Let’s start with two statements which might be a bit controversial given the tone and tenor of the United States men’s national team program.
The CONCACAF Nations League very much matters to Gregg Berhalter’s era and the program in general, even if the coach’s job is not in jeopardy and the tournament is in its infancy.
The USMNT are the oddsmakers’ heavy favorites to win (nearly +500), even given the current injury problems, and it will be shocking but not surprising if they lose to the Canadians.
Point No. 1 might be a bit surprising, but this is a competition with silverware and Berhalter hasn’t won any of it yet in his tenure as USMNT boss. It’s also relevant because losing to Canada twice in a month after not losing to them since the Billboard No. 1 single was the sensual “One More Night” by Phil Collins.
And even without Christian Pulisic and a raft of injury excuses, plus taking into account Canada’s sincere re-emergence on the CONCACAF scene, the USMNT has no business losing a meaningful match at home to a team that, while improved, has far more holes than the hosts.
If you remember from October, Berhalter didn’t call upon his men to press an inexperienced Canadian back line (I just realized I’m still angry about this). There is literally no way he’ll do that at home.
If John Herdman keeps his backs the same as the one that shut out the Yanks at BMO last month, he’ll have Kamal Miller, Derek Cornelius, Steven Vitoria, and Richie Laryea out there. Three of the four aren’t full-time starters for their MLS clubs (Vitoria is an every week man in Portugal’s top flight). Goalkeeper Milan Borjan (Red Star Belgrade) is capable of stealing a result, but shouldn’t have the chance if the Yanks pressure the ball on Friday.
The midfield and attackers are where the U.S. will have its hands full. Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David beg speedy and/or smart defenders. John Brooks being in the mix should help in both counts, plus he’s the best passing back in the pool right now.
Whether the match is cagey or comfortable will come down to the midfield. Scott Arfield is going to make it difficult on the Yanks, but Alfredo Morales plays with a nasty streak and will not be as bullied as his peers were in Toronto.
The one thing to fear is how bamboozled Berhalter was by Herdman’s plan in Ontario. This isn’t to pile on the coach, who is known for his tactics but hasn’t seen them deliver against too many opponents of quality. Herdman may be the novice in terms of overall club experience, but he’s got a better handle on the international game.
If the Yanks look out-foxed and unprepared on Friday, that’s a big problem.
How bad is that? First of all, considering the ire sent south from Canadian media and fans when we didn’t brand John Herdman’s triumph over the USMNT in Toronto as “the time soccer was reinvented by the Children of Bobby Orr (TM),” let us say that Canada:
A) was very, very good in the October win, led by a tactical demolition.
2) is genuinely much improved over the past half-decade (We’ve covered this much over the years, though it was a slow burn)
D) will be a nation to be reckoned with come World Cup qualifying, led by the remarkable Alphonso Davies.
There. And we mean it.
But losing twice inside of one month to a nation who hadn’t beaten you since Berhalter was in middle school would be a monumental step back for a program already swimming in the shallow end thanks to a string of monumental step backs.
We’re gonna have so many monuments to our setbacks. It’s gonna be beautiful. People will love them.
So make no mistake about it: No Bradley and a less-than-100 percent Pulisic is a real problem. The club is still without Timothy Weah and Tyler Adams, but does have a healthy John Brooks and in-form Josh Sargent to go with recent commitment maker Sergino Dest.
That doesn’t help the Bradley-, Adams- and Pulisic-less midfield, but it’s something. We’d note that Julian Green is playing the sort of game that can help a team down its prime influential playmaker, but 2.Bundesliga or something, we guess.
A back four with DeAndre Yedlin, Dest, Brooks, and Tim Ream is going to do a lot better job with Alphonso Davies than the one with, checks notes, Daniel Lovitz, Ream, Aaron Long, and Yedlin. Dest will be out of position at left back, but he’s been there before and better than the alternative.
So, yes, the back four should be fine in front of, presumably, Brad Guzan, but how will Berhalter deal with Scott Arfield‘s game-busting work in the midfield? Alfredo Morales and Weston McKennie are a great start assuming it’s a 4-3-3 scenario. Berhalter for some reason hasn’t been impressed with Sebastian Lletget‘s work for the USMNT, so it seems likely either Jackson Yueill or Cristian Roldan will get run against Canada.
