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Can Gregg Berhalter teach USMNT to play possession-based soccer?


NEW YORK — Gregg Berhalter has laid out a vision for how he wants his version of the U.S. Men’s National Team to play. He wants the team to build up out of the back, he wants possession, and he wants chances to be created through that possession.

One question that remains, though: Does he have the tools necessary to play that way?

Berhalter was formally presented as the new U.S. head coach on Tuesday in Manhattan, and arguably the biggest takeaway from his introductory press conference was his detailed response to how the U.S. will play under his guidance. Like Jurgen Klinsmann in his initial presser as U.S. head coach, Berhalter laid out an aggressive approach.

“The idea is that it’s a fluid style that the players are intent on breaking lines, playing through the opponent and creating goal-scoring opportunities,” said Berhalter. “At times we can do a better job changing the tempo instead of playing at such a high rhythm all of the time. I think mixing that rhythm is going to be very important, especially at the international level, and especially given the climates we are going to be playing in.

“But we want to see ball circulation, breaking lines, and creating goal scoring opportunities. That should be the DNA of this team.”

Implementing that aesthetically-pleasing style of play sounds promising, especially to a disillusioned fanbase still hurting from the failure to qualify for the last World Cup — but it may prove quite the challenge for Berhalter, especially against tougher competition. The U.S. player pool, in general terms, is not known for its technical abilities, but rather for its energy, work rate, and physical qualities.

Klinsmann tried during his five-year tenure to have the Americans play an aggressive, proactive and exciting style that fans would appreciate, and —whether it was his tactics, the players not being suited for that type of system, or a combination of both — the team just looked lost, confused, and uncomfortable trying to play that way.

Some observers might point to Berhalter building a technical side that prized possession and created chances through it during his time as coach of the Columbus Crew, but the international level of the game is not the same as the club level. Berhalter will not be able to go and get a Federico Higuain or Harrison Afful from the open market, but rather will have to train his players to learn to play a style that is largely alien to them.

“The idea is that we’re an attacking-based team that wants to create goal-scoring opportunities by disorganizing the opponent,” said Berhalter. “We’ll do that in a number of different ways. What I’d say is that consistently over my time at Columbus we’ve done it through build up where we start with the ball at the back, the team tries to press us and we play through to try to create goal-scoring opportunities. We are making the field big.

“Another way to do that is to use pressure. whether we start in the mid-block or move into high pressure to force turnovers and win the ball and immediately create goal scoring opportunities.”

What’s more is that Berhalter will not have much time to introduce and work on things before playing games of importance. Yes, the USMNT has two winter friendlies scheduled, but he will not be able to pick many, if any, of the foreign-based Americans for those matches because the games fall outside of FIFA’s international calendar. Berhalter will only have two games during the March window and likely two to three more friendlies in late May/early June to really work with his full-strength side before competing in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which begins on June 15.

Berhalter may ultimately come to the conclusion that the players he has at his disposal do not fit his preferred way of playing and adjust accordingly. However, if he can get the players to play a more exciting, aggressive, and technical game then the U.S. might start consistently winning games again as well as winning back the fans.


  1. He has had a year to think about how his team should play so he must have thought long and hard about that response. He must feel he has the players to implement his style. It will be an interesting year and hopefully a fruitful one.

  2. Of course he can and we do…….. the question is, do we have the patience and ability to humble ourselves/swallow our egos in order to withstand the process needed to change- the inevitable, necessary growing pains in first and second year of the cycle’s meaningless matches? The last year could have been well spent getting this process under-way w/ the future of our program, but here we are now. Let’s get started.

      • Yup. So the follow up question is: Does Berhalter have the self confidence and belief in his system that he can weather the storm of public opinion? I suspect he may. It’s pretty minor- barely more than an occasional squall in this country compared to Cat 5 hurricanes elsewhere. There’s only occasional attention in the National media so really- stay of soccer forums and he should be good.

  3. If we have a #10, the let’s play through him, like we did with Reyna in 2002.
    If we don’t have a #10, then for best results, we should go bunker-counter like in 2010.

      • Absolutely agree. The ONLY road to growth and progression is through discomfort, not being afraid to fail. This applies to individual skills as much it does to a team. At some point, if a defender wants to become great at distributing from the back, he needs to nut up… pick his head up and look and make the pass to the open man rather than the safest play to boot the ball upfield. You’re probably going to make mistakes. If the reaction to mistakes or failure is reverting to what you know then…… you’ll forever be stuck in mediocrity.

  4. I have always supported soccer because of its tremendous physical demands and rewards plus it is a non-contact sport (to certain degrees). When my family came to Oregon in 1954, there were only 6 immigrant soccer teams and now the 2018 Timbers are playing this Saturday for the Soccer Bowl (MLS Championship) in Atlanta in front of 70K spectators for their second time.

    I wish the new US National soccer coach well and great US soccer success!! It doesn’t matter that much what soccer style he uses just so long he picks the right players (Arena’s weakness) and motivates the players to provide their maximum effort (Klinsmann’s weakness because the team quit on him). Recommendations: bitte/please do not use a stiff and slow striker like Altidore or some central defenders who fall asleep at the wheel at critical moments.

