Its a nice sounding slogan. And who wouldn’t agree that the Men’s National Team should operate in such a manner. I mean we are one nation. We only have one national team. So what’s not to like? Unfortunately looking back at 2019 there is plenty to not like. Some good too but has it been overshadowed by the not so good?
Coach Gregg Berhalter was hired in December of 2018 so he’s been on the job now for just over a year. Berhalter was committed to several things when he took over.
1) Establishing a system that focuses on possession, tactical awareness, playing out of the back, and players having a strong understanding of their roles.
2) Structured training regime around the system.
3) Improved communication with the players.
So lets look back at 2019 and evaluate just what happened in 2019 and what we have coming up this year.
The first camp for the side under Berhalter. The comments from the players and staff coming out of that camp were very positive. The players felt they had an understanding of what their expectations were both as individual players and as a team. Of course, January camps typically only include domestic players so its certainly not near the full starting roster. The flip side is that its also a good time to look at younger players to see if they may have a future role on the full team.
They had two matches after that camp both at home. The first match they beat Panama by a score of 3-0 and controlled the game from start to finish. They had 66% possession and completed almost twice as many passes as Panama. Panama did get more shots than you’d like to see but most of those were from distance and not very threatening. The second match they played a much stronger team in Costa Rica but still won handily 2-0. Again, they controlled possession and completed many more passes that the Ticos.
So a decent start under the new coach. However, it had to be taken lightly as none of these matches had teams near their full strength and both Panama and CR sent close to “B” teams.
The first camp under Berhalter held during an official FIFA window meaning that European based players were available for call ups. As typically happens during that time of year not all Euro players get called in. For some they need a break and for others continuing to train with their club teams is smarter long term. Still the camp had most of what you would think are the current maintstays. Again, they had two home matches against Ecuador and Chile. Better teams than we had faced in January so more indicative of the direction the team is headed.
The Ecuador match was won 1-0 and once again the US controlled possession. However, while the US had the better of it the match was pretty unexciting and the US generated only 5 shots putting 2 on frame. Disappointing for sure, especially at home.
Hoping for a better showing in Houston against a very good Chile side I took a rode trip to see how things looked in person. Was especially looking forward to seeing Tyler Adams who had showed well a few days before. Unfortunately Adams had come up with an injury and left the team to go back to his club in Germany. The real unfortunate thing, as it turned out, is that Adams’ injury turned out to be significant and he has just recently returned to playing missing the last 8 months. Still the game started out as good as you could hope for. Just 3 1/2 minutes in, keeper Ethan Horvath cleared the ball from just outside the 18 downfield to Gyasi Zardes. Zardes, not known for his first touch, actually collected the ball cleanly with a turn and passed through to a running Christian Pulisic. Pulsiic ran onto the ball and one touched it past the oncoming Chilean keeper and boom its 1-0.
Unfortunately the lead and good news was short lived. Chile tied the game not 6 minutes later and pressed the US the rest of the way. In the end the US held on for a draw but a very disappointing performance. Chile out possessed and passed the US by significant margins. The most telling stat was that the Pulisic goal ended up being the only US shot on goal. Not good and there were signs aplenty that that good things shown in the January friendlies may have been more the weak competition that our side getting the system down.
June and July
The first true competitive matches for the US under Berhalter with the 2019 Gold Cup. Time to see where we really stand! The team was a fairly complete roster with the exceptions that Adams and John Brooks were both injured and Jozy Altidore was just coming back from injury. Prior to the start of the tournament the general thinking was that nothing short of making the final would be a good result.
The week before it all started they played two friendly matches against Jamaica and Venezuela. The Jamaica match was just about a disaster. While they did have a bit better possession and passing than the Reggae Boys they were outshot 13-5 and once again only manage to put one shot on goal and they ended up losing 1-0. Don’t be fooled by that stat line. This game was not as close as the score and US fans left shaking their heads. Losing at home to Jamaica? Not acceptable.
Then there was the second friendly against Venezuela. And it turned out to be an odd match. While the typical stat of possession and passes completed were close the US actually outshot the opposition 13-9 and had a huge edge in corner kicks at 10-1. But their attacking play was missing in the final third and they just couldn’t find the back of the next losing 3-0. The defense was fairly atrocious in this match including keeper Zack Steffan. Check out these player ratings and note that the BEST rating for the defensive positions was Nick Lima at RB with a 5. Conversely, LB Tim Ream was flat terrible and garnered a 2.
So here the team was headed to the Gold Cup coming off two very poor matches and all fans could think about was the World Cup qualifying disaster in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago. The team looked lost. Not sure what else to say but onto the actual Gold Cup.