The forward are going to be fine with Jordan Morris, Sargent, and either Paul Arriola or Tyler Boyd, as long as Berhalter lets them press a Canadian back line which is by far their weakest aspect (and sits ahead of a very good goalkeeper in Milan Borjan).
The absence of Bradley and Pulisic doesn’t make Canada a favorite in Florida, even given last month’s abomination at BMO, but Herdman bamboozled Berhalter last time and doesn’t even have to go for a win this time, as a draw will be enough to end the USMNT’s CNL hopes.
Given the electricity of Davies and Jonathan David, the steel of Arfield, and the game-stealing ability of Borjan, the Yanks can play well and still lose. But a speedy back line with two strong center backs combined with an industrious and energetic midfield, and a press against Canada’s inexperienced backs should be enough.
Wild nights, positive or negative, deserve reflection one day later. Here’s our bid to put the USMNT’s 2-0 loss to Canada in context less than 24 hours later…
The humbling of Gregg Berhalter is one of two distinct hopes for his survival as United States men’s national team coach.
The other is an unreliable route, one filled with long-term health for his best players on some pie-in-the-sky road where he utilizes the same 12-14 players per game for the rest of his tenure.
So, yeah, the first one is pretty key.
Coaches are by nature arrogant, and Berhalter earned his confidence by nurturing a suboptimal Columbus Crew roster into an over-performing playoff mainstay despite owner and former showgirl Rachel Phelps trying to move the club to Miami (Movie reference No.1, achieved).
When Berhalter beat out the field of two to lay claim to the USMNT position, he won over the media with Powerpoint slides about Pep Guardiola-inspired possession, which assumed to the delight of the American fan base that the nation had the immediate tools to out-class most of CONCACAF simply by being organized. He even had people handing him cute nicknames and defending the idea of using a Bundesliga regular defensive midfielder as a right back because he was generous with his time. Who needs La Masia when you’ve got the DA?
It should be pointed out that the philosophy’s failure through nine months doesn’t entirely destroy the idea to try it, but Berhalter’s often bizarre player selection and tactical destruction at the hands of Jamaica, Mexico, and now Canada have hastened the end of his honeymoon period almost as effectively as his the federation’s refusal to interview anyone other than Berhalter and Oscar Pareja. I mean, who needs Sergino Dest’s optimism when you can keep trying to jam a Wil Trapp-sized Wil Trapp through an Andrea Pirlo-shaped hole?
So you get what we had last night, a tire fire of a match in which his midfield had no idea what to do with the ball and his forwards might as well have been on a monastic retreat. According to the broadcast, Berhalter thought a miserable first half was due to his men not moving the ball fast enough side-to-side. His answers via subs, even before they were down, were to take off Christian Pulisic and leave creative minds Sebastian Lletget and Tyler Boyd on the bench. After the game, he claimed his players weren’t working hard enough and didn’t match Canada’s desire.
Here’s the problem, though, that’s on Berhalter, too. There were myriad articles out there, including several on this site, detailing Canada’s desperation to get results in the CONCACAF Nations League in order to move into a Top Six CONCACAF spot on the FIFA Rankings and qualify for the Hex.
All it takes is a cursory look at the Canada roster to see that their electric attackers were their hope of winning the match, and that pressing their relatively weak group of defenders — one of whom has only been a defender for a year — was probably a great idea.
But Berhalter again stuck with his idea that the United States men’s national team program, even without several of its best players, could implement his system anywhere, against anyone.
And it failed spectacularly.
The thing is that Berhalter is actually quite a decent coach, as he proved in Columbus, but whether or not he lives to show it to this American audience in this particular job depends on his accepting the shortcomings of his depleted roster.
I want to talk to you about Aaron Long, and not because of his “Stranger Things” lifeguard haircut (TV show reference No. 1, achieved).
Aaron Long is a mauler, the sort of player who’d be beloved by many segments of the USMNT community in several generations. He gets stuck in, has a good work rate, and can factor on set pieces in the attacking third.
What he does not do very well — and I’ve covered this a lot in this space — is pass the ball and aid in possession. Since breaking into MLS in 2017, the now 27-year-old center back has completed 76, 69, and 65 percent of his passes with the New York Red Bulls.
Part of that is a function of the Red Bulls’ system; The team doesn’t really care at all about possession, passing at a terrible 68.6 percent, and not one of their players had a completion rate above 80 percent this year. By comparison, 197 players in Major League Soccer completed 80 percent or more of their passes this season (WhoScored).
