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The fans paid $100-plus to see a training session. U.S. Soccer would never admit that. Nor would its highest-paid employee. “No, we are in this to win,” USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter said Monday in St. Louis ahead of his team’s next challenge, a Tuesday friendly vs. Uruguay (8 p.m. ET, FS1).
But a majority of that team’s fans are still fuming about Friday’s 3-0 loss to Mexico, a loss which Berhalter claimed represented “progress.” His words gave off strong friendly-results-are-meaningless vibes. And so, on second thought, did his team’s tactical approach.
By now you’ve probably argued about it. Heard about it. Read about it. Argued about it some more. And yes, this is another article about it. Another take.
But this is also about context. About the reasons for it, the objective of it, and the details that doomed it.
The USMNT’s overcorrection
The USMNT’s absolute insistence on playing through Mexico’s press was an extreme overcorrection for the Gold Cup final. Specifically, for the second half, when the U.S. neither possessed the ball nor progressed it into dangerous areas. Berhalter felt the answer was more possession. Some players felt otherwise. Berhalter, between then and now, evidently informed them that his answer was the right one.
And so he set up a training session Friday. To correct the undesirable behavior of July – “in the Gold Cup, we were too direct” – he taught undesirable behavior at the other end of the spectrum – “in this game, we were not direct enough.” The idea is that the exercise will help yield desirable behavior as a long-term compromise.
But the exercise was extremely flawed. Viewed as an experiment, it was unsuccessful. If coach did in fact instruct players to resist their own best judgement, refrain from playing long, and plunge into the teeth of the press at all costs, Friday was almost something less than soccer. It was blind adherence to ideals. Stubbornness that won’t serve the USMNT well in the long run.
The USMNT created space ... and didn’t use it
Soccer is a game of space. The USMNT, at times, created it just fine on Friday. But space is worthless if a team doesn’t use it. And the U.S., on so many maddening occasions, refused to.
The refusals were individual and structural and tactical. Some American players seemed allergic to ball progression, choosing to play backwards when more ambitious passes were on.
Some breakdowns stemmed from off-ball movement, or a lack thereof. The U.S. committed to building from the back, along MetLife Stadium’s carpet, but often didn’t have a defined, coordinated plan for how to do so. When a fullback received the ball from a center back, for example, the near-side central midfielder would bolt diagonally up the sideline ... and nobody would check into the space he vacated.
On other occasions, sloppy first touches led to turnovers. Slow thinking interrupted flow. U.S. center backs rarely, if ever, carried the ball past Mexican opponents and into midfield. U.S. midfielders rarely eliminated their counterparts via dribbles.
Mexico knew it had a talent advantage. It recognized that its rival had no scheme to neutralize that advantage, nor the technical ability to solve an aggressive press head-on. So it pushed its line of confrontation higher and higher, loosened its pressing triggers, and hunted the ball. In doing so, it left its defenders isolated.
In other words, it dared the Americans to deviate from their predetermined commitment to the incremental build.
And they refused.
Risk without reward
Which, frankly, is ridiculous. There is not a single rational soccer team in the world that commits to playing through a press, rather than bypassing it, no matter how high or hard that press arrives. Not even Manchester City.
Oft-cited as the deans of possession-based attacking, City is actually a useful counterexample here. Yes, Pep Guardiola’s teams pass and move through pressure in their own defensive third. But that’s just part of their space-creating scheme. They stretch the field in one direction. If opponents follow, City will also stretch the field in the other.
And if the space they’ve created is further up the field, they’ll unlock it via long ball, and attack it like clockwork:
Any coach who outright renounces the long ball fundamentally misunderstands the objective of possession. The coveted endgame, no matter the attacking process or style, is a quality chance. And style isn’t binary. It’s not an absolute decision between direct and patient. Soccer is a near-infinite series of decisions, primed by philosophies and gameplans and instructions, but ultimately made based on an ever-evolving library of circumstantial factors. And no matter the gameplan, there are circumstances that make bypassing a press optimal.
Far too often on Friday, the USMNT seemed to ignore circumstance. It would invite pressure. Mexicans would enthusiastically accept the invitation. But the U.S. rarely looked prepared for their arrival.
Mexico would shrink the field. Compress the space Americans were trying to play through. Leave defenders 2-v-2, or 3-v-3, or 4-v-4 at the back. But the U.S. rarely even attempted to activate those 2-v-2s, or 3-v-3s, or 4-v-4s. Instead, it chipped low-percentage, low-reward balls to fullbacks ...
... or took the plunge, again and again, and lost the ball, again and again, especially over the game’s final 70 minutes.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) September 7, 2019
The company line is that it was a “learning experience.” Those were Berhalter’s words on Monday. Building from the back, he said, “was a huge emphasis against Mexico for a reason. To show the guys that you can do it, you can be brave against a high-pressing team like Mexico, and you can succeed.”
But did they succeed? And what did they really learn?
‘Progress’? Or a wasted opportunity?
The preferred plan either wasn’t good enough or wasn’t executed well enough. If the latter, either the players aren’t good enough, or the system hasn’t been drilled enough. Considering Berhalter only gets top USMNT players for a few weeks per year, neither of those shortcomings is likely to change in a meaningful way anytime soon.
Berhalter acknowledged the overcorrection on Monday. Moving forward, he said, “we need to find that mix, where we need to draw [the opponent] in, but now be able to hurt them when they’re coming.” The second part is what they didn’t do Friday. “If Mexico’s pressing with eight players, now we need to play long,” Berhalter also said. “That’s another way to disorganize ‘em.”
But playing long isn’t just a matter of flipping a switch. It, too, requires a nuanced, synchronized plan. When the U.S. did try to skip lines on Friday, that lack of a plan showed.
Opportunities to implement that plan, against a superior team with high-pressing tendencies, are few and far between. Tuesday won’t be one. Uruguay will sit in a mid-block, content to play without the ball.
Friday, therefore, was a missed opportunity. It was a training session – which is fine – but a poorly thought-out one. Perhaps even a wasted one. Was it “progress”?
Eh. Perhaps, in Berhalter’s eyes, a necessary first step. But more than likely a sideways one. Because the most difficult thing to do when navigating a press is make risk/reward decisions in real time. The only way to learn how to make them is, well, to make them. That’s what friendlies are for.
And the USMNT made worse decisions on Friday than it had in July. It accepted the risk of its style without chasing the reward. That’s not progressive. It’s foolish.
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