Mostly, the international break is just a water break for fans. Qualification for various tournaments doesn’t really matter until the end, or to a handful of countries on the bubble, if it matters at all. That’s doubly true for the USMNT, who don’t have anything to play for and anyone to play right now. All the European, South American, and African countries are tied up in various qualifying rounds for this window, which has left only Uzbekistan and Oman as opponents they could find to play. The Yanks won’t play a match that matters until November, two games that will double as Nations League tilts and more importantly, qualifiers for next summer’s Copa America.
Which makes it an odd stage for Gregg Berhalter to return to the sidelines for the national team. National team management is naturally weird, given that a manager only gets to see the players for a few days every couple months. The USMNT is even weirder than that, and Berhalter being here after an “exhaustive search” that landed on the guy who had the job last makes it somehow weirder than that. And yet, here we are.
Berhalter hasn’t been able to shake the “Reyna Story” since he was re-hired, and that will continue to be the first question he faces until Gio gets back into the squad next month when he’s healthy again (fingers crossed, salt over the shoulder, rabbit’s foot, etc.). But eventually, hopefully, that will recede into the background and we can all get back to the main crux, which is figuring out if Berhalter has a plan to take this team farther than it’s ever gone before.
Aside from the post-tournament controversy, what really had USMNT fans somewhere between kinda- and pretty damn steamed at the announcement of Berhalter assuming the job again was that the last time we saw him at the helm, he didn’t have much of an idea how to break down the Netherlands that simply took the fullbacks away. For all his big talk about tactics and methods, he looked overmatched in Qatar when the US was on the brink of a new frontier.
That piled onto the theme of the whole tournament. While the overall result was acceptable, that the US couldn’t really control a match where it had the ball was unsettling. The US was better than both Wales and Iran, took the lead, but then let both matches become reenactments of the Alamo instead of taking the air out of the game with the ball, and finding a second or third goal to kill both matches off. The effort exerted to get those four points, along with the one well-earned against England, clearly showed against the Dutch, where the US lacked starch.
There are some caveats to that loss if one wants them. One, it’s hard to know how much Berhalter got taught a tactics lesson by legend-in-his-own-mind Louis Van Gaal when the US had most of the ball, created just as many chances, and the Dutch just happened to score on their first two shots on target. If Pulisic scores in the third minute, the whole thing could have very well been different. Such is tournament soccer.
Second, Berhalter can still only work with the squad he’s given, and there’s still an open question on just how capable this team is of keeping the ball for long stretches when the opponent is actively chasing it down. Musah, Pulisic, Reyna, McKennie, Adams, and Weah are all wonderfully talented players with room to still grow, but none are gifted passers, and all are basically geared to play in transition. That’s not always on offer.
Still, the last time we saw the full squad together, and without Berhalter in charge, they were kicking both Mexico’s and Canada’s ass up to the base of their skulls in the Nations League semis and final. They were ruthless as well, putting up five goals, and creating additional chances as well. Some of that was the addition of Falorin Balogun to the squad, whom Berhalter has never gotten to play with. Some of that felt like just a swashbuckling attitude, which we don’t know if Berhalter is responsible for now in absentia or was due to him not being around.
And that question is going to hang over Berhalter until 2026, assuming he stays in the job that long. If the USMNT is going to make the quarterfinals or semifinals in its home World Cup, can it stare down a quality team that wants to defend and counter on them. It showed against England that it can do that to quality teams, but what about when it’s the reverse? The US didn’t have much of an answer in qualifying for Qatar when Canada employed this tactic as well. Can the US pry open an organized defense? Can Berhalter take the leash off to allow players like Reyna and Pulisic and Musah to find space outside of the drilled methods that Berhalter likes to employ? Can they improvise mid-match?
We won’t get those answers this weekend. We probably won’t get them next month when the competition steps up to Germany and Ghana. They’re still just friendlies and most if not all the 22 guys are trying to not get hurt. We probably won’t know until the Copa America. But it wouldn’t hurt Berhalter’s cause for some squash matches this weekend.
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