Apart from Christian Pulisic’s controversial comment about the crowd, no topic was discussed more in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. men’s national team’s 3-0 win in a friendly against Morocco than the Americans’ changed on-field shape.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter tweaked the system he used for most of qualifying, playing Brenden Aaronson in an advanced central midfield role, dropping No. 8 Yunus Musah closer to defensive midfielder Tyler Adams, giving Christian Pulisic free reign to find interior space, pushing his left back very high and shifting to a three-man backline when the U.S. had the ball. The changes led to a more cohesive, freer-flowing attack than we saw from the U.S. for the bulk of the CONCACAF Octagonal, though they also left the Americans looking vulnerable in defense. Morocco, which registered 2.07 expected goals to the U.S.’s 2.10, really should have made it a lot closer than 3-0.
While the changes were instructive, it seems highly unlikely that this exact shape will become the U.S.’s primary set. The eventual return of fullback Sergiño Dest from injury almost rules it out on its own. Dest is the U.S.’s best right back, but, unlike Wednesday’s starter Reggie Cannon, he doesn’t have the defensive attributes needed to slide into a three-man backline. Even if he did, moving him into that spot would neutralize his excellent ability to get into the attack. He could theoretically reprise the role Antonee Robinson played on the left on Wednesday, but his tendency to come inside would make him a less than perfect fit in that spot. It’d also be a bit shocking if Robinson was dropped after he’s been so steady since the start of qualifying.
That doesn’t mean Berhalter can’t implement elements of what we saw on Wednesday between now and Qatar, however. Clearly, he can use Aaronson in a central role. Pulisic showed that he can have a massive impact from interior positions, too — especially when the spacing is such that he has room to operate and the players around him are strong at combining, things that weren’t always the case in qualifying. Musah’s more reserved position helped maintain that breathing room for him on Wednesday, while Aaronson gave him someone to quickly connect with. Dropping one No. 8 deeper and having another play higher would be interesting for the U.S. to continue over the next six months.
McKennie’s looming return to the starting lineup could throw a wrench into that, however. He’s capable of playing in both of the spots that Musah and Aaronson occupied on Wednesday, but he has a different skill set than his younger counterparts. He wouldn’t be as good at combining with Pulisic in the attack as Aaronson, but he’d perhaps be more dangerous in front of goal and could be just as, or even more effective with his counterpressing. His defensive skills would serve him well in the role Musah played on Wednesday, too, though a pairing of him and Adams wouldn’t be the strongest in building out of the back. Such a role could also minimize the frequency he streaks into the box on one of his excellent, late-arriving runs.
As such, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Berhalter returns to the usual, balanced No. 8 setup we saw for almost all of qualifying once McKennie, who the U.S. is hoping can start one game this window as he continues to work his way back from his foot injury, gets into the XI.
A possible return of the mega-talented Gio Reyna from injury would also create lineup questions for Berhalter. Unless he uses Reyna or Weah as a striker, it’d mean he’d have just four spots in the lineup for those two, Pulisic, Aaronson, McKennie and Musah. That’d be a champagne problem, though, and an unlikely one for him to have, considering the USMNT’s injury history.
So while the exact shape we saw on Wednesday probably won’t carry over to Qatar, a couple of elements on display — tweaking the shape of the midfield and adjusting Pulisic’s positioning, specifically — could remain important aspects of the USMNT’s play up to and in the World Cup.
We’ll see if Berhalter has any new adjustments in store for Sunday’s friendly against a strong Uruguay team in Kansas City, Kan. Until then, some additional thoughts from the win against Morocco:
Neither of them scored in open play, but strikers Jesus Ferreira and Haji Wright both displayed some solid work in their respective 45-minute shifts on Wednesday.
Ferreira got the start, linking well with the other attackers and looking confident on a couple of decent opportunities. As is typical for him, he wasn’t afraid to drop into midfield, and he actually dragged a couple of center backs with him into the center circle to open up space for Pulisic to run in behind the Morocco defense for the first goal.
He seemed decisive on his chances, but… he didn’t finish. He made a smart run off the back shoulder of a defender to free himself up for a through ball from Aaronson for a good look in first-half stoppage time, but Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou came out quickly to close the angle and Ferreira couldn’t quite direct his shot wide enough to sneak it past him.
Wright’s performance was probably more promising. Not only did he convert a penalty to put the U.S. up 3-0 in the 64th (after, it must be said, a gracious handoff from his old friend Pulisic), but he exhibited some solid hold-up play. He’s bigger than the U.S.’s other options at the position, and he showed it with his ability to maintain possession in some difficult spots with his back to goal. One of the better examples of that kind of play came in the 49th minute, part of an excellent team move (patient build up in the back, a decisive pass forward when a window for one opened, then a quick, vertical breakout) that ended with Wright nearly scoring.
