Top Stories

The SBI View: Gregg Berhalter needs to dump his system, get back to basics

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.


  1. Ream is too slow for national games. He maybe okay for Club Soccer but his reaction time, decisiveness and foot work is not up to par.

      • Johnnyrazor
        “Yueill has started 2 of the last 3 matches”……What does that have to do with player SPEED?? How does Yueill starting align with “Bradley and Trapp not being up to par internationally, being extremely SLOW as #$%@, and yet regulars on the national team”???

      • Trapp seems to be going away why do people keep bringing him up? Not you so much but others to state that Berhalter keeps starting him in midfield when he really hasn’t.

  2. Berhaulter and his staff need to look at where there is strength & depth within the player pool and where we are week/shallow. Than devise a formation & system around that.
    Strength & Depth:
    CB – Brooks, Miazga, CCV, EPB, M. Robinson, Alvarado, Long, Zimmerman, Ream
    CM – Adams, McKennie, D. Williams, Morales, K. Acosta, Green, Hyndman, Pomykal, Yueill, Parks,
    Outside Back – Yedlin, Cannon, A. Robinson, Dest
    Outside Mid – Pulisic, Weah, Arriola, Boyd, Morris
    Striker – Sargent, Jozy, Novak, Soto, Sabbi, Wright

    If we were to go to a 3-5-2 formation using our athletic wing-backs we could cover up our weakest area’s while getting the most out of our positions of strength. I’d use something along the following until some of the younger (U-23) players gain enough experience to become consistent contributors.


    • For all the 4-4-2 guys out there notice there’s one wide midfielder in this list. Pulisic, Weah, Boyd, and Morris are just wide forwards. Hyndman has played outside at Fulham and maybe Hibs.

  3. The only time USSF will listen to us is when they have been hit in the pockets. Yes, the bottom line needs to be iimpacted. Has anyone from USSF responded to our concerns since the pathetic game in Canada?

  4. “Gregg Berhalter needs to dump his system, get back to basics”….yes but before we change tactics and style of play……lets look at the team as a whole. Where do the wheels fall of when pushed by solid opponents? Who are the weakest links of the team? Which players break down the cohesiveness or the flow of teamwork and team comradery?

    Factors lead to ineffective teamwork and reasons Why Teamwork Fails

    No effective leadership.
    Disruptive personalities destroying cohesiveness.
    improper training.
    Lack of defining / understanding goals.
    Lack of incentive – under appreciated.
    Teammates strengths and weaknesses are not taken into account.
    Favoritism – Abilities don’t align with roles
    Fear of failure.
    Lack of time together

    It doesn’t matter what Tactics or style of play we use. Our “basics style” is what we wanted to improve on or grow out of and that’s why we hire JK!!! He failed, Arena failed, and GB WILL FAIL based on player selection, abilities and talent. Again, a chain is only as strong as the weakest link and the role of certain players on the team brings down the overall ability of the group. Until that changes STANDBY AND HOLD ON because its going to be one bumpy ride filled with disappointments……as nothing GB has to offer will work.

    BUT AS FANS WE WILL CRY AND COMPLAIN TOGETHER ?(and thank you SBI for giving us a platform to do so…..can you imagine going through this crap with nowhere to vent ? )!!!! GO USA ?? ?? ??!!!!!!

  5. I agree that whatever system Berhalter is trying is not working, and he needs to simplify it. But I don’t think that going back to defend and counterattack is going to work either. The biggest problem is what johnnyrazor brings up below, and what I have been saying for years: we have no presence in the centermidfield. None. It used to be that we were strong there defensively, could break up attacks, frustrate opponents, but struggled to create and connect passes. Now we don’t even have the defensive attributes. McKennie needs to be part of the future, but he is too inconsistent right now to be counted on. And after him, there is…literally nobody I can think of. Berhalter must work to try new players and combinations of players in the middle. Bring in fringe guys, convert a more talented guy from a different position, get creative. Bring in an older player for a temp fix, Bedoya? Cameron? Pulisic and Sargent look to be our most dangerous players but someone must be able to get them the ball!

  6. For sure- many times a team that appears to lack passion and effort is playing tentative because they are thinking too much- not able to play freely and instinctually.

    I don’t think you necessarily have to scuttle your entire system and philosophy. The greater issue is the need to take what you are doing and tweak it to suit the time constraints a national team faces. One of the most common quotes from players from the beginning was the complexity of what Berhalter was teaching. There are ways of introducing a system in stages, incrementally… as the team grasps/masters the basics- you introduce other parts.

    And of course there is the issue of certain player selections and substitutions which have been at times downright baffling.

