Nashville SC USMNT

Lessons from the Concacaf Nations League final

If someone could photoshop a little Nations League trophy in between some of those stars. Thanks.

The United States Men’s National team has officially won the longest-standing and most-contested trophy in the world. In the [checks notes] uh, inaugural edition of the Concacaf Nations League, the Red White and Blue beat Mexico 3-2 in an extra-time thriller.

It was the first competitive victory over the regional archrival since September 10, 2013 (a World Cup qualifier in Columbus), and first win of any variety – albeit with only a couple prior tries due to such events as a global pandemic – over El Tri since September 11, 2018. You may recall that game as having taken place in Nashville, Tennessee. Last night’s game included one of the familiar frustrations (a certain homophobic chant) that plagued the squads’ Music City meeting, though at least the 90th-minute pause in the game to stamp it out at least existed this time.

You could certainly say that the first Concacaf Nations League champion was a deserving winner. The Americans came out with a tactical switch-up, going with a 3-4-3 to counter Mexico’s hybrid 3-4-3/4-3-3 scheme. That meant starting CB John Brooks was flanked by the guys who turned out to have the weakest performances on the night, with a Mark McKenzie (RCB) turnover in the opening minute of the game leading to Mexico’s Tecatito Corona putting his team on board early. The US would respond with winger Gio Reyna cleaning up a rebound after a corner-kick header to bring the sides back level in the 27th.

The third centerback, Tim Ream, would be the victim of Mexico’s other tally (though after he had moved to LB following some substitutions). The veteran was defenestrated by young winger Diego Lainez, with the Real Betis… uh… luxury piece?… putting one past backup keeper Ethan Horvath – only in action because of a muscle strain to Zack Steffen a few minutes earlier – to regain the lead for Mexico.

This time, it took just three minutes for the Americans to equalize. Once again a set piece, and once again Weston McKennie rising above the opposition. This time, he didn’t need Reyna to finish the play. He beat veteran Mexico keeper Memo Ochoa cleanly, and extra time beckoned.

The whole game was bonkers, but the 30 minutes after regulation were particularly so. And that’s despite your once-per-meeting incident of a Mexico player going unpunished for attempting to strangle Weston McKennie happening prior to the end of the 90 minutes! Each team received a penalty kick after video review in extra time. Christian Pulisic converted for the U.S. Horvath made a save in the bottom corner on the attempt from Mexico’s AndrĂ©s Guardado (a McKennie strangler of yore), and the Americans held on through 11 minutes of stoppage time to earn thew win.

It was fun, it was exhausting, it was a trophy won against a hated rival. It was rad.

Let’s spin it toward home, and take a look at some of the lessons for Nashville SC.

It’s Jimmies and Joes. Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, and Christian Pulisic all had weak moments for the Americans. Reyna sometimes struggles to fit into the tactical approach, McKennie’s desire to be an attack-first midfielder can negatively impact the Americans’ spacing, and Pulisic was uncharacteristically weak controlling a few passes from teammates, and didn’t do the thing he usually excels with most: dribbling defenders. If I were to tell you that they were the three goal-scorers before the game, though, you’d probably say, ‘well yeah, that makes sense.’ Talent wins.

You could say the same for Mexico’s goals – both the incredible play by Lainez against a clearly-struggling Ream, as well as the simple interception and blast to open the game. If you have good players, you will do a heck of a lot better than if you don’t.

For Nashville… well, this team has not yet been among the top spenders in Major League Soccer – and salary budget is often a solid proxy for talent on the roster. General Manager Mike Jacobs has spent smart, which allows the Boys in Gold to have more ability than the simple budget number may indicate. But it’ll be interesting to see if there’s an NSC2.0 where the club takes spending to another level and potentially finds a slot among the league’s elite.

Don’t fear tactical flexibility. I spent a lot of time in the early Berhalter years noting that observers’ obsession with “ThE sYsTeM” was misguided. Certainly there were times when tactical innovations (the hybrid RB/CDM role, for example) seemed superfluous or like a waste of time. The bigger picture, though, was about being able to have the concepts in place. Those concepts don’t necessarily have to be universal – whether that’s having the 3-2-5 attacking posture with an even backline, some of the specific scripted movements, etc. – but having them installed and applicable in multiple tactical approaches is helpful.

With that said, this was something completely different than what we’re used to seeing from Berhalter’s USMNT. A 3-4-3 allows some of the things he’s liked in the past (including a back-three in attacking postures, and the ability to create wide overloads to progress the ball centrally), the presence of wingbacks and the different ways to play the defensive midfield were not particularly familiar to fans who have been watching for the past couple years. Overcoming (maybe creating) weak links through changing tactical plans is a risk-reward proposition that’s less significant the more talent you have.

We’ve seen NSC flip between a couple different ideas, albeit ones that are closer to each other (a back four and a double-pivot in central midfield aren’t going anywhere any time soon, in all likelihood), but there can be experimentation within that.

Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney good. Mistakes though they may occasionally make, Walker Zimmerman and Dave Romney are exceptional defenders. I’ve come close to writing off his USMNT career at times, but there’s absolutely still a role beyond the Gold Cup for Zimmerman with this program.

You’d also have a hard time convincing me that Romney would be any worse than Ream was last night (and that’s not necessarily a rip on Ream, even if one could be deserved). They have similar experiences – primarily CBs who have also played LB – and while Ream has obviously made it to higher levels of the game, I’m not convinced that a 33-year old version of him is better than the 27-year old version of Romney. I think there’s also an argument that had Romney been treated better by the LA Galaxy – i.e. if the Galaxy had not been run horrifically poorly in the five years he was there – there’s a chance he might have gotten enough run early enough in his career to have had a chance for a European adventure himself.

Ref show. It happens at the highest levels. But holy smokes, was that performance something else. Both VAR-granted penalties were borderline, but I’d say the right call in the end. The flourish with which each (though more the US one) was presented tells you a little bit about how the official sees the game. That Hector Herrera throttled a dude about the neck and committed one surefire yellow-card-worthy offense and another that was pretty close to red-worthy… and didn’t manage to pick up a second yellow card for any of it was ridiculous.

That’s all to say, next time you get upset about MLS officiating (and aside isolated incidents, I think it’s much better than it gets credit for), remember that this is possible at an even higher level. Be thankful for what you’ve got.

Good keeping goes a long way. I’ve been a bit of a Zack Steffen skeptic (though perhaps not as skeptical as some others), and a Horvath promoter over time. Steffen obviously has physical attributes that really impress folks. But… does the US win that game if Steffen – who hopefully is OK – finishes out the match?

I think it’s more likely that Horvath was a slight upgrade over Steffen than a slight downgrade. Oddly enough, the play that’s going to get Horvath all sorts of headlines – a penalty save – is Steffen’s specialty. But Horvath’s positioning, command, and shot-stopping all felt like upgrades (with the admission that this could be through the lens of hindsight). He’s still a bit of a double-catcher and doesn’t corral hard shots cleanly, but that’s not the greatest sin when you’re an upgrade in a lot of other ways.

From a Nashville perspective… Joe Willis (like his CBs) has been imperfect this year. But you’d have a hard time convincing me he’s outside of the top handful of MLS keepers, and when you have quality at the back, there’s a little more margin for error elsewhere.

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