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USMNT shows promise in 3-4-3 formation in win against Northern Ireland


Friendly matches are often used for experimentation, usually of players but also sometimes of ideas, tactics, and formations.

File the U.S. Men’s National Team’s latest game under the latter.

The USMNT wrapped up its March training camp on Sunday with a 2-1 road win vs. Northern Ireland, and the victory came with the Americans playing in a new formation. Head coach Gregg Berhalter opted to go with a 3-4-3 setup rather than the usual 4-3-3 he has trotted out, and his players grew into the system as the game at Windsor Park in Belfast wore on.

Not only did the USMNT boss possession for large spells in the formation, but the team began to look more dangerous and create more opportunities the more the game progressed. This despite having very limited time to prepare for playing in that shape — just two days — prior to the exhibition.

“There were good parts but we still have a lot of work to go in the spacing to really hurt the opponent,” said Berhalter. “We got into some really good positions but we were not able to hurt the opponent enough. Overall, I am proud of the guys the way they took in that information and I am also happy the way they executed on it.”

While Berhalter’s side did not overly threaten in the final third until a slew of second half substitutions were made by both teams, the Americans still looked fairly comfortable in the 3-4-3 for much of the match.

The centerback trio of Aaron Long, Matt Miazga, and Tim Ream were only really troubled when poor turnovers by the midfield led to quick counterattacks. Wingbacks Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson got forward well to both help circulate the ball and whip in crosses. Young attackers Christian Pulisic and Giovanni Reyna were involved playing more centrally and underneath lone striker Jordan Siebatcheu.

Of course, the USMNT did not score until the 30th minute when Reyna took a shot from distance that took a wicked deflection. Still, there were promising signs on the whole as far as Berhalter and his players were concerned.

“I think it gives the team a lot of stability in the back,” said USMNT captain Pulisic, who scored the winner on a penalty kick in the second half. “It allows you to swing the ball around just having that extra man in the back and having that five. It just allows me to come inside a bit more and for me to find that space in the pocket, but I think we did a good job today.

“We could have done a bit better I thought in the first half of really just staying a bit calmer on the ball and playing a bit more simple, but I think in the end it looked good.”

What exactly led Berhalter to experimenting with the formation and moving away from his tried and trusted 4-3-3 were a few things. First, he said he wanted “some protection for second balls” given that Northern Ireland started the friendly with two tall strikers that were hard to win first balls off of.

Secondly, the USMNT coach believed having a midfield line of four could “exploit some spaces” vs. the European nation’s shape. Thirdly, he wanted to continue to “challenge” his group with the new tactical wrinkle.

“What I liked though is that the guys still tried,” said Berhalter. “You see in the second half there was a period where we really came up and took possession of the ball and moved it around nicely. Overall pleased with the effort to execute the game plan.”

How often the Americans turn to this new 3-4-3 look is unknown, especially with more meaningful matches coming up for much of the rest of the year. That said, the USMNT now has another weapon in its arsenal.

Sunday’s win stood as the introduction.

“I was happy with my performances and the team’s,” said Pulisic. “It is really, really good and helps our confidence going out and getting two good results. … I am definitely proud of the guys.”


  1. I love this formation 3-4-3, gives more to Dest and Robinson to attack.
    Minus useless Acosta, this 3-4-3 or 3-5-2 USNT option for attack and less defense bloppers.

    • Dest and Robinson were in the exact same space against Jamaica as they were against Northern Ireland. Why should I trade Musah for Miazga for nothing gained.

    • Right so if you play 3 CBs one of our 5 top league midfielders CP, Reyna, Wes, Adams, or Musah has to come off. Even if you’re thinking trade CCV for Miazga you are trading a Championship level CB for a top midfielder. Not worth it to me.

  2. We’re spending a lot of time worrying about a secondary formation. Going to this full time would take one of our Bundesliga or EPL level midfielders to play a Championship or MLS level CB. If you’re playing stay at home FB outside yes it would be more defensive but we’re not we’re playing Dest, Robinson, and Reynolds who are offense first. Yes it would be difficult on Concacaf opponents but most of those play bunker counter defenses meaning that the CBs will be isolated against the counter. It’s good to have options should we need a goal or if we are missing players due to injury or yellow card accumulation but I don’t see how this is a good option for first choice. I’ve said it before Dest and Robinson operated in the same spaces as in the 4-3-3 so it doesn’t gain us anything.

