It was a week of reminders that the United States has never been entirely uncomplicated, identity-wise.
Iranian journalists grabbed the mic at a World Cup press conference to point out that their opponents were comfortable explaining why their boys are in the Persian Gulf (to kick ass and change the way the world views American soccer, natch) but not why their naval warships are, and that the United States is proud to stand with Iranian protesters via cryptic World Cup subtweets but may also perhaps have a few human rights issues of its own to work on.
Anyway, against a backdrop like that, it made a cosmic sort of sense that the United States continues to look like two totally different national teams on the pitch, too.
One team is composed, almost debonair, waltzing around the attacking half in practised passing triangles and chivalrously holding a chair for any loose balls to come take a seat beside Tyler Adams. That US shows up in tied games and has a special fondness for first halves.
The other version of this team is a thrash metal festival of pure, self-destructive chaos. Whenever the United States takes a lead, they play like they’ve been infested by those parasitic worms that make zombified host insects jump into water and drown themselves. Attacks are fast and disjointed, defensive transitions are sloppy and the back line looks like it’s never played together (which, against Iran, happened to be true).
You’d never believe this is the same side that starts matches so smoothly. Clinging to a one-goal lead that meant the difference between going through to the knockout rounds or going out to Iran, the US went from dominating the first half to spending the second half getting repeatedly kicked in the … well, let’s just say they left with a “pelvic contusion.”
It wasn’t just this one game. Through the first 10 days of the World Cup, the United States ranks ninth for expected goal difference when the score is level, one spot behind England. During minutes when they have a lead, the US ranks dead last, behind Saudi Arabia.
That’s not quite as bad as it sounds — the US have yet to trail in this World Cup, and part of the reason opponents have had lots of chances to rack up xG is that only the Netherlands have spent more minutes winning — but it’s probably not best practice to close out games by hurling yourself off a cliff and hoping to hit enough branches on the way down to break your fall.
The important question is, which one of these teams is the real United States?
Will the knockout rounds see the cool, suave, Brahms-connoisseur Americans that controlled their group for long stretches or the mosh pit pandemonium from the second half against Wales and Iran? What’s the deal with these guys, anyway?
Maybe we should start with what makes this team work (when it does).
The United States has used more or less the same line-up in all three games so far, but in three different tactical configurations. The wild card each time has been Weston McKennie. Against Wales, the senior midfielder roamed between the lines while Yunus Musah sat deeper on the left. Against England, McKennie played something more like his wide midfield role at Juventus, shuttling up the right sideline and crashing the box.
For the win-or-go-home Iran game, Gregg Berhalter pulled out a surprise: he moved McKennie to the left.
Swapping the midfielders helped balance the team. With McKennie pulling strings underneath him, Christian Pulisic did less dropping to the ball as an unreliable inside playmaker and more of the off-ball runs that he excels at. Meanwhile, Musah’s defensive presence on the right allowed Sergiño Dest to climb out of the deep role he’d been stuck in for the first two games and get up the wing to attack.
Those changes worked to improbable perfection on the United States’ goal: McKennie received the ball on the left and hit a diagonal to Dest on the opposite wing (a pass he made sure to look for all game). Dest headed the ball across the six-yard box and Pulisic, relieved of playmaking duty, made the off-ball run to finish it.
“We talked about it before the game,” Tim Ream said after the game. “That exactly was how we were going to score.”
NOTHING WAS STOPPING PULISIC FROM SCORING 😤
Take another look at his first-ever FIFA World Cup goal for the @USMNT 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/s6tKehRLg2
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 29, 2022
Unfortunately for coaches, it’s not often that passing patterns work out exactly how you planned. The most valuable thing about the United States’ possession game isn’t that it makes it easy to, in Berhalter-ese, “disorganise the opponent with the ball.” It’s that it sets the team up to keep winning the ball back again and again while opponents disorganise themselves trying to counter-attack.
Take a look at both teams’ positions right before the goal. The United States’ nine-pass build-up before the ball reached McKennie has pushed every Iranian player except one back into their defensive third and brought the attack forward together, as a unit, in a planned shape.
Dest and Robinson’s aggressive positions on the wings pin Iran’s wide players deep, while the two American center backs outnumber Iran’s lone forward so that one of them can slide over to cut out long counter-attacks on either side while the other sticks to the striker.