  5. January Camp Roster
    GK: Hamid, Bono, Gonzalez
    Def: Lennon, Cannon, Long, Parker, Zimmerman, McKenzie, Villafana, Garza
    CM: Trapp, Canouse, Durkin, Acosta, Nagbe, Delgado, Roldan
    Wings: Arriola, Mueller, Picault,
    For: Altidore, Zardes, Baird, Sapong

    I’m assuming all the rumored moves occur and that European players will not be available. It could be a few of the u23s that are with reserve and youth squads could be available but I didn’t guess which those would be. Most of the Northern Euro teams are in their winter camps in January so I didn’t include Sabbi, Gall, or Amon.

    Starting Lineup
    Hamid, Cannon, Long, Parker, Garza, Trapp, Canouse, Acosta, Nagbe, Arriola, Altidore(Zardes if Jozy not recovered from surgery) that line up should be a rebuilding Panama and Costa Rica.

    • Is that one way whining for the next seven months until the GC when everyone will pretend they knew all along that Berhalter had what it took?

      • Assuming we make the Hex, THEN he can be properly tested. The GC and assorted friendlies are not authentic tests. IF we don’t make the Hex, he’s gone.

      • haha, for real, johnny. Whatever happens, let’s make sure the bitchfest and juvenile perspectives continue for as long as possible! The conspiracies, too!

  6. I think its possible just not against top tier countries, if he can identify someone who can play the 10 role and doesn’t have to be world class but someone that is decent enough to keep the ball in tight spaces and not just back pass every time. I like Emo for this role but has been a little banged up this year for hibs and hasn’t played consistently yet but hope he turns the corner. Would have like to see Parks get some playing time or go on loan because he can play the 10. I’m sure Gregg(triple G) will figure it out and solve all the other problems as well.

  7. It’s difficult to see. Berhalter will absolutely have to bring back some veterans to accomplish this, and probably move some players into a different position than what they normally play. For instance, like Dibo said, who is going to play the outside backs? Yedlin does not have good enough service from the flank for this to work, and he is almost certainly our best back. The biggest problem though, is going to be attacking central mid. As I and several others have noted, there is not a Higuain in our pool. Pulisic is not good in this role, and it would rob us of his strength on the wing if he is moved centrally. It is an ambitious project and I admire his attempt, but call me skeptical.

      • That #10 in 2022 could be Gio Reyna. He will be 20 by the start of the tournament. He should have 4 years at Dortmund underbid belt by then. I wish we would make another run at Jeremy Toljan for our left back spot.

      • Do we need a #10?? The game has strongly trended away from the central playmaker to the winger/Inside forward/Wide forward as the main attacking outlet for the top teams. This is Pulisic’s bread and butter.
        Also, I would note that Pulisic often played the #10 role in the last cycle and was far and away our best player. There is no reason he can’t do it again if that is what Berhalter wants.
        I think people sometimes confuse our inability to control the ball/tempo of the game with the need for a #10.

    • I’ve been saying for years that Yedlin can’t cross. We need Cherundolo 2.0,(off topic but I love the way the FIFA 06-10 the announcer with a brogue called him Cherry-Undolo. FJ could cross (better from the left IMO, see assist on first goal against Panama WCQ, Seattle 2013). Looks like Robinson can cross, but can he play defense. Chandler is a better crosser than Yedlin too. If you can’t shoot and can’t pass, you have a very limited skill set based entirely on speed. That might work against some slower teams, but most quality teams have enough speed on the flanks to neutralize Yedlin’s.

  8. he can pick players who have more finesse, but the question should be matching a system to the best talent and not trying to change DNA to fit an abstraction.

    • The issue with that is that then you are constantly changing your style of play as guys improve, falter or get injured. There then is no continuity. Klinsmann set to change the way US Soccer was played. He failed at the senior level in part because the two generations he was coaching hadn’t come up in that system, they learned in the be more athletic and “play hard” era. Look at American players coming up in the U21-U16 ages, they are more technical and can play and have a better understanding of playing between the lines instead of just playing over the lines. We may 10 years from now find that Klinsmann was successful in reshaping US Soccer he just wasn’t successful on the sideline. If we just play 8 guys behind the ball and try to catch them with our athletes down the wings and our tall guys on set pieces that’s the only players we’ll ever produce because lower level coaches will emulate that and shape our players that way.

      • Completely agree with your assessment of U21s and younger. That is where the tipping point is with a steady stream of players with tons of potential following consistently. We could easily be 3-5 years from having the talent to play with anyone in the world, and do it with a positive attacking attitude. There is plenty of time to implement a system that young players can learn within and grow into.

