WASHINGTON —The first six months of the USMNT’s Gregg Berhalter era have been filled with positivity. Ninety minutes Wednesday night in the nation’s capital, however, brought the first hiccup.
Shamar Nicholson’s gorgeous second-half goal tilted an otherwise dull match in favor of Jamaica, and dealt the U.S. a deserved defeat in its first of two Gold Cup tuneups.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 6, 2019
“Overall,” Berhalter concluded postgame, “the effort was OK. But we performed poorly tonight.”
The U.S. was disjointed and uninspiring
The goal was pretty emblematic of the USMNT’s night. From Christian Roldan’s sloppy pass to Wil Trapp’s inability to get tight to Nicholson, the vast majority of the 90 minutes and 17 players who saw the field were slow and ineffective.
“We lacked speed,” Berhalter said after the match. “We lacked aggression in the final third.
Which was, to some extent, expected and totally fine. The group had been together for two full days. There is no need to panic, about Gold Cup hopes or anything thereafter.
The U.S. looked like a team that had never played together before, and probably will never play together again, because ... well, it was. At most, three of the players who saw the field Wednesday night are part of Berhalter’s preferred 11. By Thursday at 12:01 a.m., around six of them will no longer be with the team. And they weren’t even aligned in Berhalter’s preferred formation.
Berhalter experiments with new formation
Berhalter’s first-choice system is a base 4-3-3 that morphs into a 4-4-2 without the ball and a 3-2-4-1 with it. On Wednesday, he went 3-2-4-1 as the base – shifting to a 3-5-2 without the ball – with the following 11 (right to left):
Here’s a helpful visualization from Fox’s Stu Holden:
For @USMNT- This will be an experimental 3-4-2-1 formation - GB looking for 2nd option. In attack and transition looks very similar to GB regular 4-1-4-1 when fullback tucks inside and wingers are pushed high. Illustration here: pic.twitter.com/uhAKiLa2aF
— Stu Holden (@stuholden) June 5, 2019
The U.S. spent 58 minutes in it before reverting to the 4-3-3. The 3-2-4-1 wasn’t exactly effective. That, however, had more to do with personnel than system – and the fact that they had only drilled it at one training session – so we shouldn’t rule out seeing it again.
“One of the objectives of this first camp was to play an alternate formation,” Berhalter said postgame. “So we achieved that. There’s tweaks we can make to make that formation function better.”
Roster spots were ‘up for grabs’ ... who grabbed them?
With the Gold Cup roster deadline Wednesday at midnight, “most of the roster,” Berhalter said Tuesday, was already “set.” But there were, he said, “a few positions that are up for grabs.”
And, well, nobody exactly grabbed them with any force.
“Some guys, you could tell that the moment of, ‘OK, am I going to make the team or not?’ was wearing on them,” Berhalter said. “And that’s never nice. It’s never nice for it to come down to one game. So I felt for the guys. ... When there’s a [roster] deadline, it weighs on people.”
Mihailovic, when asked if that was indeed the case, said: “Yeah. I mean, you always get those nerves before a roster deadline, especially when it’s on the day of the game. You feel that.”
In fact, for players on the roster bubble, it was probably better to be off the field than on it. Duane Holmes started on the bench, sat there for much of the drudgery, then entered in the second half and showed flashes. Sargent did OK with what little service he got, and nearly leveled the game in the 88th minute (off a Holmes shot-turned-cross) with the lone American shot on goal. “You see the quality,” Berhalter said. “You see how he processed that ball, turned, shoot so quickly. Not many players can do things like that. He has a bright future ahead of him.”
But it’s unlikely anybody from the wrong side of the bubble played their way onto the roster. “There wasn’t going to be many decisions made solely on this performance,” Berhalter reiterated postgame. “The roster was pretty much intact.”
Other game observations
Mihailovic, on several occasions, was a half-second or so from looking like the Americans’ most influential player. His ideas were good, his movement intelligent. But he didn’t quite have the athleticism or the speed of play to unlock Jamaica’s defense. It was fitting that his final action was a break down the right after poking the ball past a Jamaican defender. But his lack of elite straight-line pace allowed recovering defenders to disrupt his final pass.
Steffen had several shaky moments with the ball at his feet, one of which nearly led to a Jamaican goal.
Robinson, a natural fullback, had a rough first half, and didn’t look capable of playing the wing back position Berhalter put him in. “I don’t really see myself as a player who’s going to get on the ball and get at players,” Robinson admitted. “I more like open space [to] run into. ... But it’s a learning curve.”
Arriola, a natural winger, played on the other side, and was fairly active. Berhalter said after the game that he thinks any of his wingers could slot in as wing backs.
Sargent, who would seem to be on the roster bubble, was quiet. If you watch him off the ball, you see glimpses of clever runs – for example, two steps to take a defender toward the ball, then a dart in behind. But the U.S. never got in enough of a rhythm to get him involved.
The crowd was late-arriving but decent – 17,719 of the 20,000 capacity at Audi Field in D.C.
Notes from Berhalter and players
Gyasi Zardes sustained a foot injury in training on Tuesday – which explains why he didn’t dress. “He’s gonna be fine,” Berhalter said, “but we didn’t want to risk anything.
Sargent was the only striker who did dress. He didn’t know he was going 90 until ... well, until he went 90. And he hadn’t gone 90 in a while. “With the humidity, it was pretty tough,” he said postgame.
Holmes not only made his national team debut Wednesday. It was the first time he had played in front of his dad. The 24-year-old American-born midfielder moved to England with his mom at the age of 4. His dad still lives in Georgia. “I’m happy to be able to share that experience with him,” Holmes said.
Christian Pulisic will join up with the squad in Ohio on Thursday evening. Tyler Adams will arrive in Minnesota on June 11. Berhalter, explaining the decision-making process behind those dates, said Tuesday: “We carefully looked at what they’ve been doing this season. We looked at some of their plans for next season, and where they need to be physically. And we gave them an arrival time based on that. ... Both of those dates were determined by our performance staff.”
Sebastian Lletget figured to make the Gold Cup roster as Pulisic’s backup. But a left hamstring problem forced him out of the LA Galaxy’s weekend match after just nine minutes, and put the injury-ravaged attacking midfielder’s status in doubt. After communication with both club and national team medical staffs Tuesday, it was determined that Lletget wasn’t healthy enough to make the Gold Cup cut.
Based on Berhalter’s Tuesday comments, Mihailovic seems to be third in line at that No. 10 position – and second with Lletget out of the equation. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he has to be in the 23. Berhalter mentioned that Holmes could also play the 10 role.
U.S. Soccer must submit a final 23-man Gold Cup roster by midnight. Players had not been informed of any decisions when the met the media a little before 10 p.m. Wednesday. The squad will be announced Thursday morning, around 9:30 ET – so don’t stay up late waiting for it. In the meantime, here’s our educated guess:
Gold Cup roster projection
Roster bubblers in bold.
Goalkeepers: Zack Steffen, Sean Johnson, Tyler Miller
Defenders: Tyler Adams, Nick Lima, Aaron Long, Matt Miazga, Tim Ream, Walker Zimmerman, Daniel Lovitz, Omar Gonzalez
Midfielders: Christian Pulisic, Michael Bradley, Duane Holmes, Weston McKennie, Cristian Roldan, Wil Trapp
Forwards: Jozy Altidore, Paul Arriola, Tyler Boyd, Jordan Morris, Josh Sargent, Gyasi Zardes
– – – – – – –