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USMNT analysis

Amid a lackluster WCQ start and McKennie's dismissal, USMNT faces pivotal game in Honduras

Worries over another ill-fated qualifying campaign after a poor start, discipline issues for a key player, a lack of offense, and a wave of injuries and COVID have made Wednesday's game at Honduras a pivotal moment for a new generation of players that has been perceived as a new era for U.S. Soccer. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
September 07, 2021
3:00 AM

THE USMNT FACES A pivotal moment on Wednesday night when it travels to Honduras for a World Cup qualifier that has so many stories and narratives surrounding it, it is almost tough to wrap your mind around it all.

For one, following an infamous failed World Cup qualification effort in 2016/17, a new generation of American players with loads of individual talent has stumbled out of the gate to reach Qatar. Two lackluster draws in winnable games have seen the U.S. team struggle mostly in the attacking third of the field.

Second, there are injuries, fatigue, and COVID-19 tests that have forced key segments of the squad to miss either parts of this window or Wednesday’s game against Honduras. We knew about long term injuries to Aaron Long, Richie Ledezma, and Jordan Morris. Then you have recent injuries just before camp to Yunus Musah, Paul Arriola, Gyasi Zardes, and Daryl Dike. Finally, you have the injuries or incidents that have happened to players on the roster – Christian Pulisic recovering from quarantine, Gio Reyna’s hamstring ruling him out the last two games, Sergino Dest’s first half injury vs. Canada, Zack Steffen’s back spasms and COVID-19 test.

Third, and most importantly, you have the Weston McKennie saga which is simply different in that it has taken on a life of its own. He’s returned to Italy in embarrassing fashion after he was deemed to have violated team rules – later revealed by ESPN to have been significant violations of COVID-19 protocols.


McKennie let his team down. If US Soccer is going to have rules, the rules have to be enforced for everyone – or else you can’t really have rules. This was a massive test of Berhalter’s reputation. He needs to qualify for his career, and he surely wants his best players there, but he also needs to run a team, and this has forced him to decide to remove a key player.

The fallout continued into Wednesday. Berhalter said that McKennie was not ruled out for future call-ups but said that he was doing this for the long-term health of the program.

But then afterward, McKennie’s father took to Twitter and raised even more concerns about more violations from other players that were not known.

Finally you have an opponent in Honduras which has already opened up with two away draws, has momentum, and will be looking to go in for the kill in front of their own fans.

The talking points now aren’t positive about the opportunity to win three points and get back into good position. The talking points are now negative: 1) The injuries to Champions League players and the fatigue of Pulisic, 2) Can the team score goals? 3) What did Weston do to warrant such a massive decision and 4) Will the U.S. team suffer a second massive failure with a massively hyped generation of players?

All this has created negative momentum and adversity. Winning on the road in Honduras is tough enough and now they have to do it in the face of negative energy.

It essentially has become a pivotal moment for these players, for McKennie, and for Berhalter.

As for the game itself, there are a lot of questions.


Off-ball movement & Set pieces


When you watched (or even rewatched) the first two draws to start qualifying, a massive source of the team’s problems is the lack of off-ball movement.

Against Canada, the team’s front line was Brenden Aaronson, Jordan Pefok, and Christian Pulisic. Aaronson touched the ball 27 times over 83 minutes and Pefok touched the ball 23 times. Then you had Christian Pulisic cutting inside, which is fine, but so was Aaronson. It left the wingers isolated most of the time.

So, the wings were isolated and two players of the team’s starting front three only touched the ball 50 times. There needs to not just more movement to get open, there needs to be better movement as a team – instead of just on an individual basis. When you combine it with a well-organized Canadian defense, it’s really of no surprise that the U.S. team struggled. Nothing was done as a team.

In addition, the passing followed by movement needs to be much, much quicker to break defensive lines and get past defenders.

Finally, set pieces have not generated anything useful for the U.S. team these first two games. Corner kicks or crosses have been easily cleared and set pieces shots have been off target. That will have to change as well. 


Who starts in the backline?


With no Steffen, it is hard to imagine that Matt Turner doesn’t start his third game of the window. He certainly hasn’t done anything to lose his spot.

The fullback positions are also fairly obvious. Sergino Dest is out ant that leaves DeAndre Yedlin in line to start at right back. Antonee Robinson has played well this window and he seems likely to get the start as the stage is likely too big for the young George Bello – who started the recent Gold Cup final win over Mexico last month.

Central defense becomes a big question. John Brooks is healthy and has only played once this window and should start on the left side of central defense. There is also the question of whether or not Miles Robinson is fatigued after playing 180 minutes thus far this window. He’s been very solid and it is hard to see him missing this game.

The big question, however, is whether Berhalter shifts to the three central defenders as part of a 3-4-3 (or a variation) to open more width to allow the fullbacks to get forward. That would then likely see either Tim Ream, Mark McKenzie, or James Sands join the backline as all have started big games in this formation over the summer.

Honduras will attack more than El Salvador or Canada and the U.S. team will want to still be able to push forward while having coverage. Such a system will likely require that the wingers remain wide to flood either side.


The midfield


This will also depend on Berhalter’s formational decision between the 4-3-3 or the 3-4-3. While Tyler Adams has started the first two games, his motor has always been his strength and a third straight start seems most likely. Kellyn Acosta is the most likely player to play the McKennie role and can start in either formation. While Jackson Yueill was added to the roster, he seems to be there for coverage.

A 4-3-3 would require a third midfielder in an advanced position. This could be one of four options – Sebastian Lletget, Cristian Roldan, Brenden Aaronson, or even Christian Pulisic – who can play the No. 10 role.


The front line


All three positions on the front line are full of questions.

There are only three wingers left on the roster – Pulisic, Aaronson, and Konrad de la Fuente (excluding Lletget or Cristian Roldan also playing out wide). If Pulisic isn’t fatigued (and that’s a big “if”) he will start but he also can shift centrally as a No. 10. Aaronson also might be fatigued and de la Fuente looks to be in a strong position to start.

On Wednesday, Pulisic said he felt recovered from Sunday although how close he is to 100% remains to be seen.

The No. 9 center forward position seems to be the most interesting position because both Josh Sargent and Pefok haven’t been coming close to scoring recently. Pefok is the more physical player, but he requires service – otherwise, he will disappear. Sargent, meanwhile, can get on the ball more but has had a tough year.

Then there is the possibility of Ricardo Pepi, the 18-year old budding star at FC Dallas, who has never played for the U.S. national team. Starting Pepi would take a world of guts from Berhalter because it remains to be seen how he would respond.


Lineup prediction


This is never easy, but I think Berhalter goes with a 3-4-3 given the abundance of the central defenders, the need for more width. It would probably limit a No. 10 position but it would help out wide and give over to Antonee Robinson and Yedlin.

Goalkeeper: Matt Turner

Central Defense: Tim Ream (L), John Brooks (C), Miles Robinson (R)

Wingbacks: Antonee Robinson, DeAndre Yedlin

Central Midfield: Tyler Adams, Kellyn Acosta

Wingers: Konrad de la Fuente, Christian Pulisic

Forward: Josh Sargent


Final thoughts


The U.S. team will be far more tested on the backline than in the first two games, but thus far that has been one of the team’s strengths.

From this game, the two big things you want to see from the U.S. team are movement off the ball, quickness in passing, and improved set pieces (which have been poor so far). The U.S. players know what is needed and they have the pieces to fix it.

The question will be ignoring the negativity that has surfaced around this game. Good teams will find a way to turn adversity into a strength by playing with a chip on their shoulder.

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