The inaugural Nations League group stage is complete, and the U.S. men’s national team managed to finish top of Group A (on the final day of play) and secure its place in the semifinals next June.
So, what did we learn from the final four (semi-competitive) games of 2019?
No matter the competition, the chance creation isn’t there
Inevitably, eventually, the USMNT ends up attacking its opponents in one of two ways: with long, direct balls up to the forward line, or exclusively through wide attackers and constant crosses into the box. In beating Canada and Cuba by a combined score of 8-1 during this international window, Gregg Berhalter’s team relied almost exclusively on these “tactics.” Predictably, it’s also the default setting when facing tougher competition, such as Mexico and Uruguay earlier in 2019.
Neither of those plans are bad plans, per se, only neither of those plans are what the federation has pursued as its stated goal for the last decade: possession-based soccer featuring ample chance creation from midfield.
Five coaches have taken charge of the USMNT this decade, all with varying levels of promising the above stylistic improvements. Upon completing the USMNT’s final game of the decade, it’s fair to say that all five failed.
The worst part of all is that the presence of Christian Pulisic hardly cures anything. Sure, he’s the craftiest attacking player the U.S. has ever produced, but even a primary playmaker like Pulisic requires a stable midfield behind him to filter the ball upfield and give him a stage on which to perform. Weston McKennie was stellar against Canada on Friday, but he’s proven that, at just 21 years old, he can’t be counted on to that degree game in and game out.
The good news: they’re both 21 years old and have north of 50 caps between them. One day — and it could come soon — everything should click for each of them, at which point we could see them move to operate at a totally different level.
The full backs are suddenly a bright spot
Perhaps it’s a tad hasty to claim the full backs are trending positively, but the current crop of right backs sure looks deeper and more talented than ever before. Sergiño Dest chose to play for the USMNT and is now cap-tied, Reggie Cannon is coming along nicely, and DeAndre Yedlin has proven himself, at the very least, a non-problem plenty of times.
That’s three more reliable full backs than the USMNT has had since Steve Cherundolo retired in 2012. Unfortunately, they all play on the same side of the field.
Tim Ream and Daniel Lovitz, who started at left back don’t inspire the most confidence or excitement at left back, but perhaps a defense-first option is the way to go given the attacking instincts of all three players on the opposite side.
If Berhalter has truly settled on John Brooks and one of Aaron Long or Matt Mizaga as his starting center backs, then the USMNT heads into 2020 with a relatively stable, non-fluid situation along the backline since… maybe the 2010 World Cup.
Small victories, but victories nonetheless.