Analysis: USMNT stumbles in qualifying following 1-1 home draw to Canada
September 05, 2021
THE UNITED STATES NATIONAL team played to a disappointing 1-1 draw with Canada on Sunday night in Nashville and now has an uphill climb to get their qualifying campaign back on track. U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter rotated his squad heavily from the draw in El Salvador but the team simply did not have enough ideas to generate opportunities to score.
The U.S. team dominated possession throughout the game but Canada’s defense was superbly well-organized and the U.S. team’s offense was way too static. The biggest problem is that while the Americans took the lead in the 56th minute, which would have forced Canada out of its bunker over time, they let their guard down in the 66th minute when Alphonso Davies made a great individual play to get past DeAndre Yedlin and find Cyle Larin a wide-open tap-in equalizer.
From there, the U.S. team simply fell flat offensively, and Canada drifted back into its bunker – while also being able to come close on a few chances on transition attack.
To make matters worse, Canada started Alphonso Davies, but this was not a top Canadian XI with Tajon Buchanan and Jonathan David only coming off the bench.
"The effort was outstanding but the performance wasn't up to what we expect," Berhalter said. "We knew there were going to be tough games and we're getting into it. We're finding out these are tough games. That's something we have to deal with. Our success is going to depend on how we deal with that as a team."
Here are some thoughts on the U.S. team’s game
McKennie lets team down
The big story ahead of the game came when Berhalter announced that Weston McKennie was suspended for the game for violating team’s rules. Later, McKennie said on his Instagram that it was COVID rules he broke. This isn’t the first time that this has been an issue with McKennie as he was suspended last season for Juventus for throwing a party amid Italian lockdowns. There have also been grumblings in the Italian media about off-field habits.
Team rules are put into place for reasons and for them to have any meaning, they have to be enforced. This is on McKennie and the fact that this isn’t his first violation means that this has to be a huge concern. He’s one of the most talented American players of his generation but he needs to be sharp off the field if he’s going to hit his potential. Part of getting through to him is sending him a stern message. The team could have used him against Canada, but the reason why he was unavailable is him.
Weston McKennie is really talented. But these things are becoming a concern— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) September 5, 2021
Inexperience is obvious
It is tough to prepare for World Cup qualifying. It is different than other games that take place in the Gold Cup, Nations League, and certainly friendlies. Teams do whatever it takes to win these games whereas the other games can see some experimenting. When the U.S. team played Canada in the Nations League in 2019 or at the Gold Cup this past summer, Canada tried to play with the U.S. team. In this game, it was a completely different approach.
The fact that World Cup qualifying is new to so many players on the U.S. team is becoming apparent. It is understandable that the U.S. team had to move on from the previous core of players, but the fact that there is so little turnover from the last cycle means that there is a learning curve. The U.S. team was the first to qualify in CONCACAF in 2005 with a dominant Hex. It also won the Hex in 2009 and 2013. But during each of those cycles, it was able to introduce new players for the following cycle. This allowed the U.S. team to field prepared teams for qualifying. This current team is talented, but is also learning the ins and outs of qualifying on the fly and it is obvious.
No Bunker Busting passes
That inexperience was on display last night as the U.S. team was asked to break down a bunker – which this group has never seen in Nations League, Gold Cups, or friendlies.
Canada had a remarkably compact defense – plus world-class talent for a counterattack in Alphonso Davies. That was all they needed to get the desired result.
In this game, the U.S. held possession, but players waited too long to pass and Canada always had time to adjust defensively. This game required more opportunities like the goal they scored or their best chance in the first half when Sebastian Lletget quickly swung the ball out wide for Aarronson who swung the ball centrally for Pulsic – who hit the post.
It makes the decision to start Pefok questionable. Pefok needs service but the players who provided service were never open to hit crosses or hit through balls. Pefok is the player who is only effective if the rest of the attack is sorted out – otherwise, he’s stranded.
While Brenden Aaronson scored the team's goal, he still only managed 29 touches in the game while Pefok had just 23. So 2/3 of the U.S. team's frontline wasn't getting the ball nearly enough.
Unfortunately, the playbook is open on the U.S. team. Canada showed how to play road games in the United States.
"It was a really compact 5-4-1, sometimes changing to a 4-1-3-2 and it was tough to break down, it really was," Berhalter said. "We needed much faster ball movement. Everyone could see from the outside. It just took way too long on the ball. It allows Canada to shift... we have to work on that. We have to figure out ways to breakdown a compact defense because I am sure there are going to be other teams that come to the United States and do the same thing."
How quickly the U.S. team and Berhalter adjusts to this will be a defining story. El Salvador and Canada have exposed a true weakness for the U.S. team when the games become critical.
Proactive vs. Reactive substitutions
Aside from bringing Yedlin into the game in the first half due to a Dest injury, Berhalter didn’t make a sub until the 83rd minute – 10 minutes after Canada equalized. When questioned about this afterward, Berhalter made a statement that he didn’t see anyone performing poorly enough to be subbed.
“With substitutes, we are looking at who is not performing up to standard,” Berhalter explained. “Who is off the game? We felt with our attacking players, Jordan was still being somewhat effective with his physicality. Brenden was one of our better players with his tenacity and his counter-pressing. Then it was balancing with who we thought we could bring on.”
“I can understand how it looks like we should have acted quicker,” he added.
But this raises the questions between the proactive vs. reactive use of substitutions. Waiting for players to deteriorate or underperform is a reactive approach to something negative instead of looking to create something positive with a change – a proactive approach.