This is not an argument that Long shouldn’t be in the U.S. system. While he’s had a rough couple of months in the shirt, he’s in the mix for the toughest American center backs in the game.
Might this possession-based idea look a lot better when healthy? Of course, that’s what we mentioned above. John Brooks is by far the best passing center back in the pool, and has been out of the mix for sometime due to injury. The same is true for the side’s best No. 6 in Adams.
But what the Yanks were for so long was difficult to break down, a hassle to play against. Berhalter needs that right now, and he’s got the horses to do it (Watch Jordan Morris’ legs keep moving for 90 minutes if you need proof). Success could then require admitted in front of a microphone that his team can’t hack his system right now, and that he talked down to an entire room last month when they just spit facts his way. That’s humbling, and it’s not fun. But it’s needed.
Adding to the issue is that it’s easy to see the Yanks still emerging from their group by beating Canada in Orlando next month and then walloping Cuba. But if Berhalter hasn’t been humbled and sees victories against the 53rd and 145th ranked teams in EloRatings as validation, well, I’ve got some truly valuable early 1990s baseball cards to sell you for a premium price.
Arrogance does nothing for you if it’s ill-founded. That confidence has felled countless executives, coaches, and players over the years (and yes, even average writers). Being outfoxed by Tata Martino is one thing, but having no reaction to the plan of John Herdman is another (That’s not a shot at Herdman, who had done well with the New Zealand and Canada women, but let’s be real).
We won’t learn whether Berhalter has learned from his errors via results next month, rather by what he does to try and get those results. When Martino beat him in the Gold Cup Final, the rematch two months later was far worse. He gets a second chance to match wits with Herdman next month, and it really cannot get much worse. So he’s got that going for him, which is nice (Movie reference No. 2, achieved).
Last month, I wrote that Berhalter’s duties including the following bare minimum goals.
Qualify for the World Cup
Reach the final of all CONCACAF competitions
Look like an adequate footballing nation in other competitions
Make sure he doesn’t lose any talented dual nationals (also the GM’s job)
No. 1 is still far away, but 2-4… woah. We’re one Alphonso Davies star show away from finishing 2019 without a Gold Cup and no place in the CONCACAF Nations League semifinal. Sergino Dest might’ve skipped town for Ronald Koeman‘s Netherlands set-up either way, but being shoehorned at left back last month probably helped his decision.
Finally, a number of people on Twitter pointed out that Canada is due plenty of respect for out-dueling the USMNT on Tuesday. Absolutely! But if you think a nation with under 1 million registered soccer players should be absolutely clowning a nation with 4 million-plus, a side they hadn’t beaten let alone dominated in 34 years, then you’re not getting the point. There’s room for Canada and the U.S. to both be good, but the Yanks looked like a steaming hot mug of spoiled milk to Canada’s well-chilled bag of the fresh stuff. No good.
Your move, Gregg. Do what you did last night, and last month, and you’ll get the same results. Your only other option is Voodoo dolls of Alphonso Davies and Scott Arfield.
So that’s one hurdle for John Herdmann’s men, but the more meaningful, empirical stuff comes with the knowledge that a win would not only put Canada on the precipice of a berth in the CNL semifinals but also provide a significant boost in the race for the sixth spot in World Cup qualifying’s Hexagonal.
It’s one of the reasons Canada is spending its entire international break gearing up for the USMNT, playing just this match and not a proximal friendly.
ICYMI: CONCACAF will now determine its World Cup contestants a bit differently. Three of six sides from the Hex will head to the World Cup, while the fourth side will meet a seventh side, the champions of a second “lower” tournament, in a playoff.
Canada enters this month five points behind sixth place El Salvador, who beat Montserrat and next faces St. Lucia in what’s sure to be another win. But fifth place Honduras is also in play, as are Curacao and Panama. Haiti is on the outskirts but alive.
CONCACAF men’s world rankings via FIFA
12. Mexico (1603 points)
21. United States (1545)
43. Costa Rica (1442)
47. Jamaica (1435)
67. Honduras (1359)
72. El Salvador (1327)
75. Canada (1322)
76. Curacao (1320)
77. Panama (1316)
86. Haiti (1277)
100. Trinidad and Tobago (1226)
Make no mistake: This Canada game looms large for both sides, as Gregg Berhalter’s resting of Zack Steffen, DeAndre Yedlin, Michael Bradley, and even Aaron Long was probably meant to preserve them for Tuesday (The Cuba match was only Long’s second outside the XI in the Yanks’ last 10).