    • It doesn’t hurt to have a Secondary formation that players are comfortable with when playing tournaments. It gives us flexibility to cover for injuries, card accumulation, or even a tactical adjustment to take advantage of what the opposition is doing.
      A 3-4-3 with the right player selections can be effective against a bunker…you just can’t have a defensive liability like Ream be one of the 3 in the back-line. A trio of Richards, Brooks, & Miazga/Long is athletic enough to cover the counter.
      The availability & form of players or the quality of the opposition gives you multiple options at the CM position. McKennie/Musah & Adams, McKennie & Musah, Musah & Aaronson…could all be options from solid defensively to all out attack.
      Attacking 3 again can be flexed…maybe put Musah out wide if Pulisic or Reyan aren’t available. Again the flexibility of our player pool opens us up for any number of combinations to target an opponents weakness or provide cover for an absence from our 1st choice XI.

      • Sorry wasn’t clear there is nothing wrong with having a second formation, just that people were spending a lot of time being excited one way or the other about it. It’s not so much the formation on the lineup graphics as it is where people actually play. The difference between a 4-5-1 and a 4-3-3 is literally a few yards. Honestly in possession against Jamaica we were in a 2-1-2-4-1 against NI especially in the second half Reynolds and Robinson were as high as Dike in a 3-1-3-3.

  3. IV you’re talki g as if our now core players were the players they are back then, its night and day, and we have still yet to field our best lineup because of injuries and covid protocols unfortunately. The Wales games is a testament to that, where we dominated possession but it was the first game back from missing an entire year of playing together and some new pieces were added to the mix like Musah, but we were still missing CP. The team is coming together nicely however, and once we get the full allotment of first steingers together for longer stretches together I think we’ll really atart tp see this team shine, and having another formation for teams to account for could be priceless! The Switzerland friendly will tell us where we really are in a few months time before Nations League

    • the history on 3 man backline games this cycle is we looked uncomfortable in the back every time, won once against NI and lost to Jamaica and Venezuela. no shutouts, 5 GA. again, i am not sure who this would be intended for. 433 is already aggressive and my argument is too much so for mexico or road games. which suggests we need to go more conservative not less. for the weaker teams at home 433 likely gets the job done. who are we planning to use this for? there is no semi round. it’s straight to tough teams in the ocho.

      again, system should be personnel driven and what 3 backs do we have playing so well and mature now that you’re like, a 4th back isn’t needed? these 3 can handle themselves? it’s a dice roll formation when 433 is already probably too aggressive. i guess people forgot how easy jamaica and venezuela were getting end to end on us in 2019…..

      • Venezuela was a 4-5-1 your preferred formation and it gave up a defeat 3-0, tying for our worst result under Berhalter. Lima, Miazga, Long, Ream in defense, midfield of Trapp, Roldan, Wes, Arriola, and Boyd, Zardes as the striker. What’s even more fun is the Mexico 3-0 defeat you like to talk about is also listed by both Transfermkt and Soccerway as a 4-5-1. The more you know.

  4. he’s inadvertently wandering into a lot of my arguments for having more mids on the field, period. more defenders, more people to pass to, formational mismatching.

    personally i thought NI got too many chances plus the goal and that it didn’t work that well on defense with 3 back. it wasn’t a nightmare like jamaica or venezuela — guess people are forgetting that — but we shipped a soft goal and looked fairly nervous in the back. a 3 back formation is usually what a team with good marking backs does. we need more backs to cover the weakness really. that formation starts to make even Long look awkward.

    personally i think 433 is hyperaggressive as it is and would have plan A be 451 or 442 and then 433 as the aggressive plan B. 451 and 442 get you bulk mids to pass to — people keep complaining about stringing passes — and set you up for numbers in defense. i think the defense needs all the help it can get. if you want to play risky 3 back formations find 3 mobile backs who are ready for senior ball and can mark on an island.

