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Berhalter's biggest dilemma: How to turn USMNT 'dominance' into goals

9:00 PM MYT 02/02/2022
Gregg Berhalter USMNT 2022
The U.S. have struggled to find the back of the net over the past year, leading to several important slip-ups in World Cup qualifying

There are just four games remaining in the U.S. men's national team's World Cup qualifying campaign and, thus far, it is hard to truly analyse how they have done.

On one hand, the U.S. have largely taken care of business, sitting second in the table with their fate very much in their own hands.

Sure, the U.S. have had some slip-ups and poor performances along the way, but who hasn't (besides Canada)?

On the other, and even looking past those slip-ups, the USMNT has not played anything close to swashbuckling soccer.

They have been flat in the first half of almost every game, and have legitimate issues when it comes to scoring goals. In total, they have netted just 13 goals in 10 games, with four of those coming in a win over their next opponents, Honduras.

Aside from a spectacular win over Mexico and that second-half explosion against Honduras, the U.S. has never truly looked like a great team. They have looked good at times, but not great.

Have they underwhelmed? No. But have they overwhelmed? Not really that either. The U.S., for lack of a better term, has whelmed.

And that is what made Gregg Berhalter's postgame comments after Sunday's loss to Canada so controversial.

After falling 2-0 to Canada in a game that the U.S. was chasing for over 80 minutes, Berhalter strongly defended his team's performance.

"I think it was an entire team effort that was outstanding," Berhalter said. "We asked them to be dominant, we asked them to embrace the conditions, embrace the physicality and I think we did that and more.

"It's hard for me to remember a performance away from home this dominant without getting a result."

He continued: "They couldn't handle our physicality. That's plain and simple. We were running them all over the pitch, and when you look at duels won, when you look at our pressing, they had a very, very hard time dealing with what we were giving them."

Those comments do not sound like they reflect a game that ended in a 2-0 defeat. They also do not sound like they reflect a game where Canada's expected goals (xG) total was higher, and where roughly an even numbers of duels were won by both teams.

But, when asked if he had changed his mind in the days following that defeat, Berhalter doubled down, saying that he is still pleased with how his team played.

"Watching the game back confirmed what I was talking about," Berhalter said. "We were bitterly disappointed with the loss, but happy with the effort and think there was more in that game. We could have gotten more out of the game.

"Watching it back, I think the one thing I was noticing was Canada was in a very low block... and it became challenging. That was an area that we could have improved on.

"There were moments in and around the penalty box where we could have been more clinical with our passing, with our crossing and then the offensive transition should have been better in the moments that they were open.

"We could have taken advantage of that in a better way, but, again, pleased with the effort of the group and pleased with the intensity."

In a way, part of it is understandable. The U.S. continues to look like a Berhalter-coached team. They play proactive, possession-based soccer. They play out from the back. They play through dynamic wingers that are the team's main source of chance creation.

When Berhalter was hired, he was tasked with not just winning, but changing the perception of American soccer. The hope was that he could make this team less reactionary, less reliant on heart and grit and more technical and tactical than past iterations.

So, in that aspect, Sunday was a job well done. The team played in the system, did what they were asked to do and certainly tried to break Canada down. Stylistically, they played the way they wanted to play.

But the problem is that soccer games are not won by the team that is stylistically best or that possesses the ball more; they are won by the team that scores the most goals. And, as things stand, the USMNT simply does not score enough goals.

There are several reasons for that. One is just a general lack of sharpness, as the U.S. has a habit of wasting chances. One is a general lack of speed, as the U.S. continues to be too slow and too methodical when breaking teams down. And one is that several players, namely Christian Pulisic, are out of form right now, and not creating to the best of their abilities.

Add those together and you will have a tough time scoring goals. But then you can also add in the USMNT's biggest issue right now: the No.9 play.

For months, Ricardo Pepi has been the go-to guy at the No.9 position, and rightfully so, as the teenager remains the team's leading scorer in qualifying.

But in the last two games, Berhalter has turned to Jesus Ferreira and Gyasi Zardes and, despite good moments from both, neither has been able to find the net.

So is it as simple as putting Pepi back in and letting him finish the chances? Maybe, but Pepi did not exactly sparkle during his most recent national team games either.

And even if it is that simple, is it fair to say that the USMNT's entire goalscoring problem is dependent on one 19-year-old forward that did not even make his debut until the fall?

The fix, then, is complicated, with multiple components to it.

The first part is simple sharpness, something the U.S. doesn't have right now. MLS players are just starting preseason, while several key players are not in the best form or playing regularly for their clubs. Breaking down a bunkered team is all about being sharp, quick and decisive - all things the U.S. has not been in recent games.

The second part, then, is about system. Berhalter's tactics obviously work, and have worked in several big games this cycle, but it also seems to weigh on the U.S. when they do win the ball back.

In those moments, it appears the players are thinking too much, or too little, and simply keeping possession in a bid to set up the system rather than make any attacking inroads.

One of Jurgen Klinsmann's biggest demands during his tenure was for players to express themselves and, right now, those expressions have not felt quite right.

Wednesday night is a good chance to fix that, as the U.S. face a Honduras team that is already eliminated from World Cup contention. For most of this qualifying run, Honduras have been downright bad, to the point that even a poor attacking performance should be enough to earn three points.

In some ways, that is all that matters. It is not how you get to Qatar, but rather that you actaully get there. The harsh realities of the last cycle show that.

But Wednesday's game is also another chance for the U.S. to actually go out and dominate in the way Berhalter wants them to, while also easing all of the doubts surrounding a team that has not been at its best far too often in recent months.