USMNT

What to watch: USMNT v. Wales

The true old-heads may recall that this here site actually talked primarily about the US Men’s National Team (and US Soccer) in its early stages. Nashville SC coverage being a full-time gig – inasmuch as something that doesn’t pay can be called a “gig” – has eaten into the ability to chat Nats with any regularity. But with an international break that MLS is actually observing(!), the opportunity is upon us.

Here’s what I’ll be paying closest attention to during tomorrow’s friendly against Wales – 1:45 CST on FS1 and TUDN. (Side note: you’ll want to participate in AO Nashville’s virtual watch party).

Personnel

The assumption is that Gregg Berhalter largely goes with a first-choice lineup among players who are fit enough to go. That’s good! It means the John Brooks, Zack Steffen, Gio Reyna, et al types will see the field. It does bring up some other questions, though.

Where does Reyna play? – Capable of playing on the wing or centrally, Reyna draws questions that… have been typical of another US starlet in recent years. He’s a different type of physical specimen than Pulisic (much bigger, but also not nearly as quick with that first step), but the conundrum of “how do we best utilize this guy’s skillset?” is similar. I like him on the wing.

What’s the deal with Yunus Musah? – The latest (future) #dualnationalpanic candidate is Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah, who has represented England at youth levels, and is also eligible for Ghana and possibly Italy (#quadnationalpanic?). I’ve long walked the line between “let dudes make the decision they want” and “gotta cap ’em all” cap-tying in terms of building the player base. Since Musah can’t be cap-tied in a friendly anyway, giving him a major role – to evaluate how he fits into the USMNT system and as a potential sales pitch down the line (“remember how much we appreciated you?”) when the #panic comes to a head – seems wise.

Which perpetually-unhealthy guy can give it a full run? – Pulisic is one option here (though since we already know what the pride of Hershey, Pa. is capable of, I wouldn’t over-tax him UPDATE: he gone). So too are Weston McKennie – less “perpetually injured” than “returning from a COVID diagnosis and not worth over-extending as he tries to become a mainstay in the lineup at a superclub” – Tyler Adams, and Timothy Weah. Obviously, the hope is that all are 100%. If not, let’s not go upsetting their clubs.

What’s the fullback situation? – There are a few different scenarios that have played out (or can play out) in the past. Tim Ream can play on the left side or at CB. Sergiño Dest can play LB or RB (in addition to a couple other flank roles or even centrally). Meanwhile, Antonee Robinson is trying to lock down the LB position for a Premier League club and Reggie Cannon is new to Portugal’s Boavista. The best-case scenario for me is that either Robinson or Cannon is good enough to keep the other off the field while Dest takes the opposite fullback role.

Tactics

I don’t need to go on my long rant about how too many USMNT fans and media outlets focused on “The System” (more like “ThE sYsTeM,” imo) during Gregg Berhalter’s early time in charge. I’m as formation-focused as anyone else, but it was clear to me that what the team was doing had less to do with the specifics (a mechanical “move the right back to central midfield and left back to LCB” type of view of it) and more about the concepts (“attack with three in the backline, two holding mids, and a flexible line of five attackers, while defending with a four-man backline”). This is why, when “tHe SyStEm” was “abandoned” as the MNT went to more traditional 4-2-3-1/4-3-3/4-4-2 tactics – with a central midfielder dropping between the CBs in attack – and the same general principle (attack with a 3-2-5 shell, defend with a 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-4)… well, I didn’t see the abandonment.

I don’t claim to be a soccer genius in the least, but there was a whole lot of missing the forest for the trees in looking at what the team has done thus far under Berhalter. The important principle was the concepts, not the specifics of how those concepts were facilitated.

There are certainly nuances between the ways the team has played even without “ThE sYsTeM.” You could (and I would) contend Berhalter’s philosophy took a more pronounced change between different iterations of non-SySteM gameplans than it did in switching out of The System itself. After Canada’s 4-2-2-2 shredded the team in the first leg of a Nations League group stage in October, a more midfield-control, wing-counter gameplan saw the USMNT dismantle their neighbors to the North. In a friendly against Costa Rica (you may recall Randall Leal and Walker Zimmerman both participated), it was a 4-3-3 press.

The point is that changing the shape (or not changing the shape, but changing which bodies go where to create that shape) is not the same thing as throwing the baby out with the bath water. Nor is a different focus on a given day the same thing as losing whatever was the focus of the previous day. Seeing what we get in this one should be interesting.

The opponent

I’ll admit to knowing next to zilch about Wales except for the presence of Gareth Bale. Also I see a familiar name – goalkeeper Owain Fôn Williams was Indy Eleven’s keeper in 2018 – while perusing their roster, so that’s now two things.

The Welsh rank No. 20 in FIFA’s estimation – two spots ahead of the United States – and in their most recent major tournament, Euro 2016, they made the semifinals (this is good), but were knocked out by Portugal. This… was also more than four years ago (but shouts to Nani for scoring in a win, something he couldn’t complete over the weekend). Former Welsh international Ryan Giggs is the team’s manager but will not be present after a domestic violence arrest last weekend.

This is not a particularly experienced Welsh team at the international level, either. Aside from defenders Chris Gunter (97 caps) and Ben Davies (57 caps), and Bale (85), only one player eclipses the 20-cap mark for the national team. Like the United States, this is a relatively young team looking to build its chops a bit going into a busy 2021 international calendar.

Tyler Adams photo courtesy US Soccer and the only one I have on file/tagged of a current MNTer.

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