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USMNT starts 2021 looking at new faces and new tactical wrinkles


Combining a need for implementing new tactical wrinkles with a desire to give U.S. Under-23 eligible players experience ahead of Olympic qualifying in March, the U.S. Men’s National Team heads into Sunday’s 2021 opener against Trinidad & Tobago (7 p.m. ET, FS1) with some things to learn, and some things to try.

USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter will try to give several U-23s a chance to get a real international match before the scheduled Concacaf Olympic qualifiers in March, and he will also work on developing a high-pressing element to the team’s repertoire.

Atlanta United’s Miles Robinson will start against T&T, making his third national team appearance and getting the call ahead of reigning MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman. Other U-23 eligible players such as Jackson Yueill, Sam Vines and Kyle Duncan could get starting nods, while Daryl Dike is favored to start at striker in place of veteran Jozy Altidore, who will miss Sunday’s match as a precaution after suffering a minor injury in training.

The healthy mix of veterans and youngsters isn’t a surprise considering the sizable Under-23 component of the January USMNT camp setup, but what will be interesting to see is how Berhalter incorporates a high-pressing element into how his team plays. The team isn’t ready for a stylistic overhaul so much as it will be an attempt to add some variation to what the USMNT can do against tougher opponents.

“For us, I think it’s about just evolving,” Berhalter said. “Having a very stable mid-block defending structure, to now working on a high-pressing structure, where it gives us an alternative,” Berhalter said. “The idea is to become less predictable. The idea is to be able to control the opponent with and without the ball, and that certainly high-pressing gives us the opportunity to make teams uncomfortable. We also like to work in a mid block, at times when we need to control the opponent and, and prevent some penetration.”

“I think it just adds another layer to what we can do as a national team,” USMNT defender Aaron Long said. “A lot of the times we have the ball and we can dominate opponents, but there’s going to be games where we’re playing against high-quality opponents where we’re going to need to win the ball back and we don’t want to just be chasing all game.

“I think this is another layer and another evolution for this team that’s really going to help us in the future,” Long said. “So I think last December, last November, we worked on it, and we’re gonna work on it again this January, so we’re excited.”

The USMNT went unbeaten in four matches in 2020, posting three wins and and a draw, but it was some tougher matches in 2019 that provided the impetus for Berhalter to incorporate some pressing variations into his team’s setup. Variations that could prove vital in a year that will see the USMNT playing tough competition and several important matches, from Nations League to Gold Cup to World Cup qualifying.

“I think when you’re at the international level, it’s really difficult to get the ball because you’re playing against the best of the best,” USMNT midfielder Cristian Roldan said. “I think that if you can have a really good pressing setup, and you can get the ball quick, I think we’ll be more dangerous in front of goal.

“I think that’s credit to coach and the rest of the coaching staff,” Roldan said. “It is difficult, we found, we found it very difficult to get the ball against Chile and Mexico at times, but I think that’s something that I’m looking forward to doing because for me, my best qualities is having an engine and being able to run for 90 minutes so I’m excited about that.”

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