BLAINE, Minn. — Gregg Berhalter knew all along there was a chance. “A possibility,” as he said here Wednesday, that Tyler Adams “wasn’t going to make it.”
Nonetheless, the news – that Adams will miss the upcoming Gold Cup due to injury – dictated media-driven conversations after the U.S. men’s national team resumed training camp on a picturesque day in the Minneapolis suburbs. How, the main line of questioning went, can the USMNT replace arguably its most complete player?
Berhalter, who’s tasked with devising an answer, didn’t seem too interested in belaboring the point.
“That’s life,” the head coach said of entering the tournament without Adams. “There’s other teams losing starters, right guys? Mexico lost a couple guys. Trinidad just lost a couple guys. Costa Rica … This happens. We’ll figure out a way without him.”
But what, exactly, is that way? And how impactful will Adams’ absence be?
Adams is a well-rounded star
The answer to the latter question is very. First and foremost because, as Berhalter said Wednesday, Adams is “a great talent” and “a strong player” – “a big part of what we’re doing.”
He’s all that and more. He has an engine. He has technical ability. He has precocious tactical awareness.
He’s fearless. He seeks out dangerous attacking positions. He fortifies a midfield without the ball. With it, he erases opponents – via dribble and pass.
He moved to RB Leipzig in January, jumped into the German Bundesliga midseason as a 20-year-old, and immediately became one of its best box-to-box pit bulls.
Which is significant, and especially so for a national team in need of all the top-end talent it can get. With DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks already ruled out of the Gold Cup, the number of Gold Cup USMNTers on track for playing time in Europe’s big five leagues next season had dwindled to four. Now it’s down to three.
The loss of Adams, however, is particularly problematic because of the role he was expected to play in Berhalter’s complex, carefully crafted system.
His ‘unique skill set’ makes replacing him difficult
Berhalter intended to use Adams as a right back, but in a very non-traditional sense. The declaration back in March caused a minor uproar among fans. But the position isn’t “right back” as many know it. It might as well have been specifically tailored to suit Adams’ abilities.
Call it “inverted.” Call it a “hybrid.” Call it whatever you want. It allowed him to dictate possession play from deep central positions:
It allowed him to get forward:
It allowed him to counterpress, just like he would at Leipzig, hunting the ball high up the field right when the U.S. lost it:
It not only allowed him to play to his strengths; it required him to do all that.
Which is now the issue, because nobody else in the U.S. player pool can.
“Tyler has a unique skill set,” Berhalter said. “He has versatility, he can play inside, he can play wide.” Can anybody else? Is this “next man up” – a classic company line that some players have recited? Or is there a trickle-down effect throughout Berhalter’s system, with other roles tweaked because nobody can play Adams’?
“There’s a little bit of a trickle-down,” Berhalter said. “I don’t think we’ll get an exact replication of his performance. I know we won’t. But again, that’s something we’ll have to deal with.”
Can others replicate it? Will they be asked to?
Adams’ replacement on the roster was FC Dallas’ Reggie Cannon. His likely replacement in the starting lineup is San Jose’s Nick Lima. Both, unlike Adams, are primarily fullbacks at their clubs. Cannon is “more vertical,” as Berhalter put it Wednesday. Neither’s footballing toolbox is as vast as Adams’.
Lima played the inverted role in January, and played it well. But on Sunday against Venezuela, he spent most of the 90 minutes as a more traditional right back.
“There were times in the game where we adjusted,” Lima told Yahoo Sports Wednesday. One of those times, it seemed, was midway through the first half. “I went inside,” he continued, “and we had progressions with our 10s and our wingers to have more of what we started with, what everybody saw in January.”
And we saw again how the tactic can create midfield overloads, even when the inverted fullback doesn’t get on the ball:
“Then there was times where, yeah, I was higher up the field, stretching them,” Lima explained. He whipped in several vicious crosses. He combined with the right-sided winger or 10, and added a distinct dimension to the attack.
Without the extra body centrally, though, the U.S. counterpress was often feeble or nonexistent. Wil Trapp was outnumbered and isolated when the ball changed feet:
“It was a trial of a couple different things,” Lima concluded. “And we found ways to make both of them work.”
And that – trials, different things – is what the next four weeks very well may bring. Berhalter’s system is constantly evolving. Adams’ withdrawal from the squad will force this month’s evolutions to take different forms. We could see new wrinkles. We could see different formations, like the one piloted against Jamaica. We’ll likely see something in between a “traditional” 4-3-3 and the one Berhalter built out in January and March.
“It always evolves by the game,” Lima said of his role. “In the game, different points in the game, by opponent – because everyone’s different. Soccer’s a fluid game. It can’t be scripted from the beginning. It’s not black and white.”
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