After a pair of scoreless friendlies, the USMNT heads to Qatar with more questions than answers
The United States men’s national team or USMNT finished its second and last pre-World Cup friendly Thursday evening in Murcia, Spain, facing a stark and continuous inability to create an offense and seem dangerous approaching goal. Over the course of 180 minutes, the United States had two shots on goal but scored none.
Tonight’s chaotic 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia saw marginal improvements in a few individual performances, but featured all of the same lingering issues that plagued Friday’s disastrous 2-0 loss to Japan: sloppy mistakes, poor possession, palpable nerves, readable tactics, slowness to adjust, and, above all, an inability to create or maintain an offensive intent.
The continual absence of numerous important players due to injury, USMNT notably Antonee Robinson, Tim Weah, Chris Richards, and Yunus Musah, hangs over all of this. Gregg Berhalter cautioned the media the night before the game that his ideal starting XI in Qatar would most certainly be thwarted by injury. As Giovanni Reyna abandoned tonight’s match in the 30th minute due to “muscle tightness”—tightness to a muscle that has kept him out for big chunks of the last year—observers can only conclude that injuries will continue to be a source of worry.
The squad now has eight weeks to work on club form and health and fitness before convening in Qatar one week before a tournament against Wales, England, and Iran.
The USMNT defense continued to struggle
Naturally, difficulties in moving the ball forward started at the back, where Japan left it on Friday, challenging the USMNT to break through their press. Japan stifled escape avenues while giving the center backs room to move. A struggling U.S. team shattered the Berhalter-era record for turnovers in its own half during the first half as attacking players sank deep and kept close rather than taking or creating space. USMNT only left Dusseldorf down 2-0 thanks in major part to Matt Turner’s outstanding shot blocking, something Berhalter has seldom recognized.
Considering their efforts on Friday, Sam Vines, Aaron Long, Reggie Cannon, and Mark McKenzie, the defenders who were trialed, could have been mistaken in thinking they wouldn’t make the Saudi Arabia match roster. However, starting Aaron Long again after gazing into the abyss of Friday’s performance ranks highly on Berhalter’s list of obstinate choices.
Long continued to have possession troubles when paired with Walker Zimmerman against Saudi Arabia, leaving the Americans open to deadly counterattacks. Midway through the second half, Long was replaced by Mark McKenzie, but things didn’t get any better since McKenzie too displayed nervousness and erratic decision-making.
Tonight, Sergio Dest was given another chance to play left back, where he showed flashes of strength but was worn out by the end of the game. DeAndre Yedlin played good defense from the right, but his assault was just as disjointed as everyone else’s.
The much-delayed 30-minute cameo of USMNT Joe Scally, who instantly gave the match more energy and fight than we’ve seen since June, was the one, effervescent high point of the evening.
The clear absence of USMNT Yunus Musah
A disjointed midfield in desperate need of Yunus Musah, who is particularly adept of bursting through lines on the ball and navigating in tight areas, was where the problems with constructing an offense first surfaced. Weston McKennie was lacking motivation and vigor, and his performance against Japan in particular was one of his poorest ever. Tyler Adams struggled against Japan under Berhalter’s prescribed system, but he was clearly one of the top players against Saudi Arabia. And you could never say that he lacked “fight.”
Was anything successful?
Against Saudi Arabia, the USMNT performed a better job of bringing the ball to the last third, maybe in large part due to the way Saudi Arabia set up. There was greater room to take advantage of right away and advance. Additionally, Berhalter changed his team’s strategy from Friday, emphasizing behind-the-back runs and forward-moving long passes to the wingers. This worked well in the first half when Zimmerman connected with Christian Pulisic, who was searching for a quick burst into the attacking third. On the left, Pulisic, Dest, and McKennie had a few effective combinations, but it slowed down in the second half and didn’t lead to anything in the first.
Giovanni Reyna seemed to be in good shape in the first few minutes, but his pain became apparent, and he was replaced by Paul Arriola, Kellyn Acosta, and DeAndre Yedlin about the 30-minute mark as a “precaution.”
When Berhalter and the players were questioned after the game, it became evident that the team felt better about moving the ball into the final third but still felt the need to find one more touch, one more ball, and one more danger on goal.
USMNT Striker is still silent on the matter
We must stop to reflect on the dismal state of the USMNT striker pool at this point. It doesn’t have to be this bad, which contributes to the dissatisfaction at its condition. The United States offers many striker alternatives who are excelling for their teams and leading competitive leagues in goals. Although he is not present, Jordan Pefok is at the top of that list. Although Berhalter’s system is designed for a different kind of striker, he is steadfast in his support of it.
Despite not scoring for his nation in quite some time, Jess Ferreira is most likely the first-choice striker and played the most minutes in camp. Ferreira is a talented field player who is scoring goals for FC Dallas, but he is still struggling to score for his country’s squad. Although he didn’t have many opportunities this season, he didn’t take any of them, and he may not have many opportunities in the World Cup.
After stumbling through the Bundesliga and failing to score for over a year, Ricardo Pepi rejoined the team after scoring one goal with Groningen. He put up a lot of effort but didn’t succeed.
Despite fitting into the system, having familiarity with the group, and having strong form with Norwich this year, Josh Sargent probably earned the most playing time among the strikers in camp but only received 45 taxing minutes against Japan. This may not have been enough to advance to Qatar in November.
What steps does USMNT Head Coach Berhalter take next?
Berhalter is aware of how bad things are, no doubt. After today’s draw with Saudi Arabia, he informed the media that no player stood out. Berhalter claimed that the coaching staff on USMNT had learnt “things” rather than going into detail about the lessons they had learned.
He did say this: “There’s not many players that performed at their typical levels in this camp. The major focus was getting ready and weeding through potential. You are free to inquire about center-backs, full-backs, or whatever. There weren’t many players that played up to their usual standards.
We’ll have to wait until November to find out for sure what “things” Berhalter has learned from this terrible window, and more importantly, whether he can or will adjust key personnel and the overall system. Berhalter is aware of the pressure that is on him with USMNT and was honest in admitting he had been out-coached against Japan.
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