19 USMNT things we learned (or didn't learn) at the 2019 Gold Cup

CHICAGO, IL - JULY 07: Christian Pulisic of USA walks past the CONCACAF Gold Cup trophy after USA's 0-1 defeat to Mexico in the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final between Mexico and United States of America at Soldier Field on July 7, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)
Christian Pulisic and the USMNT fell to Mexico in the Gold Cup final. (Getty)

CHICAGO — The United States men’s national team entered the 2019 Gold Cup with two objectives. One was to win. And on a fiery night at Soldier Field on Sunday, it failed to do that.

The first major tournament of the Gregg Berhalter era, however, was anything but an abject failure. Because the second objective was to learn. And that the USMNT certainly did. Players learned Berhalter’s system. He learned about them.

And over eight games – two friendlies, six competitive ones – we learned as well.

Those learnings are the subject of this Gold Cup epilogue, a look at both answers and questions that the past month unearthed.

1. The U.S. should qualify for 2022 comfortably

Let’s begin from 10,000 feet. The Gold Cup told us very little about the USMNT’s ability to reach, say, the 2022 World Cup quarterfinals. But the systematic breaking down of inferior opponents was encouraging with respect to qualifiers and the CONCACAF Nations League.

The U.S. controlled games and attacked purposefully. It was relatively impervious to counters. There’s a slight outstanding worry that Central American and Caribbean pitches could disrupt Greggy Ball – as the Total Soccer Show has dubbed it. But gone are the days of USMNTs running around those fields cluelessly. This one has a plan. The possession-based approach will help it dispatch lesser foes – as it did over the past three weeks.

2. The big picture remains murky

It is still wholly unproven, however, against World Cup-caliber teams. And that has been the concern all along with a system predicated on “disorganizing the opponent,” as Berhalter puts it, with spacing and ball circulation in possession.

To this end, the Mexico game provided both positive and negative indicators. We’ll dig into both below. My main long-term takeaway, though, was that the Americans’ willingness to shift their approach and play more direct was reassuring. Berhalter is far from a proverbial one-trick pony.

3. The adaptability of Berhalter’s system

The biggest lesson from the past month is Berhalter’s flexibility. There had been a concern among some that the new boss was married to specific formations, and to roles and ideas within them; that his commitment to that ideal would govern team selection; and that it would restrict his use of an already thin player pool. Club managers – which Berhalter had been his entire coaching career – can mold their roster to their preferred systems. National team managers work with what they’re offered, and therefore often must mold roles to suit players. Was Berhalter willing to do that? Could he adjust within the system?

The answer is yes.

Berhalter has a favored attacking shape. It’s what we’ll call a 3-2-4-1. (It’s also been termed a 3-2-2-3 or 3-2-5.) Earlier this year, the USMNT would morph into it via a “hybrid” right back who’d “invert” into midfield, turning a base 4-1-4-1 into the 3-2-4-1.

Berhalter went into June with Tyler Adams earmarked for that role. Then he lost the do-it-all 20-year-old to injury. He realized Nick Lima and Reggie Cannon were better as traditional, vertical right backs. So he adjusted. Gradually, throughout the tournament. Right backs pushed high, into the space previously occupied by wingers – who, rather than hugging the sideline, began tucking inside. Weston McKennie, the right-sided attacking midfielder, began dropping into the space Adams would have “inverted” into. And ... voilà – the 3-2-4-1 was alive and well.

Numbers by position: GK (1); RB (2), CB (5), CB (4), LB (3); DM (6), CM (8), AM (10); RW (11), ST (9), LW (7). (Animation: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports via tactical-board.com)
Numbers by position: GK (1); RB (2), CB (5), CB (4), LB (3); DM (6), CM (8), AM (10); RW (11), ST (9), LW (7). (Animation: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports via tactical-board.com)

In fact, in the Panama game, the U.S. had a third method for getting into it. From the 20th minute onward, defensive midfielder Wil Trapp would drop between the center backs. Both fullbacks would get forward. Both wingers would look for space infield. (See animation above.)

With Tim Ream, a natural center back, at left back in every other game, the U.S. played asymmetrically. Ream would stay at home with the central defenders to create the back three. But with Daniel Lovitz in for him, and capable attackers at both fullback positions, Berhalter tailored the rotations to his players’ strengths.

