It doesn’t take a lot to make the USMNT fanbase apoplectic, but two disappointing draws to start the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign will certainly do it. The US have looked clunky and unimaginative in attack through two games. They sputtered through a 0-0 draw in El Salvador and came back home to Nashville needing three points against Canada.
They didn’t get them.
A disappointing draw against Canada
The 1-1 draw was similar in a lot of ways to the El Salvador game. The US held possession for long stretches, but would pass the ball aimlessly around the back, failing to make in-roads against a stout Canada defense. Facing the threat of a lightning-fast counter-attack, the US was conservative in sending numbers forward, particularly on the wings. They did not have the midfield creativity to compensate.
It hurt to not have Weston McKennie or Gio Reyna available, but they were both on the field in El Salvador and these same problems cropped up. The US is too one-dimensional on the ball — they are predictable, content with possession for possession’s sake, and dependent on either scrappiness in front of goal or a moment of individual brilliance in order to create chances.
The goal against Canada showcased a faster, more direct US. Brenden Aaronson forced a turnover in Canada’s half and initiated a counter-attack sequence that he ultimately finished. It wasn’t a giveaway at the back or a misplaced pass; it was a relatively simple change of possession that the US turned into something more. They had space to get the ball wide to an overlapping Antonee Robinson, who provided the final ball.
Rather than circling the ball around Canada’s strong five-at-the-back, the US counter-pressed and found themselves with a chance to run at a disjointed shape. It didn’t take an intricate passing sequence to put the ball in the right place. Instead, it was the result of a coordinated press, and from there, the US’s quality took over.
If there’s one thing that analytics have told us about soccer, it’s that winning the ball in advantageous positions is one of the most valuable actions in the game. Aaronson having the ball ten yards ahead of midfield is not inherently a difference-maker. But when he wins the ball there and Canada isn’t in its defensive shape, the US can turn it into something good:
It’s crucial that the US put themselves in these positions more often. Ending the game with 72 percent possession and 11 shots (compared to Canada’s six) is nice, but the US’s chances came from tight, well-defended situations around the box. Effective combination play was rare, and in the few moments in which the US tried to take on defenders 1v1, they mostly got stoned and lost the ball apart from some Christian Pulisic moments.
The possession problem
Gregg Berhalter is determined to play with the ball a lot, and that is a respectable goal. He knows that the US’s path to beating non-Mexico Concacaf teams is breaking down defensive structures. The problem is that the US bogs themselves down too much when they slow down possession, and they don’t have the pinpoint passers or slick dribblers to solve that problem.
Against Canada, Kellyn Acosta and Sebastian Lletget surrounded Tyler Adams in the three-man midfield. Adams was excellent in the No. 6 role, shutting down counter-attacks and covering a ton of space. But Acosta and Lletget aren’t in there to pick out passes and advance the ball into good areas. They are good connectors who do great work defensively (especially Acosta). Neither of them fit the mold of a creative force.
Pulisic tried to fill the void by inverting from the left wing, sometimes dropping deep to find the ball. That’s not a bad role for him, and he was active for the most part, but he didn’t have passing options when he got on the ball.
The full backs, for understandable reasons, were often hesitant to push up, particularly once Sergino Dest exited with an ankle injury after 40 minutes. Jordan Pefok, playing up top, struggled to make himself available as a hold-up option. Ultimately, they need more effective ways to create consistent chances.
This US team has a ton of talent that we know can play together. The 4-3-3 formation is the right set-up, and their defense continues to be very good. The underperformance has to stop quickly, because the margins are tight in World Cup qualifying.
The solution to their attacking problems might be to tone down the patient possession and focus more on going direct with coordinated pressure and quicker plays into space. With a third game coming up in Honduras on Wednesday, the US have to figure it out enough to get three points.