Loved this moment from Haji Wright. Great touch, great run. pic.twitter.com/GlW7MEDrYl
— Joseph Lowery (@joeclowery) June 2, 2022
He had another solid moment in the play that led to the penalty, making a darting run behind the defense, then holding up play before finding Weah at the top of the box. He wasn’t involved all that much after the goal, but the game was put to bed by the 75th. After Wednesday, Wright merits another look with the U.S., perhaps from the start on Sunday.
The lack of goals from strikers in the run of play remains an annoyance, but it was good to see both Ferreira and Wright involved in broader positive attacking movements and get into position for chances. If that continues, the goals should, in theory, follow.
For all the fun that was had in the attacking end, there were some real issues in defense on Wednesday. Morocco should’ve found the net on a couple of occasions, including, of course, on the penalty they were ridiculously awarded in the late stages.
Their best looks came after they broke U.S. pressure and switched the ball to left wing back Adam Masina. Weah would be caught high, Aaronson would be tucked inside and Cannon would be sitting deep, leaving Masina wide open and with tons of space to drive into. The U.S. didn’t confront him quickly enough in most of those situations, with Cannon often delaying his release until it was far too late to prevent danger. Morocco nearly took the lead on two such plays in the 12th- and 19th-minutes.
Musah, who was shaded to the left, and Adams, who spent a good portion of the match man-marking Morocco defensive midfielder Sofyan Amrabat whenever he got the ball, were usually taken out of these plays when Morocco broke the American press.
Of course, the U.S. shape wasn’t familiar to most of the players on the field; there were always going to be some hiccups. If the U.S. does return to this kind of setup at any point in the future, they’ll have some work to do to clean up this part of their game.
Center back also remains a bit of a question mark following the achilles injury that will almost certainly keep Miles Robinson out of the World Cup. Walker Zimmerman was his usual solid self, but Berhalter indicated after the match that he thought fellow starter Aaron Long struggled a bit. Long definitely had his hands full with the physical nature of Morocco forwards Ayoub El Kaabi and Tarik Tissoudali and got turned pretty badly on one occasion, but, watching the match back on Thursday morning, he mostly acquitted himself OK. He wasn’t perfect, but he managed.
It was a similar story for Cameron Carter-Vickers, who came on for Zimmerman in a planned halftime substitution. He had some decent interventions, but also lost Tissoudali just before Masina found him at the top of the six for a free header that Turner did well to keep out. Look for Erik Palmer-Brown to start in his hometown of Kansas City on Sunday.
Big picture, the position bears watching before Qatar. It wasn’t the U.S.’s strongest group even before the Robinson injury; the Americans will need someone to step up to increase their odds of getting out of their group. A lot might end up riding on the progression of injured 21-year-old Chris Richards, who could be headed to the Premier League this summer, per reports.
Speaking of players on their way to the EPL this summer, Turner enjoyed a solid night in net on Wednesday. He made eight saves, commanded his box well and, apart from a couple of elementary and ultimately inconsequential mistakes, looked decent with the ball at his feet. He wants to improve that facet of his game to give himself a better chance of starting in Qatar ahead of Zack Steffen, who had to withdraw from this camp due to family reasons.
Turner’s teammates certainly seemed more comfortable playing to him in possession than they did at times in qualifying, and he helped the team play out of some substantial pressure a few times, including on that 49th-minute move that led to Wright’s chance.
Taylor Twellman said during ESPN’s broadcast of the match that he thinks Turner is in the driver’s seat to start at the World Cup. I tend to agree. Turner is an excellent shot-stopper and performed better in qualifying than Steffen, who had a tough end to the season with Manchester City. Berhalter isn’t all that interested in handicapping the race, however. He talked in his pre-match news conference on Tuesday about not needing to rush into any decisions at the position. The door will undoubtedly remain open for Steffen, as well as for others, too.
The U.S. is entering strange territory with their goalkeepers. Turner, Steffen and Ethan Horvath will likely be backups in the Premier League this fall and not getting regular games in the buildup to the World Cup. NYCFC’s Sean Johnson, who was added to this roster after Steffen pulled out, seems like he’ll be the only one of the U.S.’s top-four options at the position getting regular minutes in the weeks ahead of Qatar.
That creates a potential quandary for the U.S., and, according to what Twellman said during the broadcast on Wednesday, a possible opportunity for Johnson. Don’t be surprised if he gets a start in this window.
(Photo: Katie Stratman / USA TODAY Sports)