4. Has The Pulisic Question been answered?

Berhalter also tailored the No. 10 position to the No. 10’s strengths. I wrote about that at length heading into the semifinal. The semi and the final drove home the answer to The Christian Pulisic Question even further. His best position with the U.S.? It’s whatever he makes it.

Nominally, it’s a central position. But as Berhalter would say, Pulisic “interprets” that central position differently than others. He interchanges with Paul Arriola. He darts diagonally, in-to-out, when Arriola checks toward the ball, a run we’re hereby naming the “Pulisic run.”

Movements like that bring out his winger qualities. His starting position brings out his central playmaking qualities. His defensive position alongside the striker brings out his counterattacking qualities – a crucial, under-discussed aspect of this debate. When the U.S. bypasses midfield, he can play off the central striker and gallop at goal.

I used to be a “play him wide, especially against bad teams” guy. After the Gold Cup, I’m a “play him central” convert.

5. Defensive problems are in the details, not the shape

I’ve gotten questions and heard chatter about the shortcomings of, or even holes in, the U.S. defensive shape. And, to be honest, I’m confused. The Americans conceded two goals in 540 minutes of soccer. That’s ... good? I think?

The shape in question is a base 4-4-2, or 4-2-2-2, with Pulisic and the striker leading the press, and McKennie and Michael Bradley below them. It wasn’t the problem against Mexico. Actually, the problem was that the shape wasn’t enough of a 4-4-2 late on. When Mexico’s defensive midfielder, Edson Alvarez, would drop between the center backs in possession, the U.S. would go man-for-man. The striker would slide to the middle of a line of three. The right winger would step up and press Hector Moreno, Mexico’s left center back.

(Original video: Fox Sports 1)
(Original video: Fox Sports 1)

This created a chain reaction. Right back Reggie Cannon would charge at Mexico’s left back. Matt Miazga, the USMNT’s right center back, would rotate over to Mexico’s left winger.

That left Bradley and McKennie 2-v-2 – or sometimes 2-v-3 – in midfield. But only because Christian Roldan, for example, was playing like a third forward instead of a midfielder:

(Original video: Fox Sports 1 | Illustrations: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
(Original video: Fox Sports 1 | Illustrations: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

That’s the buildup to the goal, which was mostly on McKennie. But a staid 4-4-2, with Roldan tucking in from the weak side, also could have prevented it.

The point here is that no shape inherently does or doesn’t work. Effectiveness is determined by execution of it and details within it. The right winger’s defensive role wasn’t coherent on Sunday. Especially not in the second half, when legs got heavy and long pressing runs wore down already-worn players. The whole point of inserting Roldan was supposedly to shore up midfield ... yet he defended exactly how Jordan Morris defended.

This is a fixable problem, though. A detail within the 4-4-2, a small tweak to make against some opponents and ignore against others. And there will be other tweaks over the coming months and years as well. There’s no need for an overhaul.

6. Individual shortcomings weren’t glaring, but will be

In general, the vast majority of U.S. shortcomings – at the Gold Cup, and beyond – were and are personnel-related. They’re occasionally exacerbated by unfamiliarity with the system. I stand by most of what I wrote after the Venezuela game, even if some of it was overreactive: By 21st century USMNT standards, this crop of players simply isn’t that good. Not good enough to win Gold Cups, probably not good enough to get out of an average World Cup group.

Of course, that sounds ridiculous, because the USMNT was good enough to win this Gold Cup. Three players who absolutely aren’t the problem – Pulisic, McKennie and Altidore – came up short in Sunday’s three biggest moments. But play that game a few more times – especially with both teams at full strength – and a small gulf in class would become clear.

7. Weston McKennie’s bumpy growth

McKennie wasn’t great against Mexico. He was awesome against Jamaica. He was sloppy against Curacao. He also scored the winner against Curacao. In five games, he was all over the place – in good ways and bad.

But that’s expected of a 20-year-old. The mental lapses, the occasional discomfort in a complex system. It’s all par for the course. The most important development was McKennie’s grasp on his role. I wrote about that at length last week:

McKennie opened the Gold Cup as something close to a No. 10. He was pushing high, lurking in between lines, looking to receive a forward pass on the half-turn and play another one. It’s a role he enjoys ... but one that constrained him.

