It was one of those kind of games you would just as soon forget, but also the kind of game you want to watch over again to make sure it was as bad as you originally thought.
The U.S. Men’s National Team’s 3-0 loss to Mexico felt like a bad dream, and as much as Gregg Berhalter chose to dwell on the positives he saw in the performance, it was tough to see the same silver linings the USMNT coach saw.
Berhalter’s contentment with Friday’s performance centered around the fact his players actually tried to stick to his system and try to build from the back rather than resorting to long balls, like they did in the Gold Cup final. There is something to be said about the positive sign that his players really tried to build from the back, but whatever merit may be derived by that faithfulness to Berhalter’s system was cancelled out by the lineup’s painful inability to play the system well.
There is a growing sentiment that Berhalter’s system doesn’t suit the USMNT player pool, but while there was certainly evidence on Friday that the system didn’t suit the players on hand on Friday, it still feels early to want to scrap the system without being able to see it with some key figures such as Tyler Adams and John Brooks.
If Berhalter isn’t going to scrap his system — and he isn’t — then he needs to at the very least be able to adapt his tactics to allow his team to adjust to what is and isn’t working well in a given match, and against a given opponent. The USMNT needs to be able to change things up when the tactics are yielding terrible returns, as we saw on Friday when the USMNT struggled mightily to cope with Mexico’s defensive pressure and build out of the back competently.
Friday’s loss wasn’t all negative. Even amid the disappointment, mistakes and lackluster play, there were a few bright spots, though some of them were overshadowed by specific bad moments that tainted otherwise promising individual performances.
Here are five thoughts on the USMNT loss to Mexico:
Berhalter’s lineup construction failed him
When the USMNT starting lineup was revealed for the Mexico friendly, the immediate surprise wasn’t that Gyasi Zardes was starting over Josh Sargent, but rather that Berhalter was going to deploy Wil Trapp and Alfredo Morales together.
That resulted in the team fielding a central trio lacking a pure attacking midfielder. As much as Weston McKennie has shown some good attacking qualities in his overall makeup, he is at more a box-to-box midfielder than a natural attacker capable of thriving in the final third on a consistent basis. In fact, when he is given an attack-heavy role, it actually winds up diminishing his impact because he tends to lose that box-to-box presence, and the defensive bite that can make him a truly dominant presence in the middle.
Wil Trapp kept things tidy in the first half, but after a promising start to the match, he eventually settled into an ineffective funk that left the midfield limited, which only served to make it easier for Mexico to effectively pressure the United States into mistakes.
Then you had Gyasi Zardes, who was left starved for service, but who also once again showed himself to be a lackluster target forward option. Hold-up play isn’t his strength, and you could argue he would be more effective as a wide option in Berhalter’s system than as the striker, particularly against better opponents.
Perhaps the worst decision Berhalter made, specific to the Mexico match, was deploying Christian Pulisic on the wing, and then not replacing his creativity in central midfield with a more creative option. Sebastian Lletget would have made more sense as a starter than having Trapp and Morales partnered with McKennie.
Dest’s debut was promising, nutmeg aside
There is no getting around how badly Sergino Dest was abused by Jesus Corona on Mexico’s first goal on Friday, but to only point to that play as evidence of Dest having a bad night is a lazy breakdown of Dest’s overall performance.
The Ajax defender showed some exciting qualities in the first 20 minutes of the match, and even forced Jonathan Orozco into a tough save early on, and while you can’t excuse a defensive breakdown like the one he suffered against Corona, you also can’t ignore the fact he was an 18-year-old making his national team debut. Having one defensive breakdown against a quality winger like Corona doesn’t suddenly make you a bad defender, but clearly one who needs some more seasoning.
Tyler Boyd didn’t look the part
Why didn’t Tyler Boyd start in the Gold Cup final? That was a big question after Boyd went from showing some real promise early in the Gold Cup to not starting in the final matches of the tournament. On Friday, against Mexico, Boyd failed to combine with teammates, and far too often tried to force things by dribbling into traffic. It wasn’t the kind of performance expected from a player who recently completed a successful move to Turkish power Besiktas.
Can we chalk some of his struggles up to the fact he’s still relatively new to team? Perhaps, but as things stand, the early positive talk about Boyd potentially being the answer on the wing has been replaced by healthy skepticism.
Jordan Morris boosted his own standing with a promising appearance off the bench in place of Boyd, showing why Berhalter chose him to start in the Gold Cup final. Morris is enjoying a good season with the Sounders, and looking more and more comfortable on the wing.
Morales brought some much-needed bite
For a first USMNT appearance in years, Morales didn’t look timid at all, and offered up an edge to his game like we haven’t seen in the U.S. lineup since Jermaine Jones was patrolling the midfield.
Morales took some grief for his part in Mexico’s second and third goals, but the second goal was more about Zack Steffen’s poor pass than his ability not to get to it, and expecting him to stop the dangerous Hirving Lozano in the open field on a counter was asking a lot. Overall, his showing against Mexico didn’t scream “number 6 of the future” but it did offer enough promise to want to see more of him.
The importance of John Brooks was magnified
Watching both Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman struggle badly with their passing served as a reminder of just how important John Brooks is to the USMNT setup heading toward the 2022 World Cup qualifying cycle. He is the best passer in the American pool of centerbacks, and arguably the best defender, so when he was forced to miss Friday’s friendly due to a groin injury, the drop-off was considerable.
Of course, Brooks is also seemingly the most injury-prone option in the pool too, so relying on him can be very tricky. Aaron Long has emerged as a strong option in central defense, but he’s not naturally left-footed and it showed at times when he was forced to play as the left-sided central defender on Friday against Mexico. A Brooks-Long tandem is the best option the pool can offer at the moment, but we haven’t seen it since March, and won’t see it again until October at the earliest.
Both Long and Walker Zimmerman have seen their form dip since the Gold Cup, so it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that both struggled against Mexico. Neither passed the ball particularly well and defensive positioning wasn’t as sharp as it needed to be. They will need to regain their top form to ensure Berhalter has a viable central defense pairing for October’s Nations League matches, though their struggles against Mexico have boosted Matt Miazga’s prospects of taking hold of a starting place, especially if Brooks isn’t available.
The good news for USMNT fans is that there are some very promising prospects in the centerback pool, including Miles Robinson and Chris Richards. Unfortunately, it might be a while before either is ready to take on a prominent role in the U.S. central defense, though Robinson’s meteoric rise in 2019 makes it tough to rule him out as a contender to start for the USMNT in 2020, if not sooner.