t commit enough numbers forward to the press.”
Thus, in the second half, with a lead, “We weren’t gonna press the goalie,” Berhalter said. “We thought it would cost us more energy than it was worth. So we dropped off.
“When we had the lead, we have to make a decision: How do we approach the rest of this game? And we felt, when the goalie had the ball, if he didn’t want to play forward, we’re winning the game, so we’ll let him sit on the ball.”
Which is fine – but not the only reason the win was far more nervy than necessary. Even when the U.S. did pull back its line of confrontation, one pressing run didn’t set up the next – or, in many cases, wasn’t followed by the run it was supposed to set up. Curacao was able to play into and through its attackers.
The visitors had a stunning 58 percent of the ball after halftime. Their ascent culminated in a 20-yard Leandro Bacuna drive in the 84th minute that was destined for the top corner.
Zack Steffen’s flying save preserved the U.S. win ...
Which, again, is all that anybody will remember from Sunday – if they remember anything at all.
But now attention turns toward Wednesday, just as it did in the Linc’s news conference room. And Sunday’s performance didn’t exactly inspire confidence for the week ahead.
Minimizing Curacao to its Alexandria, Virginia-sized population is a bit unfair to both it and the USMNT. More than half of Curacao’s players, and most of the starting 11, were born in the Netherlands. They played some good, Dutch-style soccer that might have caught the U.S. off guard.
At times under Berhalter, McKennie and Pulisic have played simultaneously in advanced attacking midfield roles. On Sunday night more than ever before, McKennie was deep and right back Nick Lima was high. This, roughly, was the USMNT’s attacking shape:
At times, the forward line seemed a bit too flat and stagnant. Only when there was vertical movement from multiple players was the U.S. dangerous
Tyler Boyd had the worst game of his young U.S. men’s national team career. Jordan Morris replaced him on 63 minutes.
Berhalter, apparently possessed momentarily by Jill Ellis, only used one sub before second-half stoppage time. Given the trajectory of the game – and the semifinal looming in 70 hours – that wasn’t smart.
The U.S. had a clever set-piece routine foiled ... by the referee:
Zardes’ involvement in the goal wasn’t his only involvement. His link-up play was cleaner than usual. But it still wasn’t as impactful as Jozy Altidore’s. More on Jozy in a bit, but this team absolutely misses his creativity. He should start the semi if fit.
Walker Zimmerman’s distribution was a mixed bag. He gave away possession multiple times, and missed Pulisic badly once with a long ball when the U.S. No. 10 was in space. But he also played a pinpoint chip to Boyd that nearly resulted in a big U.S. chance. Boyd’s first touch, however, was neither close control nor square pass. But with the ball traveling over his right shoulder, either would have been a difficult skill to execute.
McKennie said he and Pulisic practiced their celebratory goal handshake/dance in their hotel room. According to folks much more in tune with pop culture trends than I, it appeared to be ... “The Woah”?
Pulisic was the fourth captain in four Gold Cup games. Berhalter talked postgame about the team’s “diversity of leadership.” He called Pulisic “a guy who can lead through performance,” and said he “readily accepted” the responsibility that comes with the armband.
McKennie – who many would say is the funniest guy on the team, and who might be a future captain himself – joked that the USMNT has a “special substance” in the captain’s armband. (Key word: joked.)
The attendance at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia was 26,233.
Berhalter rolled out what seems to be his first-choice lineup for the third time in four Gold Cup games. From back to front, right to left, in a 4-3-3 (subs in parentheses):
Zack Steffen; Nick Lima, Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Long, Tim Ream; Michael Bradley, Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic; Tyler Boyd (Jordan Morris), Gyasi Zardes, Paul Arriola (Omar Gonzalez).
The one exception to the “first-choice lineup” part might be Altidore, who supposedly came into the tournament at less than 100 percent match-fit. When asked Saturday whether Altidore was his first-choice striker if 100 percent match-fit, Berhalter said the following:
“I think that’s an impossible question to answer. There’s always competition for spots. You want guys to be performing well. I know Jozy is an outstanding player. I know he can really help this team. And I know he has a lot to give. But in terms of – I don’t think any player is guaranteed to start. It has to depend on their form. It has to depend on their fitness, and how they fit into the gameplan, and everything like that.”
As for why Altidore didn’t come on as a sub, Berhalter pointed to game state. “We were [looking for the second goal] in transition,” he said. “We didn’t think that Jozy was the best option if we were going to play a transition game.”
The U.S. gets Jamaica in the semis on Wednesday night in Nashville. The Reggae Boyz beat Panama 1-0 Sunday on a second-half penalty. They’ll be the toughest test the tournament has thrown at the U.S. thus far. But the Americans will be favored.
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