All four will play a big part in dealing with Canada’s massive attacking threat. While it’s natural for American fans to expect goals from their men in Toronto, it’s pretty likely that Canada is going to produce a lot of threats through whoever Herdman chooses for his front three (or four, or whatever).
Herdman has played a variation of a 4-3-3 in five of his last seven matches in charge of Canada, only going away from the formation against the two best sides he’s played: Mexico (5-4-1) and Haiti (4-5-1).
At home against the U.S., what will he choose?
The 4-3-3 does hold allure. We know Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich) and Jonathan David (Gent) are going to start this match, but center forward Cyle Larin is not in the side despite red-hot form for Zulte Waregem in Belgium (on loan from Besitkas).
Puebla’s Lucas Cavallini would be the likely CF in such a 4-3-3, leaving Junior Hoilett to come off the bench. There’s an argument to be made that Canada’s out-and-out attackers are as dangerous as the U.S.
That’s why the play at the back is the difference between these sides. Herdman’s men have been sound against lesser CONCACAF sides but allowed three goals in the Mexico and Haiti tilts. Only one player, Steven Vitoria of Moreirense, plays at a higher level than MLS, while four players are regular contributors to their Major League Soccer clubs.
Samuel Piette (Montreal) and Scott Arfield (Rangers) are Canada’s big hopes in the midfield and will need to contend with not just the U.S. attack but Invigorated midfielders like Weston McKennie.
Berhalter’s Yanks are well-suited to deal with Canada, even 90-minutes north of the border, but the challenge will come from the desperate hosts and their electric attackers. How much of Berhalter’s plan is to build out from the back, and how ready is he to change tactics if the high press of Davies and David cause problems for Steffen and his backs?
The CNL may be a headache and a lesser competition, but the Yanks would love to hold Canada’s hopes to the sword with a decisive away win that puts the onus on the Canadians to attack next month in the United States. The second tiebreaker in classification is goal difference in group play, and the Americans’ plus-7 is level with Canada’s 6-0 and 1-0 defeats of Cuba.
The roster may be meant to develop long-term success, but his unorthodox decisions are — rightly or wrongly — putting a lot of eyes on short-term results. Because like it or not, the CONCACAF Nations League results affect their FIFA rankings, which matter to Hex qualifying places.
The U.S. was always expected to boss Cuba on Oct. 11 before a challenging match versus Canada at BMO Field four days later. The Yanks haven’t lost to Cuba since 1949, and the matches are usually quite one-sided.
Facing an improved Canada angling for a Hex berth is a different feat, even if the Americans haven’t lost to the Canucks since 1985. That’s a run of 17 matches which includes 10 wins.
That could well end this month.
Single matches have become as scrutinized as ever since Bruce Arena’s USMNT crashed out of World Cup qualifying in Couva. Arena has rebounded, rescuing the New England Revolution and putting them into a playoff spot, but the national team has been at sea since Berhalter took the reins of the club.
Now Berhalter is making a habit of calling up players who are not in form, or not the best at their positions amongst Americans in MLS. There was online buzz about Berhalter calling up Brenden Aaronson instead of some non-first team players in Europe, and that’s an interesting conversation, but really we should be asking what qualifies Aaronson ahead of a number of his peers (let alone those a bit older and more experienced than him).
As an aside, I’m thrilled for Aaronson and excited to see an 18-year-old prospect put on the shirt of the country. There’s always hope, and the U.S. and MLS are churning out better players than ever before. I just don’t get this selection now.
I want to reiterate that I’m not judging players against some sort of perceived “Eurosnob” standard, though I’ll raise my hand high in the air and acknowledge that while I really enjoy MLS and marvel at its incredible rise, there are at least a dozen leagues in Europe (including two second tiers) which are currently above it in top-to-bottom roster quality.
The issue I see with Berhalter’s roster isn’t about Richie Ledezma (please actually call the kid, okay?) or Eric Lichaj or Julian Green. It’s about the players Berhalter is picking from within his own backyard.
Go back to his first January camp and first match as USMNT boss: Nine of the 11 starters are still with the squad (Djordje Mihailovic and Jeremy Ebobisse are out).
Fourteen players are back from that squad, which did not include any European-based players. The MLS additions are Brad Guzan, Jackson Yueill, Jozy Altidore and Brenden Aaronson. The others are Tyler Boyd (Besiktas), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle) and Weston McKennie (Schalke).
