“So here’s a play where we’re going to go from the finishing attack phase to preparing for a defensive transition,” USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter explained to Taylor Twellman as they poured over footage of their 1-0 win over Ecuador last week. Berhalter pointed out three players in Tim Ream, Wil Trapp, and Tyler Adams who trailed the ball, discussing how their role was to sit close to opposition midfielders around the box and recover headed clearances following crosses.
“Look at the intensity that both Wil and Tim are using to come forward,” Berhalter noticed, as pressure from the two players not only resulted in a failed counter attack by Ecuador, but turned into another opportunity for his side to send in another cross. For all of preparation, mental mistakes, and individual battles that take place over 90 minutes of a match, Berhalter emphasized defensive transitions above all as the moment the USMNT must win.
That attention to detail was not lost on their opposition.
“This is the best United States team I have ever faced, I have done it for many years and with different selections,” remarked Ecuador manager Hernan Dario Gomez after the loss.
Although Gyasi Zardes’ 81st minute goal came off a deflection, the sequence leading up to his strike was forced by another high pressing situation: Sebastian Lletget forced a risky pass, with Ream intercepting and quickly playing in Zardes before Ecuador could react. Possession is how Berhalter distinguished himself with the Columbus Crew before being named the national team manager after a long search, but winning defensive transitions is an essential part of retrieving the ball without damage.
There is a common, repetitive opening sequence to building possession of goalkicks that begins something like this: the two center backs split wide. The two fullbacks push up towards midfield, moving their opposition defenders with them. The deep-lying playmaker drops deep to receive the ball, with passing options wide and through the middle. The goal is to attract defenders in order to switch play to get the opposite side winger free. It is about distances and spaces between attacking teammates, making the field as wide as possible to open up room for creative midfielders and wingers to operate 1 on 1. Berhalter uses the term “disorganize” in how he wants to flummox opponents with movement, passing, and tempo.
Berhalter’s rose to the wider football consciousness as his Crew abided by these rules of both position and pressing. And while his combination of aesthetics and modernity were viewed as significant symbolic milestones in terms of how future national team sides would play, there was one significant roadblock in Berhalter’s ability to succeed at this next level: the lack of a true playmaker. Or, to put it more succinctly, the USMNT “does not have a Federico Higuain,” a #10 who could unlock - or disorganize - an entire defense with one backheel.
Then again, how many countries outside of Argentina still develop that type of player? Surely, with the deepest talent pool the national team has ever had, there must be some solution amongst the individual dribblers and box to box midfielders playing overseas. Although an imperfect candidate due to his ability to create on the wing, Christian Pulisic was an obvious name to handle creative responsibilities. The Dortmund, soon-to-be Chelsea winger said that it didn’t matter where he played, as long as it was somewhere in the attacking area. Perhaps even more important is his confidence in Berhalter. “I’ve been amazed...with just how much information he’s gotten across, and how he wants every guy to be on the same page and have a perfect understanding of how we want to get into the game,” he said before the Ecuador match.
Yet it was another young star in the Bundesliga who unwittingly became a lightning rod for the new style and philosophy of the national side. As a marauding right back turned box-to-box midfielder for RB Leipzig, currently third on the Bundesliga table, Tyler Adams may simultaneously be the best player at each positions at the international level. But by taking ideas from Pep Guardiola’s use of fullbacks in center midfield from last season, added with Berhalter’s flexibility in positioning, enabled Adams to fulfill the best of both roles. He’d defend as a fullback and move into midfield as a ballwinner in possession alongside the passing of Trapp. The phase of the match dictates roles and formations.
“We’ve had Skype calls with tactics on the Skype call, which I didn’t even know you can do,” gushed Adams about his new manager. “He’s ahead of time in his technology phase...there’s graphics and stuff like that...so I can try to understand and grasp the role before I come into camp,” Adams added, before noting his freedom of responsibility. By having a rehearsed set of movements beforehand, tactics quickly travel from the states to Europe, from manager to player, with immediate implementation. It certainly did feel like the national side had entered a modern era, in more ways than one.
Just days later, amid the pressing-based, new era glow, the U.S. national team played their second friendly against Chile. After Pulisic scored four minutes into the match, Chile, whose previous generation defined high pressure at the international level, showed exactly why they were Copa America champions. They equalized and controlled 66% of possession the rest of the match, while completing 795 passes to 399 for the U.S. It was a stark reminder of the levels of competition.
The most noticeable difference between the two matches was not necessarily in possession or administering a high press, but in the way that Berhalter’s struggled defending deep. The freedom with which Arturo Vidal moved and found space up the middle raised another contentious debate of how useful Michael Bradley still is at the international level. Berhalter could only praise his side’s resiliency against a tougher opponent. Sent back down to earth, the final consensus from this past week was that at the very least, the USMNT had built up enough positive momentum heading into this summer’s Gold Cup.
As MLS players gain European attention, MLS managers have also created inroads at higher levels. Using the Red Bull pipeline, Jesse Marsch became an assistant with RB Leipzig, and now is rumored to become the next manager at RB Salzburg. Patrick Vieira used his time at NYCFC to springboard to a Ligue 1 position. At the very least, Berhalter’s hiring was a small win for the tactically-influenced crowd, especially in contrast to a status quo, bunkering 442 approach. Berhalter is maybe the most modern manager the national time has ever had in terms of being on the forefront of tactics, and but he is the most open when discussing and sharing his thoughts on the game.
“Being a defender myself, I always had a hard time processing teams that had a lot of movement want wanted to disorganize us,” Berhalter explained on MLS’ official website shortly after taking over the national team job. “That’s the type of team, if I was coaching, that I would like to set up.”
It’s interesting to consider the lessons a manager takes from their playing time when applying it as a tactician. Berhalter’s style was developed through experiences on the field, honed as a manager with the Crew, and now is further tested at the highest level of international competition. The answer was movement, spacing, and pressing. And considering his affinity for explanation, plus the way we devour information online, perhaps he’ll further progress another generation of tacticians as well.