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Thursday, December 8, 2022

Gregg Berhalter and USMNT face more questions as World Cup prep falters

The stands in both Dusseldorf and Murcia were largely empty, but the reaction to the USA’s dismal performances against Japan and Saudi Arabia was loud. This international window was Gregg Berhalter’s last chance to fine-tune his team ahead of the 2022 World Cup. With less than two months until their first match, this was a time to provide answers.

Instead, back-to-back defeats produced a host of new questions.

Against both Japan and Saudi Arabia, the US men’s national team was lifeless. Japan pressed high and picked off the US midfielders as they struggled to progress the ball up the pitch. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, remained compact and asked the USMNT to play through them.

Gregg Berhalter’s team failed both tests miserably, losing 2-0 to Japan and drawing 0-0 against Saudi Arabia.

“There’s not many players that performed up to their normal levels in this camp, and that’s just how it is,” Berhalter admitted after the goalless draw in Spain. “And it’s our job to get them confident so they can perform up to their normal levels. So you can ask about [the performance of the] center backs or full backs or forwards, anyone you want to ask. I’d say we were below our normal levels.”

180 minutes of soccer passed without the USA scoring a single goal. What’s more, they never looked capable of scoring a goal – the US mustered just two shots on target over the two matches, and both were against Saudi Arabia. Ricardo Pepi, called up against popular opinion to stake his claim for a World Cup roster spot, registered just 13 touches of the ball on Tuesday – fewer than even goalkeeper Matt Turner.

Such attacking weakness is a symptom of bigger problems than the rotation of strikers that have been deployed up front over the last few years. There is a growing debate about the system Berhalter is certain to use at the 2022 World Cup. The 49-year-old has placed great emphasis on possession during his tenure as USMNT boss, but his team looked as shaky on the ball in this window as they ever have under his stewardship.

Some of this may have been down to rust. Of the front three that started against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, not one is in an optimal situation at club level – Ricardo Pepi has only just moved to Groningen on loan from Augsburg, Gio Reyna is still recovering from a nightmare year of persistent injuries, and Christian Pulisic remains a peripheral figure at Chelsea. A lack of game time may explain some of the sloppiness. 

However, Berhalter has to do more to show that his preferred system and approach is suitable for the group of players he has. In terms of individual talent, the current USMNT squad is the strongest the country has ever sent to a World Cup, yet Berhalter’s team looks less than the sum of its parts.

Build-up to the final international window before the start of the 2022 World Cup revolved around the players omitted from Berhalter’s roster. Jordan Pefok’s absence was most confusing given his excellent form for Union Berlin in the Bundesliga this season. Injuries to Yunus Musah, Chris Richards, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Antonee Robinson weren’t helpful during a period when teams need to be coalescing as a consistent unit.

Now, though, the discussion around the USMNT ahead of the World Cup has become ideological. Is Berhalter really getting the best out of his players? This is a tight-knit group that has evolved their gameplay over the last three years, which begs the question: why do they look so unsure of their basic roles and responsibilities within the team? This close to a World Cup, the US should be nearly the finished article. Instead, they remain a work-in-progress.

Berhalter might still find answers to these pressing questions before the November 21 date with destiny, but he has no further opportunities to test out potential solutions on the pitch ahead of the World Cup opener against Wales. The two matches against Japan and Saudi Arabia should have been about consolidation, not reconstruction.

One of the most concerning things about the performances against Japan and Saudi Arabia was the apparent inability of the players on the pitch to problem solve. Berhalter revealed that his instructions hadn’t been absorbed effectively. Under typical club circumstances, many would be quick to blame the players. But at international level, after three years of system instruction, this suggests that the USMNT head coach might have to simplify his approach.

The problem is that Berhalter has no more time to do so. By this point, the USMNT should be soaring into the 2022 World Cup. Instead, they’re still building the plane while flying it.

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