    • I completely agree with your idea to tweak the system but if we look st the squad who failed to qualify they had the exact same issue. The 4-4-2 diamond that Arena and Klinsmann used was not complex. We blamed the manager when you started 0-2 in qualifying, we blamed the manager when we lost in Couvo, we blame another manager when we lost in Toronto. We are having the same problem with three different managers, it’s not just the manager.

      • I agree wholeheartedly, there are huge systemic problems throughout the inbred organization that need fixing. This was painfully evident in the selection process, the lack of clarity in leadership, blatant nepotism… and on and on. My response though is specific to this article Berhalter and his approach. And… when I hear dump this approach entirely and go basic- I have a tendency to get nervous as there are a faction in this country that think all we should ever attempt from now to eternity is bunkering in, getting physical, stealing goals through set pieces and scrapping and clawing for every victory. I happen to think a big part of this is Berhalter’s inexperience and in particular- inexperience w/ the international game. I do think we have some up and coming talent that fits his system much better than the parade of ill-fitting players such as Lovitz, Baird’s he seems determined to shoehorn into the roster. I’d feel much better enduring growing pains w/ young talent with a huge future upside than mediocre talent who nobody sees as the future.

        I side with a Twellman interview I saw and his take- firing Berhalter may seem a solution, but we then find ourselves at the mercy of the same inept crew that took over a year to interview 2 candidates and chose GB. That is pretty scary.

      • Rico at least Baird didn’t play. When Roldan and Lovitz got picked I said don’t worry they’ll only play against Cuba. Boy was I wrong.

  7. Sadly, I stop watching and caring about USNT. Also, my father start feel a bit apathy towards USNT.
    I blame USSF; if USNT ratings dropping

    • Clearly. Nothing screams “apathy” more than posting on SBI. You should get in on Fairjudge’s “boycott” (apparently it involves posting 4x as often)
      If you don’t care, leave. Goodbye. Nobody is going to give you a trophy for your tantrum

      If you don’t care

      • Really Gomer? Why did this trigger you to tell Scott to leave? By the way, you don’t own SBI so you have no right to tell anyone here to leave.

      • I’m sick of people bragging about his much they “don’t care about US soccer anymore”. If you don’t care, what are you doing hanging around a US soccer site. Whining?

      • Gomer, not all fans are going to be ride or die diehard fans who read SBI all day and post all the time. Some are obviously, we’ll watch every game and debate every nuance, but the lion’s share of fandom doesn’t follow the NT as closely as we do and that’s okay. We still need those fans even if they don’t watch every game and know every player by name and position and club affiliation. They’re still fans just as much as we are, and in fact I venture to bet that one day long ago you and I were both that casual fan who one day got hooked on it and needed to know everything about the NT. Those type of fans are out there and sometime posting on here and other sites elsewhere no doubt, then its a tough loss or hopes dashed or a WC win or something lights that spark and next thing you know they’re looking for a forum to post and get involved because its not like you can just talk USMNT details/nuance with anybody at your local sports bar, maybe one day in our dreams our fanbase is that broad but it doesn’t get there by berating the casual fan.

      • While I agree with everything you are saying here, Joe, Scott is simply not one of these casual fans.we need to be engaging. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but he’s been around a while, and his comments are universally poorly written garbage, and often rife with things like misogyny, etc. He brings zero to the table. This quote is just another example in a long string of wasteful drivel.

  8. First off find your best possible starting xi, then put them in the best position to do what they do good. Work around that and fill out the depth from there.

  9. I dont see GB changing anything. I think he’s just too stubborn to admit he’s wrong and getting by his system….. we have his player selection. The people he picks (beyond the obvious few), are not international quality and if he persists in calling them…. the only solution is to dump the coach. Canada next month has to be his last chance

    BTW Sargent scores and Pulisic assists in their return to club soccer. Good to see Puilisic has recovered from his “flu symptoms” and that Sargent can score… if he gets the ball.

  10. I think your analysis is spot on. Why do we shy away from the things that we are good at, and have always been good ay – just to try and play pretty? In the end its the results that matter. I’ve been involved with the game for a little over 40 years as a player, USMNT fan, and coach. And one of the most important lessons I’ve learned from coaching teams over the last 20 years is that if you don’t have the horses to run the race, it makes things difficult. I know that’s not an earth shattering revelation, but you need to play to the stregths of your personnel or your team will get buried. Play a formation and a way that suits your team and it’s strengths…… period. Allow them to be successful in a system that fits them. Motivation is also huge in coaching. I watch some of those USMNT videos in the locker room and it just seems dead. I know, players at a high level should be self motivated, but showing them that the coach is all in, and making the team aware of the importance of the task at hand and getting them to play hard is a skill. Not every coach has it. Gregg himself played many games for Arena, who I think in his 1st couple cycles as coach put the players in positions to succeed and MOTVATED them to do so. I was happy when he was hired. I thought he understood the importance of mixing vets with youth, and would not be bias against olayer’s who play in Europe, as that’s where most of his professional playing career was honed. Player selection, insistence on playing a system that we don’t do well in, and motivational skills are concerning me.

