The U.S. Men's National Team opened the Gold Cup group stage with an early goal and held on for a 1-0 victory over Haiti. The scoreline left many with a bland feeling after the match given the perceived weakness of the Haitian team, but there were some important lessons learned on Sunday night. We are starting to see more of coach Gregg Berhalter's style, and most importantly, the team got all three points.
With World Cup qualifying on the horizon, only one thing matters after the disaster in 2018, and that is to qualify for Qatar. If the USMNT can do that, no one will care what the scoreline was. The qualifying cycles are going to be heavy with games, so the U.S. will need to win with rotated squads, including many of the players from this Gold Cup. The Nations League triumph in Denver, which you can read about here, proved that the "A" team can get it done in Concacaf, and this first Gold Cup match against Haiti proved that the "B" team is also well on its way to delivering results when necessary. The depth of the USMNT is a concern ahead of qualifying, so any win in this tournament is a mental victory as we look towards the fall.
While Haiti is not going to be in World Cup qualifying, they are an example of a typical Concacaf opponent that the U.S. will face. The blueprint for most under-matched teams in the region is to sit deep while conceding possession, bunker for their lives, and then punish teams with counter-attacking goals. The Americans can expect this strategy from every team in the qualifying octagon with the exception of Mexico and maybe one or two others when the U.S. is on the road. Additionally, Haiti is not as bad as people think they are. Half of their players that started on Sunday night were on the team that made it to the Gold Cup semifinals in 2019, where Mexico needed an extra time penalty to beat them and move on to the final. There likely would have been even more Haitians from that game if a COVID-19 outbreak had not decimated their roster last week. If there is anything we have learned from Concacaf matches over the years, it is that anyone can challenge anyone else and the U.S. should be happy with three points regardless of the scoreline.
With that background info out of the way, let's take a look back at Sunday's match with my two big things to watch. This also helps us look forward to Martinique tonight, as many of my takeaways from the Haiti game are also observations about Berhalter's general style going forward. Martinique is the weakest team the USMNT will face this tournament, which provides a great opportunity to see how the Americans will dictate play given the freedom to do so. Despite the French colony's perceived weakness ahead of the matchup, the U.S will be happy if they can walk away with three points.
A Strange Pattern of Possession
While Berhalter has shown a willingness to play a variety of formations, he typically starts the team out in a 4-3-3. The four-man backline keeps the centerbacks at home while the fullbacks join the attack. The midfield trio consists of one holding midfielder with two box-to-box central midfielders in front of him. The attacking three has two natural wingers with a hold-up striker. What is strange to me is the way the USMNT possess the ball in this formation. Against Haiti, the U.S. had a decent 63% possession, although it was much higher in the first half. While they held the ball a lot, the Americans seemed to shy away from passing the ball around centrally. Instead, they used possessed out wide, combining with the fullbacks and wingers to break down defenses and send in dangerous crosses. The lone goal from this game, even though it came from an interception in the attacking third, is a great example of how the U.S. wants to score goals, as a crossed in ball was targeted to a hold-up striker who played it along to runners crashing into the box.
What is interesting to me is that the midfield trio Berhalter does use seems to be equipped for possession in the center of the pitch. Regardless of who is on the field, the trio is tasked with staying organized, and they do not need to be as big of scoring threats with a lethal front three. This would leave me to believe that most of the Americans' possession would be in central midfield instead of on the wings. However, the three midfielders basically vacate the center of the field. The defensive midfielder (Jackson Yueill against Haiti) drops down between the centerbacks to receive the ball before distributing to the wings. Out wide, the two central midfielders (Sebastian Lleget and Kellyn Acosta on Sunday) pull to their respective sides to receive the ball from Yueill and maintain possession with the winger and overlapping fullback, who is often the furthest up the pitch on that side.
There are two possible reasons why the U.S. concedes the center of the pitch to their opponents. The first is that they do not think they can break down a bunkered defense through possession in the middle, so they go out wide in hopes of generating better chances more often. The second possible answer is simply that Berhalter prefers an offense that runs through the wings. Considering the wide-possession based tactics in both Nations League games and against Haiti, I am starting to think the latter is the correct answer. If the U.S. continues to play out wide against Martinique, we can definitively say that possession on the wings is by design. The Americans can absolutely dominate the center of the field tonight if they want to, so if they do not, it will be by tactical choice and will further solidify our understanding Berhalter's tactical preferences.
Troubling Counter-Attack Defense
As I mentioned above, most teams the USMNT faces will try to win through counter-attacking. Defensively, that means the American backline really only needs to be prepared for one thing. So how well did the U.S. do at stopping the counter-attack against Haiti? Obviously they got a clean sheet, which shows they did a good enough job. Haiti also only registered three shots on goal, never really troubling U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner in the process. However, they should have done much better with their other seven shots, some of which were in fairly dangerous positions. Haiti's lack of finishing ability was apparent, and while Martinique won't be any better, they did punish Canada on a similar counter-attack in their first matchup of the tournament. Regardless of the opponent's attacking prowess, the defensive pattern from the U.S. is interesting to watch going forward.
Because Berhalter has his fullbacks contribute to the attack and has his midfielders move all over the pitch to receive the ball, the two centerbacks (Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman against Haiti) were often left to defend on their own, and were even outnumbered on some occasions. They stayed strong positionally, but it is concerning to me how much space both fullbacks vacated at the same time. Better teams like Canada later in the group stage will be much better at punishing those gaps.
I was also concerned with the way the U.S. recovered in counter-attacking situations. The fullbacks and midfielders did well to get back on defense, but they struggled with man marking. Oftentimes they were too far back as they all collapsed into the box in front of Turner. This allowed Haiti to have late-arriving runners into the box that were wide open, while the U.S. stood flat-footed without defending any specific player. If they are going to commit as many numbers as they have into the attack, they will need to do better at tracking individual players when they come back on defense. If this same pattern plays out in the knockout stage, better teams will take advantage of being left wide open on the counter-attack.
With both the Gold Cup and MLS in full swing, now is a great time to stay up to date on all of your favorite soccer teams. Follow along with us here at mlsnowpodcast.com and on Twitter @MLSNowPodcast for coverage of all of your favorite MLS teams. You can follow me on Twitter @MillerMike123 as I cover the USMNT's run through the Gold Cup.