That seems like a pretty high number to return from a side which is 7-4-2, with a 1-2-2 record against Top 50 sides. The win is a B team beating a Costa Rica B team. The USMNT has also lost to two teams (Jamaica, Venezuela) outside the Top 50.
It’s not like these players have shown an incredible amount in a U.S. shirt, but aren’t in a good fit in their club. Considering that the Yanks are not producing goals by the dozen, consider this:
The leader in “big chances created” in MLS this year is current call-up Jordan Morris with eight. Jozy Altidore is second, also a call-up. No sane mind has a problem with either of those players being on the roster.
But Corey Baird has created two, good for 60th in the league amongst Americans. He is credited with 28 key passes. That’s 19th amongst Americans. He has five goals and three assists, both good for the fifth-highest totals… on his team, which has the scored the second-fewest of any playoff team.
I literally feel bad for harping on Wil Trapp‘s continued presence on the squad, because it’s not his job to turn down call-ups, but this one is astounding. The Columbus captain has started just three of the Crew’s last six matches. Known for his familiarity with Berhalter’s system as well as his passes, Trapp is 40th amongst American MLS players in key passes. He is fifth amongst U.S. MLS midfielders in accurate long balls, and three of the four players ahead of him (Michael Bradley, Jackson Yueill, and Cristian Roldan) have been called up, too. So there’s some method to that madness, but still should that override a consistent series of pedestrian at best performances in the USMNT shirt?
Aaronson is another weird one, and not just because he’s an unfamiliar name at age 18 in MLS. We should absolutely note that he’s unlikely to play a ton, especially against Canada, so the argument here is more about Berhalter’s rationale than Aaronson doing some sort of damage to the team’s fortunes.
He’s been a part of U-23 camp as Jason Kreis prepares for Olympic qualifying, and there’s really no need to see him ahead of a number of players who aren’t in contention for the Olympics. And if in fact the U-23 pool is in play, then there are a number of players from that group worth considering over him.
He might be great, and this might be a bit of brilliance from Berhalter, but he’s also the 10th rated American midfielder under 20 inside of MLS, many of whom play a similar role as him (How Paxton Pomykal isn’t in this camp is beyond me). Even taking out Sands, Cerrillo, and Durking, there’s a series of players in a bit better form above him. Again, I’m not questioning Aaronson’s long-term prognosis, rather where he is now. You don’t want to see what happens when you toss 20- and 21-year-olds onto this list.
Fullbacks Reggie Cannon, Daniel Lovitz, and Nick Lima have all dipped 10 places or more amongst American players in MLS (WhoScored) since the last round of call-ups.
Here, without judgment, is a list of American fullbacks who rank higher in performance score this year than all three of those players on multiple stat sites, having played at least 20 matches (ages in parentheses)
Ryan Hollingshead (28)
Tommy Thompson (24)
Aaron Herrera (22)
Jordan Harvey (35)
Graham Zusi (33)
Donny Toia (27)
Justin Morrow (31)
Jorge Villafana (30)
Keegan Rosenberry (25)
I’ve written this before, but this round of call-ups seems to reinforce it: The only conclusion I can reasonably come to is that Berhalter is so confident in being able to out-produce his peers, as he did with a substandard roster in Columbus, that he doesn’t care what the metrics say.
I get Gyasi Zardes, who is presently a very decent bench option beyond Jozy Altidore and Josh Sargent. The majority of the roster is defensible, which is a low bar, but fine.
I just feel like Berhalter is about to hang his hat on how his side fares against a Cuba team which should be defeated by any combination of regular MLS starters, let alone the best available to him.
Then Canada, who is much improved despite its losses to Mexico and Haiti and Gold Cup (At least they scored against Mexico, amirite?).
Canada has a Champions League goalkeeper in Red Star Belgrade’s Milan Borjan, but very little in defense. Their midfield is going to be a batch of MLS players and Rangers man Scott Arfield. The one place they can burn you is with talented attackers Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich), Jonathan David (Gent), Junior Hoilett (Cardiff City) and others.
So it’ll be a bit concerning if his XI looks like anything other than this:
Yedlin — Zimmerman — Miazga — Ream
Bradley — McKennie — Lletget
Pulisic — Altidore — Morris
That’s still a lineup that beats Canada, maybe comfortably.