  11. I like to go back to the successful approach of classically good coaches from other sports–John Wooden and Vince Lombardi in particular. They emphasized basics (Lombardfi said that the game of football was basically determined by which team did the best blocking and tackling) and putting together a team play approach where they fit their approach to the players they had. Wooden famously didn’t even scout his opponents, he just had his team focus on what they had to do it and do it as well as they could. He won games in practice. Klinsmann was criticized when he said things like players need to use their own creativity (people said JK didn’t know what he is doing, has no idea of tactics) and he also once said that what formation you use isn’t that important, for which he was roundly criticized. It seems to me that your formation should not be set in stone and neither should your tactics be that way. They should evolve during the game to meet the strengths and weaknesses of the opponents. You should try to impose your will on them and have them react to what you do. If they high press and you can’t handle it, for God’s sake, then try to go over the top with long balls. The team should have guidelines, but not set in stone plans or formations and they should be able to adjust pretty much on the fly rather than worry where one is supposed to be in a particular situation. Find space, pass to players into space, have constant movement, look for open players, advance the ball whenever possible, pass backward or sideways if necessary to preserve possession, but only for that reason. When there are openings, look for interchanges. Take advantage of what the other team gives you. If they clog the middle, bring down the wings and overload the wings, forcing them to bring defenders outside. I read one report that the US wasn’t prepared for the Canadian formation or tactics. It shouldn’t matter, they should be able to adjust and know what to do, whatever the opponent approach. That is really a lack of coaching. And the statement that this is the worst, most unskilled group of players for the USMNT in two decades is just not accurate. Here is a list of players who play in a top flight European league–Sargent, Adams, Pulisic, Morales, McKennie, Brooks, Dest, Yedlin, Steffen. Now obviously a lot of these guys weren’t available last time, but they can be available and provide a very good core. Additionally, you have Altidore who starred while in Holland, Miazga who was a regular in Holland, Alvarado who is a consistent starter in Mexico. This doesn’t even count players in MLS, the English championship, German 2nd division or Palmer Brown in Austria. So to say that our group of players is historically weak is ridiculous. Eddie Lewis was a stalwart for the US and he played almost exclusively in the Championship. Earnie Stewart played all in Holland but only a little more than half the time in their first division. Gooch made his name in Belgium, and so on. We relied a lot on MLS players in the past when MLS wasn’t nearly as good as it is now. So the problem isn’t the player pool, but how it is being used and motivated, which obviously is not good enough.

    • The players we have now don’t fit that old style though either. They’d be just as out of place. Pulisic playing as a two way wide midfielder? It would be better than Morris but CP is not Dempsey or Donovan who in their younger days were good defenders. The system needs to be less rigid and different players selected but going backwards didn’t work in 2018 and it won’t work again now. It’s not all Arena, JK, and Gregg’s fault the American player is not the same they don’t have a chip on their shoulder, they get million dollar contracts instead of closed doors when they visit Euro clubs. People complain that Berhalter’s style doesn’t fit his players, counterattacks and hard tackling doesn’t either. If Berhalter doesn’t make significant changes to both tactics and players and can’t pull off passing Canada he should be removed but to go back just won’t work for qualifying either.

  12. There is nothing wrong with the style of play. As Franco points out we’ve tried it several times and the almost immediately dump it to go back to reactive soccer. The bottom line is at some point we need to just suffer through it until we figure it. Berhalter needs to simplify the ideas so guys can use their instincts better and desperately needs to stop calling in guys like Roldan, Lovitz, and Bradley that can’t play that way even in a simplified system. Honestly if you put the roster from Tuesday into a 4-4-2 how is it better? If you do that either Morris or Pulisic are either playing as wide midfielders and being asked to be two way players which neither like to do or are very good at. Is a deep midfield of McKennie and Bradley any better? If you look at the YTs the players coming forward are terribly suited for this old school style of sit back and counter. With 24-30 year olds we have we are going to lose to mid level teams, let’s not forget both Klinsmann and Arena both used the 4-4-2 throughout the last cycle and we could not win on the road using that style then either. Start calling in Mendez, Ledesma, Holmes, Hyndman, Richards, and Gloster. Davies plays more in 3Bundesliga and smoked us, if a guy can play, play him. These guys actually can do the skills that GGG wants. If we’re going to lose we might as well move the game forward. Less rigidity in the system and players suited for possession puts us in a better position going forward.

