By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 15, 2023) US Soccer Players – Two wins, seven goals scored, zero conceded, three debut caps, two first starts, and the first steps of a second stint under the leadership of head coach Gregg Berhalter. Those are a few of the headline numbers from the USMNT’s September window, and the data points run deeper still. As players return to their clubs after the Midwest swing through St Louis and the Twin Cities, here are some talking points from the Yanks’ wins over Uzbekistan and Oman.
Building the spine
The USMNT’s march to the 2022 World Cup was driven in no small part by the development of a tenacious and versatile central midfield core. The likes of Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Tyler Adams, Brenden Aaronson, and Kellyn Acosta were key contributors in this area, crafting strong relationships and collective understanding.
The process of elevating that group to the next level for 2026 already began earlier this year. Gio Reyna and Malik Tillman have brought a different look in their minutes as central playmakers. Luca de la Torre has provided an interesting interpretation as a distribution-oriented defensive mid. Berhalter also underlined the ongoing importance of the McKennie-Musah partnership, whether they be working side-by-side as twin #8s, sitting deeper together in more of a 4-2-3-1 shape, or complementing one another in contrasting roles.
There are promising signs of further growth elsewhere along the spine. A deep center-back corps continues to furnish the coaching staff with quality options. Chris Richards started both of these matches, the first alongside trusted veteran Tim Ream and the second next to Miles Robinson, with Mark McKenzie coming off the bench in both. A top performer in the first game before departing to attend the birth of his second child, Matt Turner brings stability in goal.
At the tip of the spear up front, the outlook at the #9 looks as bright as it has in years, which brings us to our next topic.
Options up top
Folarin Balogun was an instant hit when he made his USMNT debut at the Concacaf Nations League finals in June, starting both the semifinal and final and scoring in the latter. Even arriving at this camp short of maximum fitness due to a preseason injury and making a late-August transfer from Arsenal to Monaco, his deep skill set was evident as he played the first-half of both games.
“I think we’re still trying to figure out the best way to utilize Balo because we know he’s high quality,” said Berhalter after Tuesday’s win over Oman. “He made a number of good runs behind the back line today that we didn’t pick up on. So he’s still integrating that side of it.”
Meanwhile, Ricardo Pepi stepped in for the second-halves and scored in both matches, continuing his impressive run of six goals in six USMNT appearances in 2022. After some ups and downs in his career since his sensational debut at the start of the Concacaf qualifying Octagonal two years ago, the PSV frontrunner appears primed to contend for minutes, offering a different profile from Balogun and the others who’ve worked in the 9 spot. That’s not overlooking other contributors currently injured or not in this camp.
“You always want your forwards scoring goals. I think our job as teammates and as coaches is to put them in positions to score goals,” said Berhalter. “The competition, it’s twofold, right? It’s what they do for their clubs each and every week and what they do for us when they’re in camp. Some of those are easy to measure because they’re playing 90 minutes every week, and sometimes they’re not, and it becomes complicated. But to me it’s more about how they work together, how they train, what their attitude is in camp and what they bring to the team when they’re on the field.”
Digging into tactical details
Berhalter’s return prompted some questions about how his style of play would evolve from the previous cycle, and how the tactical wrinkles implemented by interim coaches Anthony Hudson and BJ Callaghan might factor in.
Against Uzbekistan it seemed Berhalter was of a mind to keep with the incumbent 4-3-3 formation with twin #8s and a single holding mid as a starting point, albeit with specific tweaks. Some of that happened real time as the USMNT worked to draw out and disorganize their opponent’s deep-lying 5-2-3 setup with what Berhalter called a “methodical” approach. Afterwards, players and coach provided glimpses of that collaborative process.
“I don’t really mind the slower rhythm as long as it’s intentional, and then as long as there’s a change of pace when we’re in the attacking area,” said Berhalter. “So if we had to take our time to draw out their defense and then find someone, once we break their top five, then we need to speed up the attack, we need to have numbers getting forward, we need numbers entering the penalty box, we need runs behind the back line.”
There was more overall fluidity in the rout of Oman three days later, where the 4-3-3 looked more like a 4-2-3-1 for long stretches. Crisp ball circulation and a constant stream of accurate long switches of play, especially by McKennie, constantly changed the point of attack, pulling apart the opponent’s 4-4-2 diamond and keeping the USMNT in control of the tempo.
“In terms of personalities off the field, it’s all very, very much the same. On the field we’re working on on some new things, trying to do some things a little bit different,” said Ream in St. Louis. “That takes time. There’s no getting around that.”
Contributions from dual nationals and newcomers
The program has lately built a strong track record of dual-national recruitment, and the fruits of those efforts were easy to see this month.
The three players who made their USMNT debuts in this window, Kristoffer Lund, Benja Cremaschi (the young Argentine-American is not yet cap-tied), and Kevin Paredes, all had or have choices of who to represent at international level. The same goes for Lund and Tillman, who earned their first career USMNT starts. In all, more than a dozen of those who took the field in these two games are dual nationals. That’s bringing a valuable range of experiences and attributes to the player pool, and dialing up the competitive vibe.
Lund made a solid first impression as a contender at the left back slot which has at times over the years been problematic for the Yanks. Tillman brought a useful creative eye in and around the opposition’s penalty box with 49 touches, two key passes, and seven passes into the final third, per Fotmob data. Cremaschi has not yet made his final decision about which country he’ll represent but was bright in his substitute appearance on Tuesday, playing a role in the fourth goal and getting an introduction to the team’s culture and ways of working.
In a wider sense, it’s important to find a balance between building on what’s already been achieved with established members of the pool and keeping things fresh with new faces and in-form arrivals. That seems to have been the case in September. The stakes rise significantly next month, when Germany and Ghana visit the States for matches that figure to test the USMNT to an extent not seen since last year’s World Cup.
Photo by Jeremy Olson – ISIPhotos.com