The United States men’s national team lost to Canada, 2-0, on Tuesday night in Toronto. It was the USMNT’s first loss to Canada in 34 years.
The loss was a searing indictment of the Gregg Berhalter era as head coach of the USMNT. The former Columbus Crew coach has had a deeply uneven start to his tenure with the side, with some nice bits of attacking play undone by hours and hours of plodding, uninspired soccer.
The team hit its nadir under Berhalter with the loss to Canada. A side that was once the dominant force in CONCACAF has now, in the last year, registered losses to Canada and Jamaica. The team also suffered an embarrassing 3-0 shellacking at the hands of Mexico, a team that now looks a few light years ahead of the American side.
Gregg Berhalter came in with a defined philosophy and a new approach to coaching the USMNT. It’s now clear — it’s not working, and unless he’s given years of leeway to implement his vision, it’s absolutely doomed to fail. And, perhaps more, scary: Even if he is given that time, it still might fail.
How we got here
When Gregg Berhalter became the USMNT coach, there were some grumblings over the fact that Berhalter’s brother, Jay, was in management for U.S. Soccer. There had been a yearlong “search” for a manager for the team, and they’d … hired the boss’ brother.
The man who will make the decision on Gregg Berhalter’s future as USMNT coach (Earnie Stewart) is very likely to soon report to … Jay Berhalter, Gregg’s brother. US Soccer, everybody.
— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) October 16, 2019
Still! Berhalter had a nice track record as the manager of Columbus Crew, and had a clearly defined tactical philosophy he wanted to bring to the team. In early days, it was refreshing to see. Berhalter had a style he wanted the team to play, and the team seemed to be picking up on it.
But then the team didn’t seem to be picking up on it. Opponents started understanding the United States’ tendencies, and Berhalter … refused to change anything. He was committed to his style of play, it seemed, above all else.
Players who understood his system — Wil Trapp and Gyasi Zardes most notably — were repeatedly brought into the team, despite the fact that there seemed to be a lot of better options available. (Poor Wil Trapp especially looked so in over his head in some games I felt pity for him.)
This is an age-old coaching question, of course: Do you find the players who fit your system, or do you change the system to fit your players? Berhalter’s answer was clear: He was committed to the system.
The problem is, it’s just never going to work. And that has nothing to do with Berhalter’s system or the players themselves, but the realities of international soccer.
What Berhalter believes
Before we get into why Berhalter is doomed to fail, let’s just set the table super quickly about what sets Berhalter apart from other coaches.
To give a laughably brief history lesson of soccer tactics: There have always been two main schools of thought when it comes to coaching soccer. One is that a team is best served organizing its defense. You focus on keeping goals out. Then in the attacking end, a coach shouldn’t do too much, just putting players in good positions and then hoping their creativity and skill will create chances.
The other philosophy is one in which the attack is orchestrated by the coach, and you defend (in part) by possessing the ball. The other team can’t score if you have it, is the thinking. This theory got a lot of love during the success of the tiki taka school of thought of the Barcelona and Spain teams, where players had been drilled in possession, in creating triangles and passing angles no matter where they were on the field.
That orchestrated attack theory has now been taken even further in world soccer, with coaches not only drilling teams in creating passing angles, but actually orchestrating the exact passes and runs. It’s more like an American football offense, with players having options to make pre-determined runs and passes depending on where the ball is on the field.
Berhalter is a big proponent of this school of thought. His teams have set passing patterns and off-ball runs that are dictated by where the ball is on the field and what options the defense is giving them. If the defense presses high up the field, Berhalter’s teams are meant to execute a series of orchestrated passes to beat that press. They have options, but the options are set before the match even begins.
In the attacking third of the field, they have set routines where USMNT players will overload one side of the field, in order to create 2-on-1s or 3-on-2s. When the defender commits, the USMNT player is then meant to pass to the open option. It’s the RPO of American football, brought to the soccer field.
Berhalter loves this. He’s built an entire tactical philosophy around it. There’s just one problem: It’s not going to work.
Why Berhalter is doomed to fail
There’s a reason international soccer tournaments are rarely as well played as club soccer tournaments — these teams don’t have enough time to practice together.
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Club soccer dominates schedules. A player will spend the vast majority of his practice time with his club team, and just a few weeks a year with the national team, in hastily put together camps featuring a rotating cast of players.
For this reason, most national team coaches will opt for building a simple defensive philosophy, find the best players available, and then get them to defend as a team. This leads to a lot of ugly international soccer games, with teams scrapping it out, but for coaches, it’s the surest way to get results.
Great international teams that have bucked this trend tend to have an extremely unique situation that made it possible. The great Spanish tiki taka teams had an entire core of players who had all grown up learning the system in the Barcelona youth teams. They’d played together for literal decades before they were able to execute those breathtaking attacking/possession moves on the world stage.
Half of Berhalter’s young players were trained in Germany. The other half in MLS. Some are in England. He’s got guys of various ages playing in various leagues all over the world. They’re all trying to learn each other’s names, let alone master a complicated attacking tactical system.
This is the simple truth of why Berhalter is going to struggle, and why this USMNT has looked so unbelievably anemic as of late: They just don’t have enough time.
Great teams that play a system like Berhalter’s have a group of players who all have the options ingrained in them. They make the runs and passes unconsciously — it just becomes a part of them. They’re drilled so much they inherently know where the ball is supposed to go, and they know if and when they can break the rules to create a moment of magic.
Berhalter’s USMNT, on the other hand, looks like a kid who hasn’t quite mastered tying his shoes. There’s a pause, a delay, a half second where they try to figure out exactly what’s supposed to happen. If the run is late, then the pass can’t come, and then the attack is over. There’s no intuition, no creativity. It’s a group of guys trying to remember what they’re supposed to do.
Opponents are feasting
For opponents, the USMNT is exceedingly easy to prepare for. Because the USMNT hasn’t mastered these passing options, and because the players haven’t learned all the creative variations they can throw at an opponent, they fall into routines.
When the USMNT played Mexico earlier this year in the friendly, it was a joke. Tata Martino’s Mexico side realized that the USMNT was going to try and play out of the back on the ground, with the same passing patterns, so they just moved way up the pitch and started taking the ball away. I could just imagine Martino looking at his Mexico assistants like, Are they seriously going to make it this easy for us?
Mexico walloped the U.S. It was hideous. Canada did the same on Tuesday night.
It’s a sad thing to say, but I truly believe it: The USMNT is so much more talented than other teams in CONCACAF, they could probably get away with a coach just throwing out a lineup and telling the guys to go and run around a bit, as my friend Kim argued. Like, this is a joke, but I believe it!
I don’t doubt that Gregg Berhalter has forgotten more about soccer than I will ever know, but the USMNT would also be much better if the coach was a glorified gym teacher saying “OK boys have a go”
— Kim McCauley (@lgbtqfc) October 16, 2019
The USMNT don’t have enough time to learn Berhalter’s system, and these players didn’t grow up playing it. Opponents are understanding that. Against a bad team like Cuba, Berhalter’s passing lanes open up wide and they drop seven goals. Against a halfway decent side, they’re incredibly beatable. Nothing is going to change.
Berhalter either needs years — literal years — to bring up the young players in his system and have them learn it totally, or he needs to go. The first option might result in some nice soccer, eventually, but if that’s the case — shouldn’t a guy like Berhalter be working with the youth national teams to try and implement his system, so the players understand it by the time they get the call up? How many years of losing do U.S. fans have to sit through to realize his vision? And, the scariest question: What if it
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