In the middle, the US have three players between the lines and three more at the edge of Iran’s defensive block. Even if they lose the ball, there’s nowhere for Iran to go with it. They’re boxed in.
The structure that keeps teams prepared to win the ball back even while they still have possession is sometimes called “rest defence,” and it’s been a key part of the United States’ success at this World Cup. They may not be the best at creating chances from sustained possession, but if they can pass the ball around long enough to get set up like that in the opponent’s half, they can make sure the action stays there.
The big difference when they’re winning — the reason they look like some entirely other, nervier team — is that they don’t manage to get set up like that nearly as much.
There are various reasons why not, but it basically comes down to numbers and decision-making.
For an example, let’s back up a little bit and examine how the United States got into that nice, organised rest defence structure we saw on the goal sequence.
The play starts with a long Iranian goal kick during which both teams play it safe — there are seven Americans in their half and only five Iranians, which means both defences have numbers behind the ball in either direction.
Even after Iran press the play back to the United States goalkeeper, they still have more defenders hanging back in their half than the US have attackers there. So when Musah receives the ball with the option to scurry up the sideline or hit a hopeful forward pass to Josh Sargent, he does the boring, responsible thing instead and steps on the ball to swing it back around through midfield. That gets the Americans moving forward together while Iran retreats into its defensive shape.
Twelve seconds later, the same thing happens on the opposite side. Robinson receives a pass on the wing. He could choose to try to blow past a defender up the sideline or play a ball in behind for Sargent. But Iran has numbers around the box, so Robinson taps the ball back to Adams in the middle.
It’s that meaningless-seeming exchange — circulating possession out to the wing and back again to midfield — that finally brings the US into its rest defence structure. Slowing things down gives the center backs time to jog all the way up to the halfway line, compressing the space the team will need to defend if they lose the ball.
The extra beat also allows Dest time to get all the way up the opposite wing. That’s how the US will go on to score on this particular play, of course, but it also drags Iran’s winger back to the box to track Dest. Even if the attack had broken down — as attacks almost always do — Iran would have had no one to counter-attack up that flank, and the US could safely win the ball back and go again.
Those two simple decisions from Musah and Robinson to pass the ball back into midfield instead of pushing the tempo make all the difference between an orderly game and an end-to-end one, between the suave ballroom-dancing version of the United States and a chaotic, headbanging, cliff-diving disaster. This team is just plain better when it circulates possession.
When teams go ahead, though, they circulate less.
That’s partly a numbers game: opponents chasing the game are willing to throw more players forward, which makes it tempting in risk-reward terms to attack fast against the thinned numbers at the back.
It’s also, in part, about decisions on the ball: players faced with split-second choices under pressure in high-stakes games are more likely to pick the supposedly safe option and kick it forward when they’re protecting a lead.
None of this is unique to the US men, by the way. Data analysts know that most teams play differently at different scorelines. Goals really do change games. Some teams, though, may be more susceptible than others.
The shift in the United States’ playstyle between drawing and winning states comes from a lot of little choices on the pitch, not some grand managerial design. And those decisions are being made by the youngest squad in the tournament.
These kids are fast. They want to run at opponents in transition. They don’t want to take risks in the biggest games most of them have ever played.
That’s all understandable. The pleasant surprise is that they’ve had the poise to play an organised possession game when things are level, even holding their own for 90 minutes against England. Do you have any idea how hard it is to step on the ball and turn back into a midfield full of guys you play as in FIFA?
The bad news for the US is they’ll only face more FIFA dudes from here on out. But that means they’re less likely to have to defend a lead for long stretches, so the whole first-half-Jekyll, second-half-Hyde routine shouldn’t be the norm. If we see them fade late in a game again, it’ll more likely be due to this underdog nation bringing a comparatively thin bench to a desert World Cup — which, hey, what are you going to do, right?
One thing the Americans can do is keep being patient in possession and bringing the ball forward together. That’s what puts everyone in position and makes broad-stroke managerial tactics like the McKennie role changes work, so that the plays they plan in training can happen in games.
More importantly, it’s what sets the team up in a good shape to win the ball back when the plan doesn’t work: wingers pinning wide attackers, midfield counterpressing at the edge of the opposition block, center backs cutting out long balls, and Tyler Adams doing Tyler Adams things in the middle.
As identities go, that one just might work.
(Photo: Alex Caparros – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
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