Zack Steffen made a declaration during an interview in Dusseldorf last month that could have made one raise their eyebrow.
Asked directly about the U.S. Men’s National Team’s progress in head coach Gregg Berhalter’s desired style of play, and Steffen made it crystal clear that there was a degree of difficulty that was affecting the players.
“I think it’s obviously a tough system but it’s a good system,” said Steffen after a 2-1 loss to SC Freiburg on Sept. 29. “I think we (as players) try and force it too much, instead of kind of just playing with our instincts, and when you do that, that’s kind of when you get in trouble.”
“I think we’ve just got to find the balance of when to play football and then when to be smart and instinctual and kind of play in their half.”
The level of discomfort that Steffen described perfectly summarizes how the USMNT has looked thus far under Berhalter. It perfectly summarizes why the USMNT has struggled to get results. It perfectly summarizes why it is time to dump this system and go back to the basics.
Tuesday’s Concacaf Nations League loss to Canada has set off even more alarm bells in American soccer circles, as it once again raised the question as to what, if any, progress is being made under Berhalter. The new USMNT manager has been adamant about trying to implement a possession oriented, build-from-the-back style of play, but the returns up to this point have been almost nonexistent and clearly demonstrate that Berhalter is trying to fit square pegs into round holes with this style.
This week’s 2-0 defeat to the northern neighbors only served to further highlight that. Taken on its own, the result itself was not too surprising given that Canada has an up-and-coming team that is energetic, talented, and severely motivated to set a new standard.
The manner in which the Americans played, however, was eye-opening. The USMNT looked severely disjointed, completely out of sorts, and, truthfully, like they had no real idea how to execute the desired game plan.
Whether they even understood the game plan is certainly a valid question to pose in the post-game analysis after seeing how poor the team looked from the first whistle to the last. There were few moments of possession, a tactical disorganization between the attack and defense, almost no overlapping runs from the fullbacks, and whole a lot of confusion.
Everyone seemed to be on different pages, almost as if they were college students learning their professor’s curriculum for the semester at different speeds. There was alarmingly very little cohesion. On both sides of the ball.
After the match, Berhalter chalked the loss up to a mere matter of desire and effort. It may be true that the Americans were lacking in those areas, but there is also an argument to be made as to whether Berhalter’s admittedly complex system is asking far too much from a group of players that only gets together a handful of times over the course of the year.
What’s more, the harsh reality is that the player pool is limited and is not in a place where it can do what Berhalter is asking.
It is not there in terms of being able to work the ball from back to front regularly. It is not there in terms of being able to pass the ball around against a pressing opponent regularly. It is not there in terms of creating space and chances with movement regularly.
There are too few players in this pool, which is arguably the worst the USMNT has had in two decades, that have the comfort on the ball and understanding of the game required to play that way. If you want to have a team that can zip the ball around the field effortlessly, superb technical skills are necessary. The Americans, for many reasons that go beyond this discussion, fall well short of that.
This, of course, is nothing new. The USMNT has historically never been a side that has won games, especially at higher levels, through possession and proactive play. Rather it has been cohesive defending, grit, a never-say-die attitude, quick and direct counterattacking play, opportunistic finishing and solid set-piece taking, and a good dose of stellar goalkeeping that have given the Americans some of their best moments.
Think the 2002 World Cup. Think the 2009 Confederations Cup. Think the win vs. Spain.
Since the start of the decade, the USMNT has attempted to evolve from that reactive style of play. Jurgen Klinsmann is the coaching symbol that biggest represents this attempted shift in approach, but Bob Bradley during the start of his second cycle as manager, at the beginning of the decade, tried to implement more tactical and technical sophistication to a team that had effectively defined a countering style during his first four years in charge.
Bradley encountered some growing pains in his attempted evolution. Then, he was fired (so Klinsmann, a perceived revolutionary, could come on board) before ever really having a true chance to implement the more attack-minded style that U.S. Soccer wants.
It might be commendable that both the federation and Berhalter have tried to help the USMNT take that next step in the beautiful game in recent years, but it is more than time to come to terms with the reality that the American player is not far enough in the overall development to play a possession-based and more proactive style.
Shelving this idea and dumping the system in order to get back to doing what the USMNT does best — being tough to play against, staying defensively compact and organized, and hitting primarily in transition — would help limit losses with putrid performances like the one we saw in Canada on Tuesday.
Playing that way might have a lower ceiling than trying to go toe-to-toe from open play and may not regularly lead to victories against top-level opponents consistently, but that is where the American game and overall player pool is right now. The sooner Berhalter understands that and comes to terms with it, the better for the USMNT.