The United States men’s national team got whupped by Mexico on Friday night, losing 3-0 without ever looking threatening going forward. Gregg Berhalter’s team finished the match with zero open play shots on target from inside the box, and El Tri’s first two goals came from defensive calamities by the Americans.
Here are the highlights if you missed it:
A night to remember for El Tri. One to forget for the U.S.— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) September 7, 2019
All the highlights from last night's North American Clasico ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/YLZpOlousU
The USMNT’s style of play was subjected to as much postgame scrutiny as the result itself. Despite lacking appropriate personnel, the USMNT refused to deviate from Berhalter’s preferred possession-based philosophy, which leans on short passing build-up from the back. And yet, after the game, Berhalter insisted that he was not disappointed with his team’s performance, and hit back at reporters.
Gregg Berhalter: From my perspective, I’m happier about this game than the Gold Cup final. In the Gold final I felt our only solution was to play the ball long. Now we’re doing what I’m envisioning.— Tom Marshall (@mexicoworldcup) September 7, 2019
Gregg Berhalter now challenging a reporter who says #USMNT was ‘overrun’ in first half. GB described opening half as ‘back and forth’.— Sebastian Salazar (@SebiSalazarFUT) September 7, 2019
Anybody who watched #USAvMEX wanna weigh in? pic.twitter.com/xNIRCf5zXp
A few stats suggest that Berhalter has a point. The USMNT finished the match with 54 percent possession, and completed a decent 81 percent of its passes. These numbers are not necessarily indicative of high-quality play, but they do suggest that the Americans are making progress towards playing the way that Berhalter wants. Previous iterations of the USMNT have struggled mightily to win the possession battle against technically superior Mexican sides, and Berhalter’s team is already better at that aspect of the game than those of his predecessors.
It’s also more important to work on big tactical concepts in friendlies, particularly friendlies more than two years away from the World Cup, than it is to rack up wins. Though that idea might upset fans who hate watching the USMNT lose to Mexico, it makes perfect sense for Berhalter to accept bad results now if he thinks the decisions he’s making will lead to more consistent performances in World Cup qualifying.
But I’m skeptical that those consistent performances are coming, mostly because the USMNT does not have the players to execute this style of play at a high level. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen and center back Walker Zimmerman are average passers. Zimmerman’s partner on Friday night, Aaron Long, is a bit better with his feet, but spends most of his time on a club team that mostly asks him to play ambitious long passes.
The USMNT also does not high press, and instead plays in what’s commonly referred to as a mid-block, pressuring opponents once they reach the midfield line with some situational exceptions. A team that plays this strategy and also wants to dominate possession needs to have excellent ball-winning midfielders, which the USMNT does not currently deploy. Berhalter has opted to sacrifice a player with those abilities for Wil Trapp, a holding midfielder who is solid at keeping possession and not much else.
Berhalter’s consistent selection of Gyasi Zardes, a goal-poacher who is worse than his peers at everything but running fast and getting into good scoring positions, at striker is also puzzling given what Berhalter likes to do. Zardes’ inability to make a positive contribution in build-up play might not be a problem if Berhalter had a playmaking No. 10 like Federico Higuain at his disposal, but he does not. Picking Zardes, rather than the technically superior Josh Sargent or back-to-goal specialist Jozy Altidore, leads to a high number of bad turnovers. Zardes completed just six passes on Friday night, and only one of them was in the attacking third. He did not attempt a shot.
These ineffective players are unlikely to improve by coming to USMNT camp and playing in Berhalter’s style a handful of times per year. Zimmerman, Long, and Trapp are 26 years old. Zardes is 28. They’re probably too far along in their careers to develop new skillsets. Berhalter can count on young fullbacks Sergino Dest and Reggie Cannon to become better defenders, and 21-year-old Weston McKennie could plausibly develop into a much better creative passer, but the foundational pieces anchoring both ends of the team are unlikely to get good at the things they’re bad at.
And you know why this feels really bad? Mexico coach Gerardo Martino favors a style of play that actually suits the current USMNT player pool. The Americans’ hard-working, athletic players would be a perfect fit for Martino’s high-pressure, counter-attacking style. But Martino — who won MLS Cup as Atlanta United manager last season — was excluded from the USMNT coaching search because he does not speak English fluently.
Berhalter is still in the early stages of his job, and no one thinks he should be fired for a bad coaching performance against Mexico in a friendly. But currently, there isn’t much reason to believe his team will get better, because he hasn’t adjusted his coaching philosophy to fit his available personnel.
Believing in your players to execute your vision of a beautiful style of play is admirable, but a time will come when pragmatism is required. Berhalter will get nowhere if he’s an ideologue.