    • I understand what you’re saying Johnny, that it’s the way the GGG is implementing the more proactive style, not the style itself. From what I saw, there is no coherent plan when they play. It’s all scatter shot. The biggest issue for me is they are playing very tentative. They are playing not to make a mistake, and is making it worse. There is no chemistry, and I would think done of it has to do with the team selection. Lovitz, Bradley, Roldan, etc. don’t help.

      What I also see is that we have no destroyer, no ball winner out there in midfield to disrupt attacks. McKennie has some skills there, but he contributes more than a a clear ball winner. Adams is probably it, but if he’s not there then there is trouble winning the ball back. Even proactive teams have one. Kante is the best at it, and look at how he frees up the playmakers in the team.

      • Yes at Columbus he had Artur that was the ball winner and then you had Trapp to pass between lines. 3G had the idea to use the hybrid RB so Adams would be the ball winner next to the 6. Adams 8 months of injury has lead to defensive disarray leaving Bradley isolated as he was in Arenas diamond. Bradley is just to slow defenders know he’s not going to go around them so running at him guarantees a back pass, he’s also too conservative to try to make a long pass if it’s not a sure thing. Yeuill may not be a long term solution but he’s a better fit today. Holmes is an upgrade over Roldan if McKennie stays at the straight 10, which I don’t think is wise. In my opinion Wes is better as the 8 and CP as a 10. The problem with the US the last four years or so is teams were overloading the middle and shutting down the offense and forcing dangerous turnovers. Gregg’s answer was different than JK and Arena but resulted in the same problem. We don’t have players that want to battle in the MF and our 6s can’t dribble through pressure or pass quickly enough threw it. We’re trying to play with 4 forwards and weak CMs it didn’t work. Adams would change one of those problems Holmes or Pomykal change that. Ledesma or Mendez and moving McKennie deeper would as well. I still think CP is better centrally and the numbers back it up. If Dest isn’t coming then Gloster should be brought because Lovitz hurts more than helps, he was found a ton of little things to make it look like he wasn’t bad but really was putting his team in bad spots kind of like Zusi used to do. Put in players who will make mistakes because they are aggressive instead of guys who make mistakes because their too conservative.

  13. Bravo Franco most spot on article I’ve read regarding this teams lack of results. Forget trying to be something we’re not let’s just focus on who we are at this current time. Used to be that the US team was deadly on set pieces and threw counterattacking found ways to get fouled would be fab the setting up said set pieces. Goalkeeping has been a major disappointment to some degree but asking a lot of our keepers to play out of the back is not of them have the foot skills were passing skills to implement that that’s where the biggest problem starts.Not sure how much it is the system but to me athletic stamina seems to be lacking with this team over the last two years they used to be able to run you into the ground. If you don’t have ball skills then at least outwork your opponents that’s something we always did. Many nations that have had some success counter attack let’s try and implement some of that back into our game. If you had more Friendly’s where are you could try and implement the ball possession build out the back that would be great but looking at the way concha calf has things set up that’s not going to be the case. And regardless if you want to implement those tactics started to use 17 level so the players are well-versed you can’t just implement that shit at the full national team level guys need to know that system inside not a National teams coach job to train players it’s his job to put them in positions to win training happens at lower levels so Klinsmann had that right. I’m worried about Ernie Greg and his brother taking this program backwards. Carlos had better take a quick and hard look at this because if this becomes the new norm I’m going to check out and I’ve been following this program since the late 80s and I’m sure that many people like me who will check out. Hell I live near DC and didn’t even go to see the Cuba game that should tell you something and I never miss games.

    • Sorry for the poor grammar but voice recognition sucks shit. Drag Steve Jobs out of the grave and get him and his cohorts to give iPhone the technology to get that right.

  14. Of course he needs to dump the system. There is going to be times you need to play 4 4 2. 5 4 1. 4 5 1 formatiom. With or without possession but with a defensive grit and dangerous counter attack style. People have been confused about formations I mentioned above. These formations are going to be needed against better teams and sometimes they are going to be the formations that make us more dangerous as a team. But what we really need is to dump berhalter.

    • I could actually see Pulisic as a false nine in a 442 with some more physical midfield players behind him. Right now the midfield is way too soft. That said, I would love to see the US play eye-catching, attacking soccer at some point in the team’s evolution. Not now, though.

      • The issue then becomes who plays as wide midfielders? Are wide players currently are mostly converted forwards. Arriola might be the only truly two way player. It’s been a problem for awhile using Nagbe, Jones, and Bedoya there under JK.

  15. “Playing that way might have a lower ceiling and may not regularly lead to victories over top opponents consistently,…”

    Lower ceiling than what?

  16. Agree wholeheartedly with every bit of this. It was what I was trying to state under the video post of Micheal Bradley’s post game comments. Well said and laid out Mr. Panizo.


Leave a Comment