Since, he has dropped deeper, from a Christian Pulisic-adjacent position to more of a Michael Bradley-adjacent one. And it has unleashed him. Opened up his soccer toolbox.

It diversified his attacking game, and put an enforcer beside Bradley to keep Bradley protected. You can read the piece for a full breakdown, but the takeaway is this: Despite the inconsistency, Berhalter seems to have found McKennie’s best role. Now, if only Schalke would play him in it too.

8. Sunday’s contradictions

The most interesting aspect of the Mexico undoing were postgame explanations for it. As detailed here, everyone agreed the U.S. lost control of the game. Where players and coach seemed to differ was on what they should have done differently.

Toward the end of the first half, Mexico started winning direct balls and coming right back down the USMNT’s throat. Berhalter, therefore, wanted his team to keep the ball; to use possession to halt the rising tide; to play his way.

Some players, however, felt they could have doubled down on route one instead.

This, as I wrote, is essentially a status report on the Berhalter era:

Until Sunday, Berhalter’s process had been humming. At half-empty American football stadiums, in front of pro-U.S. crowds, against inferior opponents, the U.S. rarely wavered from the boss’ approach. His teachings overrode their past tendencies, the freshly instilled philosophies uninfected by circumstance.

On Sunday, that changed. Discomfort crept in. So did human nature.

Inside players’ brains, in a way, there was likely tension: between what they knew and what they’d been told. In more serene environments, they had been able to adhere to coaches’ advice. In front of 50,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans with immortal vocal cords, the beer in their cups waiting to fly, adherence was much more difficult.

Some might view the postgame contradictions as problematic. But there was rationale on both sides. Route One, after all, had worked early. As long as coach-player disagreement is measured, reasoned, and communicated properly, it can actually be healthy.

9. So ... the striker position

The most puzzling aspect of the entire month was Berhalter’s management of his striker rotation. Altidore is, to almost anyone with a lick of soccer knowledge, easily the best American at the position. He’s the team’s second-best playmaker. His hold-up play is vital. And yet ... he only got more than 65 minutes once all tournament – in the meaningless final group match against Panama, with the reserves.

There were rumblings early on about fitness, but Altidore played 90 minutes for Toronto FC before arriving at U.S. camp last month. Berhalter eventually confirmed that Altidore was “exactly where we need him to be,” and had “been ready to play.”

OK, so load management, then?

After the final, Altidore stopped to chat with print/online media for the first time all tournament. Presuming he’d had discussions with Berhalter about load management, I asked him: “What went into the way that your minutes and playing time were managed throughout the tournament?”

His reply: “I don’t know.”

In response to a follow-up, he confirmed he was fit.

So ... we have absolutely no idea what Berhalter thinks of his striker rotation going forward. I asked Berhalter ahead of the quarterfinal whether Altidore was his No. 1 striker if fully match-fit. He gave a non-committal answer. If I had to pick my biggest criticism of Berhalter at his first official competition, his management of Altidore would be it.

Even if he was saving Altidore for the semifinal and final, he didn’t give Altidore a chance to build up his match fitness. Or, he yanked a gas-tank-still-full Altidore in the 64th minute of a tie game. Or he doesn’t rate Altidore significantly ahead of Zardes. Either way, he was or is wrong.

10. Tyler Boyd emerged ... then disappeared

We also have no idea why Tyler Boyd didn’t see the field in the semifinal or final. (I’m told he was not injured.) Starting Morris, for his direct off-ball running, made complete sense. Using Roldan and Lovitz off the bench in the final ahead of Boyd did not.

In the short time we got to see the New Zealander, he seemed to have more upside than any other winger on the Gold Cup roster – though Arriola is better at present.

11. The player who helped himself the most ...

... was Aaron Long. He barely put a foot wrong. He solidified himself as a starting center back, even when – er, if – John Brooks gets healthy.

12. Who else helped or hurt their stock?

The most pleasant surprise was Reggie Cannon, who went from not on the roster to 21st-birthday call-up to one of the USMNT’s better players in the final.

Miazga was also excellent on Sunday after appearing to be second-choice through the quarterfinals (and after some lax marking on the Jamaica goal in the semis). Then again, the U.S. didn’t concede a single goal with Walker Zimmerman on the field.

