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Post: The USMNT has reached a crossroads in January window

| Tuesday, February 1, 2022

The United States men’s national team will walk out of the tunnel at Allianz Field Wednesday night for what could end up being the coldest soccer match ever recorded. But more daunting than the howling Minnesota winds and frostbite-inducing chill will be the crossroads the squad and their head coach Gregg Berhalter have reached as a national team.

Let’s be clear here: Contrary to what some very loud Twitter accounts would like to hope, Gregg Berhalter is not on the hot seat, nor is he particularly close to it. Assuming the United States beats Honduras at home (which history indicates they should), Berhalter will still be in a perfectly fine position to qualify for the World Cup, which is more or less his bar for job safety as manager of the national team. His overall resume stacks up as well as anybody else who has coached the USMNT in the modern era, and he’s compiled his accolades (a Gold Cup trophy, Nations League title and historic three-game competitive win streak over traditional rival Mexico) in only a few years. However, despite his mastery of Mexico, North America’s typical top dog, Berhalter and Co. are now coming off a 2-0 loss on the road to Canada, who is emerging as a power. The loss wasn’t a humiliation but rather a wake-up call, one that underscores the several questions the U.S. will have to answer Wednesday and moving forward to the final window of qualifying come March. Let’s dive into some of the problems Berhalter will have to resolve in the coming matches to reassure and inspire confidence that he deserves his job.

How flexible are Berhalter’s positional play ideas when the player pool becomes stretched?

Though the USMNT’s performance has often been inconsistent, Berhalter has been very clear with how he wants them to play from the start. He values possession and structure, and seems to prefer replicating the positional tactics often put on display by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. This is where players are assigned to certain zones on the pitch and seek to move in specific ways when their team has the ball. When executed to perfection, it can create some extremely pretty results. But implementing this style of play takes time, and players must develop a familiarity with both the system and each other. And when players inevitably have to be left out of the lineup due to injury or any other reason, the removal of one part can turn a previously methodical whole sluggish and disjointed. Previously seen against Canada, the USMNT would pick up the ball in a dangerous area, but instead of driving it forward they would cycle it back and look to set up their structure. The inability to rapidly set up how Berhalter wants to has cost the team key opportunities. Another system (most notably the vertical style of play popularized by Red Bull teams) would immediately thrust forward the attack in a direct fashion as soon as the ball was repossessed. 

Can Berhalter find the right balance of abilities on the roster, both in the game day lineup and the preliminary squad?

The best day on the loud USMNT internet is when the team’s roster releases. Whether they are preparing for a friendly match, a tournament or a World Cup qualifier, everyone always has strong opinions on who should and shouldn’t be on the roster. As of right now, it seems Berhalter’s most controversial roster move of not calling up center back John Brooks was a misstep. The debate over whether Brooks is the pools’ best center back, or even second or third best, is a fair one. But Canada’s goal right through the heart of Miles Robinson (who is 24 and only found himself in the rotation this year) and Chris Richards (who is 21 with less than 10 competitive caps to his name) proved a pretty clear indicator that adding 29-year-old Brooks to the roster as an experienced hand at the back might not be the worst idea. The center back debate remains just a small sample of a larger haul of USMNT roster disputes — and Berhalter’s ability to determine when it is right to bring in experience and when it is right to let fresh blood in the lineup will be crucial to the team maximizing its potential.

Lastly, and most unfairly to Berhalter: Can the United States find a striker who can take control of the starting center forward role?

It’s not much of a debate, or even really a debate at all, that striker is the USMNT’s weakest position right now. It’s not for a lack of interesting or unique choices. Josh Sargent has been around for years now as the supposed striker of the future, but has never developed into a prolific scorer for either the national team or two other clubs. Gyasi Zardes has offered a consistent experienced hand and loads of experience as a goalscorer, but despite his solid national team total of 14 goals, he has never really looked the part of a player who should be starting against elite opposition. Ricardo Pepi was the great hope of the fall. But since then, the goals have dried up and he has yet to score for Augsburg, his new club in Germany. Those who put their faith in underlying numbers will tell you his incredible pace from September was never sustainable anyway. And those are just the most tested three options. Daryl Dike looked like an interesting prospect for qualifiers after a hot start to his runout in the Gold Cup, but he was eventually swapped out for Zardes as his performances deteriorated. Jordan Pefok has Champions League experience but only eight USMNT appearances and isn’t exactly a young prospect anymore at 25. I could go on and on with this list. The point is, any team, positional play or not, will always be made better by having a sharp tip at the end of the offensive spear. Berhalter may guide this team to the World Cup without a true top-quality starting striker. But if America can’t produce one, or Berhalter can’t ensure his system will take a player up a level, the USMNT will struggle to play proper soccer in the World Cup.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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