The triple subs that came into the game in the 83rd minute all played pretty well, but didn’t have enough time to settle in and help the U.S. team. Looking back, the subs simply came into the game too late.
The best use of substitutes it to be proactive and try to change the game instead of being reactive to a game where the opponent is taking control and achieving its objectives.
Defense is team’s strength
If U.S. fans need some sort of reason for hope, that can be found in the team’s defense. Miles Robinson, John Brooks, Matt Turner, with Tyler Adams in front of the backline look legit to prevent goals. If it takes an individual effort from one of the best players in the world to allow a goal, that is stuff that is just going to happen. There are few players of his quality anywhere.
The team badly lacks dynamic play in the front line and attacking midfield, but it’s not playing poorly across the board. It has the defense right now where a goal or two will get the job done.
The Gold Cup was a success but was far from an offensive display for the U.S. team where it had five separate 1-0 wins – thanks a lot to Miles Robinson and Matt Turner.
Scoring from the #9 a concern
Gregg Berhalter has frequently said that the center forward from a No. 9 needs to score goals. That has yet to come, and neither Josh Sargent or Jordan Pefok have been particularly close. Sargent, in particular, hasn’t been scoring for the U.S. team in awhile. Pefok, meanwhile, is a classic target forward that is going to be invisible unless he gets the service.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if Berhalter continues to explore options like Ricardo Pepi, or plays Daryl Dike or Gyasi Zardes when they return to playing regularly.
This position has truly never been settled for over a decade given frequent injuries to players like Jozy Altidore, Aron Johannsson, and others.
It continues to be a big problem at a critical stage.
Looking ahead to Honduras
The away visit to Honduras was always going to be the most challenging game of this window and Honduras will come into this game with the momentum of two away draws – to Canada and El Salvador.
There are also massive questions for the U.S. team who have taken massive hits for injury. Zack Steffen, Gio Reyna, Sergino Dest (likely) are out. Heading into camp, Tim Weah, Gyasi Zardes, Paul Arriola, and Yunus Musah. Then there are long term injuries to Richie Ledezma, Jordan Morris, and Aaron Long.
Then you have fatigue issues for Christian Pulisic (who appeared seriously gassed towards the end of the last game), Tyler Adams, and Miles Robinson. Also, it remains to be seen if Weston McKennie will be allowed to participate after his suspension.
This is gut check time for the U.S. team. A much hyped generation of players is facing a massive amount of adversity – shorthanded on players and results while heading to face a difficult Honduras team.
Berhalter will likely go with the same backline that finished the game (A. Robinson, Brooks, M. Robinson, and Yedlin) as there is a comfort level with that group.
Tyler Adams said he was ready to play three games this window and he has a remarkable engine.
The rest of the lineup comes down to internal decisions. Is McKennnie allowed back? Is Pulisic fit? How does Berhalter get production from the No. 9, does Pepi play?
Whoever plays, they need to be able to play quicker to help possession translate into opportunities.
The starting lineup
Matt Turner: Made one save, and also another impressive stop on a shot going wide. He commanded his box well but had no chance on the goal. Rating: 6.5
Antonee Robinson: Was one of the better U.S. players and had a nice assist on Aaronson’s goal. Rating: 7.0
Miles Robinson: A very solid day for the Atlanta United defender who won 6/6 of his duels, had 117 touches, was 94/106 passing, and was 3/6 in his long balls. He made all the plays asked of him. Rating: 7.5
John Brooks: Was beat a few times on Canadian offensive plays, including letting Larin slip by him for the equalizer. Rating: 5.0
Sergino Dest: The Barcelona fullback was only able to play 43 minutes after picking up an ankle injury. He was offensively dangerous a few times but also defensively suspect. Rating: 5.5
Tyler Adams: Adams was having a good game until later in the second half when a carless and intentional foul halted a very dangerous U.S. counterattack. Adams clearly should have known better and this was immature. Rating: 6.0
Kellyn Acosta: The Colorado midfielder wasn’t as dynamic as he can be in the middle of the field and didn’t help to breakdown Canada’s bunker. On a positive note, he was important to the buildup of the U.S. team’s goal. Rating: 5.5
Sebastian Lletget: Had a few nice plays, such as setting up the play for Pulisic’s shot off the post. Defensively, he did well to stop a few counterattacks before they materialized. But was also frustrated by the bunker. Rating: 6.0
Christian Pulisic: The Chelsea attacker was welcome addition to the attack where he drew five fouls hit the post, and was part of every dangerous chance the U.S. team had. The biggest negative was his set piece deliveries. Rating: 7.5
Brenden Aaronson: Created and scored the U.S. team’s only with a combination of defensive ball-winning, run-making, and finishing. His once concern is just being able to get on the ball more to have a consistent impact. 29 touches through 83 minutes in a game where the U.S. team had 70% possession isn’t enough for a key offensive player. Rating: 6.5
Jordan Pefok: The Young Boys forward had a few nice moments but was mostly invisible and failed to make meaningful impact except for his buildup on the goal. Rating: 5.0
DeAndre Yedlin: Tough assignment to defend Davies, who exploited him on the goal. Moving forward, Yedlin did not offer much in the attack. Rating: 4.5
Josh Sargent: Sargent was active but came into the game too late to make an impact. Rating: NR
Cristian Roldan: Lively sub but should have had more minutes. Rating: NR
Konrad de la Fuente: Didn’t really have the opportunity to do much. Rating: NR