ORLANDO, Fla. — The U.S. Men’s National Team has scored 13 goals in the past two games and a pair of those tallies came from Jonathan Lewis on Sunday. Lewis’ performance was so good that head coach Gregg Berhalter approached the winger after the game to congratulate him.
Not for the goals, but for the repeated runs in behind the defense. Such is the importance Berhalter is putting on playing and threatening from out wide.
The USMNT won a second straight friendly in as many months in lopsided fashion using mostly MLS-based players, and one of the similarities between Sunday’s 7-0 win vs. Trinidad & Tobago and last month’s 6-0 triumph over El Salvador was how much the Americans emphasized width.
Be it through combinations down the flank, cross-field switches, overlapping runs or numerical overloads, the USMNT constantly attacked from outside in. The strategy in the 4-3-3 formation that was deployed worked wonders vs. an overmatched Trinidad & Tobago defense, which — similarly to that of El Salvador — got stretched early and often at Exploria Stadium.
“I think it is important in many ways,” said Berhalter of the tactic. “We want to use wide areas to start creating overloads, open up the defense, attract the opponent. There are a lot of reasons why we want to get the ball wide. We know that sometimes it is difficult if that is where the opponent can get numbers to and that is where we have to be start and move the ball out of those areas, but our wide players have been extremely important to us.
“When you look at wingers, they did a great job tonight, our fullbacks did a great job tonight. I think in these last games that is what we have seen from the group. They are really excelling in wide areas.”
Third of the night! 🇺🇸@PaulArriola puts home his seventh international goal and second in as many matches.
— U.S. Soccer MNT (@USMNT) February 1, 2021
The opposition in the last two friendlies left plenty to be desired, but the manner in which the USMNT played may have provided further evidence for how it plans to play later this year when all players are available for selection. Concacaf Nations League and World Cup Qualifiers are on the docket, and it seems likely that Berhalter will more often than not emphasize playing wide given the personnel available in the entire player pool.
With the likes of Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, Paul Arriola and Jordan Morris, the Americans’ attacking strength lies in wide spots. What’s more — in what is a microcosm of the modern game — there is no real pure No. 10 right now. Throw in the striker position being a bit of a mystery, and you might see why Berhalter has designed a game plan around athletic wingers that can provide much of the team’s verticality with repeated penetrating or diagonal runs while a false 9 takes up more withdrawn areas to free up space.
Disorganizing defenses and preventing them from staying tight and compact seems to be the idea.
“Since I have honestly been in the national team from 2019, the wingers’ jobs are not necessarily — we can get on the ball and do stuff — but our job is to get in behind the back line. That is the No. 1 thing,” said Lewis. “(Berhalter) counts not how many 1-v-1s, how many shots, how many goals, how many assists. It is how many times we run in behind the line, whether it is a wing progression or whether it is to run through the middle when the striker drops.
“That is just the No. 1 thing we have to get in our mind: runs in behind, runs in the box, runs in behind, runs in the box. That is how our game is assessed. After the game, he did not say to me, ‘Congrats, you scored two goals.’ He said, ‘Congrats, you were running in behind.'”
— U.S. Soccer MNT (@USMNT) December 10, 2020
Going back to the USMNT’s last two wins, a lot of the goals scored involved effective wing play. Some finishes came from the middle, of course, but a lot were born via or included good work from the wingers and fullbacks out on the flanks. Just look at the first, second, or third goals vs. Trinidad & Tobago. Or the fourth. Or the sixth. Or the seventh.
“Obviously we have to take advantage of our wingers that have space and get in behind and love to get in behind,” said striker Jesus Ferreira, who bagged a brace on Sunday. “For me, it helps my game to be much easier when I have to drop and the centerbacks do not come with me because our wingers are making runs in behind and they are dangerous.
“That is a main key for the style that we want to play.”
“Running in behind is what is going to lead to getting goals, so that is mainly for us as wingers our main focus,” said Lewis. “When the striker drops in or when the ball is on the other side, getting in the box and making those runs in behind to create space for others.”
Tougher opponents await and so will different types of games, but the USMNT’s emphasis on attacking via the wings is likely to remain a major component of the team’s style.