      • Johnnyrazor is right. I’d like to amplify on what he said. First, most teams in MLS try to emulate this style already and so do most top European teams, so it’s not like Berhalter is inventing the wheel here. The issue is and always has been the player pool. The key, and ironic thing, is that one of the best things Klinsmann did was to establish this as the set style for all men’s teams from U-15 on up. I think if you have seen the last 2 U-20 teams that Tab Ramos has won CONCACAF with, you see this is now bearing fruit. And in the last 2 youth WC, the US got to the quarters. So, Klinsmann has set the stage for his successor to succeed with this approach. It’s a question of our younger players maturing and developing. With more and more going to top teams in Europe, while we may not be able to carry this through to success against the top European teams, we should be good enough to succeed against everyone else outside of Argentina, Brazil and Colombia or Uruguay. Even against the top teams we should be able to get draws somewhat consistently. As it is, right now we have the basis for a pretty formidable midfield. While we don’t have a prototypical #10, that can be overcome by good team play and a #10 may emerge in the next couple of years.

  9. You know how you “win back the fans”? You get results. Possession is overrated. Do we want to aspire to play like a below average Latin American squad? Or should we play to our strengths and our player pool. We do not have a Higuain. We have Michael Bradley types who at his best, was a box to box workhorse. Even Pulisic is most effective offensively in the counterattack, throwing defenders off balance and putting in nice crosses or following the play to finish off a goal. Throw in a crafty, skillful striker and a world class keeper and we have a good chance. Perhaps the plan is to find a couple Brazilian/Argentinian kids with an American father- then it could work. And alas, there’s the Mexicano Americans- but how well has that worked out? And when they are actually good, we lose them to Mexico anyway.

    • Of course, a world class striker would help a lot, so would central defenders who do not “fall asleep” for a few critical moments each game. Right now, we have an unproven 18 year-old as the best prospect as that striker and likely Long and Brooks as the choice at enter backs. We will see how things work out.

    • Let’s not pretend that Higuain is something special. I’ve been a Crew fan since year one, he’s Federico not Gonzalo. We have a large group of #10s coming up in the system and with still four full years before WC 2022 there is time to get them settled. Pulisic, McKennie, and Green could play the Higuain role against CONCACAF competition while guys like Ledezma, Reyna, and Carleton begin their pro careers. Getting Alvarez back in the fold can now begin in earnest as well dude had 12 goals and 3 assists as a 16 year old in the USL.

    • We reached the quarters in 2002 with much less talent. Playing as a team is key. Any team has a chance to make a deep run in a tournament if the defense is organized and the goalkeeping is rock solid. That being said, the 2018 team had little energy and less heart. I have no problem going to a results oriented style rather than playing attractive football regardless of the results. Would I like to see attractive football, sure, but I’d rather see results.

      • This really hits the nail on the head. Whatever style or system we play is less important. Creating a team of guys who know their role inside and out, work hard and do their job on the field when called upon. Thats very basic, but its also the most important thing the coach can do. The players are the ones who play the game. Teach, motivate, make changes where needed.
        For my money, we should use England as a model for our team. Rock solid through the middle, pace on the wings, use your athleticism to mask your weaknesses and play at break neck pace going forward. Too bad we don’t have Harry Kane….
        For all the hate that Bob Bradley got for being “Bunker Bob” playing the empty bucket formation we also had some of our best ever results under him. We had a complete lack of creativity through the middle, but he stumbled into a system that suited our players perfectly at Confed cup and everyone praises him as our best ever manager now.

    • Pay attention to our youth teams. I saw an article recently on another site where they mentioned all the best up and coming US youth players. They didn’t even mention Mendes who won the golden boot in the recently completed CONCACAF U-20 tournament. He won the golden boot while playing midfield. He looks like a real CAM for the future. More and more American youth are being picked up by European teams as soon as they can sign a contract. This is happening much more than in the past.

      • I’m realizing more and more how much we relied on Donovan and Dempsey for the last 15 years. We have players coming through the pipeline that have potential, but can any of them match the level that was set by our two best ever players? Pulisic seems to be on his way to exceeding that, but we really need 2-3 other guys to go there with him.
        We should have a squad of at least decent, but unspectacular, players and really need difference makers in the attacking end. Would also be great to see any true leaders step back up. The 2010 team led by Bocanegra, Cherundolo, Howard. Demerit were really the last group to feel like they could truly lead the national team.

  10. It’s all about the outside backs. If we can find players to step in to those spots, we should be ok, and the coach will look like a genius. Right now, tall order.

  11. We’ve heard this before.

    The reality is a manager can only do what the player pool allows.

    The United States player pool doesn’t have the top end talent or depth to play a possession based “beautiful” brand of soccer.

    Anyone who tells you they can deliver this is a snake oil salesmen.

    The U.S. has been most successful when it has understood its limitations, had great defensive play/ GK play and taken their opportunities on set pieces and in the counter to win games.

    There is nothing wrong with that.

    We play the way we play because of the player pool not because of a manager.

    • Pretty much right on point.
      Still, Berhalter does need to do his best to push the players past their comfort zones to help the team improve.

    • I thought most of the starting 11 are playing abroad in highly technical teams, is not like the bulk of the starters are from MLS. We need a coach that can make the core of the team play together as a unit, easier said than done.


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