As the U.S. men’s national team creeps ever so slowly toward delivering a 90-minute performance to be proud of, here’s what we learned as Gregg Berhalter’s side thrashed Trinidad & Tobago for five second-half goals in a 6-0 victory in the Gold Cup on Saturday…
The midfield still looks like a rudderless ship (at times)
It would be unwise — if temptingly easy — to overlook the USMNT’s slow start and focus solely on the final scoreline, because for much of the first 45 minutes — especially the first 15 — there were some major issues in the middle of the field.
It’s unclear whether this is due to the system — say, the forward line isn’t putting enough pressure on the ball higher up the field — or if the chemistry in midfield has just been slow to come together. In truth, it’s probably a bit of both.
Michael Bradley and Weston McKennie have had precious little time to work together and figure out the balance between themselves — a pair of high-energy midfielders who’ll cover ground from one endline to the endline if you ask them to do so. On a handful of occasions, each of them were caught much too high upfield together, which resulted in an unimpeded jaunt through the center of the field as soon as possession was lost.
These kinks will, with any luck, work themselves out as the past/present midfield general hands over the reins to the future/present midfield general. In the meantime, don’t be surprised if Panama, or any of the region’s other big boys, find plenty of joy the same way T&T did for periods on Saturday.
Real danger comes from the wings
For the time being at least, just about every meaningful USMNT attack originates from, or is directed toward, the wings. If you’re at all familiar with how the Columbus Crew played under Berhalter, that won’t come as any surprise — especially, considering the American player pool is completely devoid of a Federico Higuain-type playmaker in the middle.
On Saturday, it was a joy to behold some of the diagonal balls being played over the top (HERE, HERE and HERE) and on the ground (below) to find wide players in space. For the vast majority of the game, balls out to wide areas were the USMNT’s first, second and third option. They achieved this by overloading both the right and left sides again and again — Christian Pulisic and Paul Arriola on the left, and Nick Lima and Tyler Boyd on the right.
It worked against a team like T&T, a side without aerially dominant center backs, but is unlikely to prove six-goals successful against CONCACAF’s best later in this tournament, let alone World Cup-caliber sides.
It’s not actually about winning the Gold Cup
The number of times we’ll have to remind ourselves of the following over the next months is, perhaps, infinite: the results matter very little right now, it’s all about the performances and the partnerships being cultivated with the 2022 World Cup in mind.
Would it be nice to regain the CONCACAF crown and lift the Gold Cup in a couple weeks’ time? Not really, but sure. Would it be nice to get as many of the remaining growing pains — and there are plenty, evidenced by those first 45 minutes on Saturday — out of the way as soon as possible? Absolutely.
The USMNT’s next attempt at World Cup qualifying will likely begin sometime next year, and winning this tournament at the cost of long-term progress will do them no favors then. There’s plenty of learning for the current crop of young players to do when it comes to pacing themselves for the long haul of a tournament competition and gaining experience in competitive games against teams they’ll likely see in the business rounds of WCQ, no doubt about it, but veering away from playing those young players in favor of picking veterans who can win now remains the worst possible thing Berhalter could do.
Thus far, he’s done well to resist any urge he might, or might not, have had.