That positional battle in the center of defense probably speaks to a larger point: There are very few starting spots locked down for the foreseeable future. Probably only four. New players will be integrated in the fall. Competition for places is legitimate, especially as the attention now turns toward qualifying.

13. Zack Steffen, U.S. No. 1

One of those aforementioned four is goalkeeper. We didn’t necessarily “learn” that Zack Steffen is the No. 1, but the Gold Cup confirmed it. (Oh, hey, shameless plug for our feature on him.)

14. The vibe

The U.S. men are nothing like the U.S. women when it comes to personality and camaraderie. (In fact, the contrast can be pretty stark at times.) But the vibe around the team was generally good throughout the tournament. Players are receptive to Berhalter’s ideas and management style. They’re not all buddy-buddy, but for the most part get along with one another. There were no rumblings of rifts.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA - JUNE 30: Weston Mckennie #8 of the United States (L) celebrates his goal with teammate Christian Pulisic #10 against Curacao during the first half of the CONCACAF Gold Cup Quarterfinals match at Lincoln Financial Field on June 30, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic are friends off the field and (dance) partners in crime on it. (Getty)

McKennie, a self-described “social butterfly,” is often at the center of it all. Most would tell you he’s the funniest guy of the 23 – though he has a serious side too. His ability to connect with people is one of several reasons he captained the team in a final at age 20.

15. Berhalter’s captaincy rotation

Berhalter chose a new captain for each of the six games. It was Bradley, then Steffen, then Omar Gonzalez, then Pulisic, then Ream, then McKennie. It’s not a completely novel approach, but did raise eyebrows.

Most captaincies, though, are symbolic anyway. The idea behind this scheme is that there isn’t one figure that others feel compelled to gravitate toward or fall in line with. Bradley, in a traditional sense, is probably the captain. But the whole point of what Berhalter calls “diversity of leadership” is that there isn’t one singular, domineering voice.

Which, I guess, is all to say that this isn’t an issue – especially not three-and-a-half years out from a World Cup.

16 The big question: Where does Adams fit in?

As we turn our attention forward, and do some projecting of the future, the biggest question concerns Adams. He’s a sure-fire starter. Is he still a right back in Berhalter’s eyes? Meaning we’d revert to the “inverted” right back? Or is he a central midfielder, where he plays at club level?

There’s no easy answer, in part because of the alternatives. Adams’ place in midfield would likely be the one currently occupied by Bradley – who, like him or not, is still one of the USMNT’s better players. Right back, meanwhile, is suddenly one of the team’s deepest positions, with Lima and Cannon both looking capable and DeAndre Yedlin returning from injury in the fall.

We’ve seen Berhalter’s flexibility. We’ll see what he does here.

17. The current starting XI

What’s the USMNT’s starting lineup right now, if everybody’s healthy and a game against a team of Mexico’s caliber must be won tomorrow?

I’ll go: Zack Steffen; Tyler Adams, Aaron Long, John Brooks, Tim Ream; Michael Bradley, Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic; DeAndre Yedlin, Jozy Altidore, Paul Arriola.

18. Who from the Gold Cup will be in Qatar?

Let’s frame the long-term look-ahead this way: Which players from the Gold Cup 23 are we more than 50 percent confident will be at the 2022 World Cup?

My list: Steffen, Long, Miazga, Bradley, McKennie, Pulisic, Arriola, Altidore.

(That’s eight. For what it’s worth, eight of the 23 from the 2011 Gold Cup made the 2014 World Cup roster. This time, the gap is five months longer. But this time, hopefully, the coach is the same.)

19. What about 2022 starters?

Similar question to wrap this up: Which players from the Gold Cup 23 are we more than 50 percent confident will start a 2022 World Cup opener?

Factoring in the slim possibility the U.S. doesn’t qualify, my list cuts off at four: Steffen, Long, McKennie, Pulisic.

USA's Christian Pulisic (L) and Wesdtron McKennie (C) celebrate their 3-1 victory over Jamaica at the end of their 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup semifinal football match on July 3, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jim WATSON / AFP)        (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie embrace after a 2019 Gold Cup semifinal victory over Jamaica. (Getty)

I look forward to being very wrong.

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.