The Group Stage started much better for Berhalter and company as the Red, White, and Blue posted easy 4-0 and 6-0 wins over Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago. Ok maybe there is some hope. The final Group Stage match against a full Panama side would be much more telling. The good news is that the won that one 1-0 so completed group play undefeated and without allowing a goal. So whatever the defensive issues were in the friendlies that appeared to have been corrected.
But then the wheels fell off. In the quarter final we played lowly Curacao. Now to be fair Curacao looked pretty good during the tournament and did have several players based in Europe. But that is still no excuse for eeking out a 1-0 win and getting outplayed badly. In the end its the score that counts but Curacao cranked out 15 shots and put 5 on frame. Thankfully, Steffan was back in form and kept a clean sheet. This save was truly world class! so it was on to the semi-final.
The semi-final pitted the US against the Jamaican side that had beat them just two weeks earlier. The game was fairly even but the good guys had the better chances and won 3-1. But still Jamaica cranked out and equal number of shots to the US even if many of them were from distance and it was very close in possession. And ok result but not the clean W you’d like to see headed to the fianl against Mexico.
The final was a decent match although the Tri Color had clearly the better team and outshot the US 20-11 and had 57% of the possession. The US did earn 7 corner kicks and had several dangerous attacks but just couldn’t capitalize. In the end Mexico was the Champions winning 1-0 but the US got the minimum in that they made the final. And they looked much better then they had in the friendlies leading into the tournament.
Two more friendlies to see if the team could build some momentum coming off the Gold Cup. First against Mexico and looking for payback from the final. Well it wasn’t to be and the US got beat easily 3-0 although the first half was a bit in favor of the US. The first 20 minutes the US came out on fire and was getting behind the Mexican back line but couldn’t finish. They had several outstanding chances but didn’t capitalize. Then Mexico scored in the 21st minute and controlled the game the rest of the way. The positive was that the first 20 minutes was perhaps the most exciting attacking soccer they had played in years. But as Berhalter said after the match, “yes the first 20 mintues was great soccer but the game is 90 minutes.”
The second match as against Uruguay, a top caliber team although they didn’t quite field their A team. It was a pretty even match and ended 1-1. However, the US did control possession and played the way the need to against a top side. They just didn’t get the W they were looking for.
October and November
Four matches for the CONCACAF Nations League. While the actual outcomes were fairly meaningless for the US since under the format being used for WC 2022 qualifying, they were still official matches. Home and home against Cuba and Canada.
Out of the gate they simply crushed Cuba at home 7-0. The score was 4-0 13 minutes in as Weston McKennie set a team record scoring a hat trick in the first 13 mintues. Yes it was lowly Cuba but for the first time under Berhalter the team totally dominated and played like they meant business. By far their best match of the year. Then they had another WTH match. Away at Canada they lost 2-0 and looked bad doing it. They generated almost no attack and looked lethargic and unsure of what they were supposed to be doing. The first time they lost to Canada in 34 years. Just no sugar coating this one. Loads of fans questioning the choice of Berhalter and whether his “system” was really a thing worth pursuing. After the match both Berhalter and the USSF said that while match was a bad one that fans needed to “trust the process” and that the only way to get really better was to stay with the process and that would have some losses along the way. Not sure, at this point, that fans were buying it. Pretty loud rumblings that if the team didn’t do much better in the return leg that we should be looking for a new coach!
In the home match the US played much better in attack and won 4-1. While Canada still looked dangerous, and controlled possession, much of that was due to the US taking a 3-0 lead well before the half and chose to sit back and absorb pressure the rest of the way. In the away leg at Cuba the US again dominated the weak Cuban side and coasted to an easy 4-0 victory.
So the year was a mixed bag under the new coach. Some good things and some bad things but going into 2020 Berhalter’s job seems safe for the time being. The players seem to understand what is expected of them and how the system is supposed to work and they appear to all be on the same page. By most accounts the players like the approach and the coach. The question remains to be seen is if the system is to rigid for the player pool? Is Berhalter trying to force square pegs into round holes?
2020 is a very important year for the US. The CONCACAF Nations League tournament finishes up and qualifying for WC 2022 starts. There is not much time to get the team to where it needs to be and right now its not there. The friendly coming up against CR in February will kick off a very important year for the team heading into the next official FIFA window in March. I’ll do a preview and look ahead of 2020 at that time. In the meantime here’s a hint. I think the critical key for 2020 is going to be to see which younger players step up.
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Written by Steve Birrer.Posted 5 months ago in Soccer.
Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O's. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.