Three goals conceded. A missed penalty. A performance that hearkened back to Couva. That bleak, empty feeling. A pit in the stomach that’s made of anger, hopelessness and loathing.
This was the result of Friday night’s drubbing at the hands of Mexico, a caliber of defeat to our biggest rival that hasn’t happened in 10 years. It’s easy to get lost in the maze of confusion. Why? How? Where do we turn for answers? Here are three that I think sum up what happened at MetLife Stadium.
1. The spine
In any football game, the center of the field, right from one goal to the other, is holy ground. Teams that dominate the center of the park, in defense and attack, win more than they lose. The USMNT was set-up to lose.
With Gyasi Zardes up top, there was no effective target man to use as an outlet in attack. In a midfield of three, you want a ball-winning midfielder to sit deep, not only to protect the back line, but also to disrupt possession in the center of the park. Ahead of him, you want ball-playing midfielders who can keep possession, dribble into space, and play incisive, creative passes into attack.
Unfortunately, Wil Trapp is not a ball-winning midfielder. He isn’t a ball-playing midfielder either. He has good moments against the lowest of CONCACAF teams, but doesn’t possess the athleticism, speed, intelligence or technical ability to be a 6 at a higher level. In these games, he’s a traffic cone. Ahead of him, we put two ball-winning midfielders, out of place in an attack that had no creative outlet. Christian Pulisic did his best to come centrally, but he can only do so much alone. If you surrender the midfield and the attack, you’ve already lost the game and that game was lost the minute the line-up was revealed.
2. The System
We hear a lot from Gregg Berhalter about the system. He mumbles it unconvincingly at every press conference. To be fair to him, we know what system he’s talking about. Build from the back, possession in midfield and probe for space and attack it when it’s available. He did relatively well implementing the system in Columbus, and he was rightly lauded for it. But this isn’t club soccer, where you’re afforded all the time in the world to practice and hone the nuances of a complex system. This is the international game, where you build your system around the strengths of your players.
Berhalter tried to build out of the back at the Gold Cup final. It failed miserably against Mexico’s high press. He tried again last night. The results were worse. Aaron Long, Trapp and Walker Zimmerman are not the kind of players who are known for their technical ability. Reggie Cannon is a burst-forward-with-speed full back. Sergiño Dest may be the only one suited to that kind of play. Two of the 3 goals the USMNT conceded were the direct result of trying to build from the back under a 7-man press. Berhalter’s stubborn insistence on adherence to a “system” that does not suit his players speaks to naivete at best and arrogance at worst.
Those are not qualities you want from a man who was fired from the 2nd division of Sweden for “lack of offense” and hasn’t won a single trophy, not even a small one, in his time as a coach.
3. The players
Perhaps most baffling about Berhalter’s lineups are his clear favoritism of players who are not international-caliber guys. Trapp and Zardes, who he knows from his days in Columbus, are quite possibly some of the worst players to don the Stars and Stripes jersey in 10 years. Still, Berhalter persists, while Bundelisga striker Josh Sargent and MLS’ best American midfielder Paxton Pomykal warm the bench.
I knew when I saw the lineup against Mexico that we were doomed. When he finally subbed Sargent in, he also brought on Daniel Lovitz, another MLS left-back who simply isn’t up to this level.
Berhalter claimed after the game that while the clueless media, will say it was failure, the team is making progress “internally”. But the game isn’t played internally, it’s played in front of the whole world, and to suggest that every pundit and fan is wrong and you are right is not just worrying, it’s a trait commonly associated with narcissism.
— OptaJack⚽️ (@OptaJack) September 6, 2019
If Berhalter doesn’t change his tactics and his personnel very quickly, the USMNT will continue to do reasonably well against the minnows but will fail against similar-ranked teams. But with his brother in charge at USSF and his friend Earnie Stewart the GM, Berhalter knows his job his safe. There’s no accountability in nepotism and with no accountability there can be no progress.
The USMNT faces Uruguay on Tuesday, only this time without three of their best players, Zack Steffen, Pulisic and Weston McKennie. One can only hope that Berhalter has the sense to make changes, before a bad situation becomes worse.