    • As the article stated, the only issues thay NI gave us were via sloppy turnovers in midfield, not because the back 3 couldnt handle it being slow afoot….we cut down on turnovers in bad areas and we dont see these issues, although I too realize you’re going to have turnovers in soccer, but nevertheless we handled most things really well and credit to NI scoring a scorcher of a goal from a tight angle….no harm in congratulating that type of goal

      • no, it was not just turnovers. and that goal doesn’t exist against a 4 man backline because there are too many players with channels to cover.

    • There’s 4 times I can remember the US having 3 CBs, without Ream being a stay at home LB. Loss to CR at home ‘17 WCQ. France friendly ‘18 pre-WC. Jamaica friendly ‘19 pre-GC. And Northern Ireland. Every time the US deploys 3 CBs, there is always a player, placed in a odd position. Can’t remember, who it was, in the CR match at the moment… but vs France, Tim Parker was playing LCB. Robinson,(who’s not CB), was used as a left winger, vs Jamaica. Long was used as a RCB vs NI. I think, who ever the CB is on the far right of the 3, should have some RB experience. McKenzie, Richards, CCV come to mind. I think, Cannon, and Shaq Moore from RB pool, could fill a role as a stay at home RCB. Knowing when to move up in the attack is crucial, IMO. Long plays better when he has to cover a teammate at LCB (sweeper). If it’s 3 CBs, I like to see Long in the middle CB or LCB. I’m extremely glad to see the USMNT in different formations. For me, it’s getting the right personnel to fit the formation. The Swiss will be a tougher test!!

      • Loss to CR in 2017 was four man backline of Villafana, Cameron, Ream, and Zusi. The 1-1 draw that Summer in Azteca was a 3 man backline but calling it a 10 man box defense might be more accurate.

  5. Maybe saw that Mexico found the weaknesses (albeit for the U23 team) in the 433 that Coach likes to play. Might as well get started finding a new formation since play vs Mexico is how the USMNT are measured.

    • has everyone forgotten we beat mexico with a 451 in 2018? they bogged down in the last two lines, beat their head against a wall for the first half, we owned the second half. i think 4 mids in a 343 would somewhat constrict Mexico at the first line but then they would love going after 3 backs.

      as i said on the U23 article, i think we miss that 433 when used by elite teams is an aggressive power move. we are not a checkbook team that can just overwhelm an opponent or take risk free pressing chances. i get the arrogance of let’s go toe to toe with the best, but i think our best chance against mexico and such is sitting back in numbers and playing for counter goals. i think we’re so arrogant about 2026 we think we can just show up and win.

      NI was an unusual opponent in that they play kind of numbers back and disciplined like we used to. Mexico is not going to sit back on a 343 and wait for mistakes. they would hound 3 backs to death. i don’t think we’re considering how a formation like this would get exploited in Concacaf on the road. and i think 433 is aggro enough at home.

      • Wouldn’t we be wasting some guys if we played counter attack ball? Dest? Pulisic? Reyna? All not counter attack type players. They have more quality (comfortable possessing)and would be defensive liabilities if we sat back and defended. Back then we didn’t have quality like that up top or in the midfield.

      • A lot depends on who is available and what strikers are in form, but I don’t think we have to play defensively against Mexico anymore. Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie can hold their own as defensive mids and the ball skills of players like Pulisic, Reyna, Musah, Dest, and others are equal to the Mexicans. In the past the Mexicans basically controlled the midfield and that was the key to their victories. Don’t think they can do that now, except maybe at Azteca in real smog when the US hasn’t had a chance to get acclimated to the altitude. As I said, depending on the strikers available and in form, against Mexico I think we go 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 with Pulisic and Reyna playing attacking mids.

      • they had Adams and McKennie back in 2018 in the 451 for the win. they had McKennie both Mexico losses. i think people are forgetting who we already had around c. gold cup 2019 and the Nations League group. i repeat myself that a lot of people would accidentally repeat a Berhalter loss or tie lineup with their own theoretical XIs. i mean, a lot of people start with the XI we fielded for wales 0-0, like it went well…..

      • i think those are all counter players. all you need for counter play is foot speed, skill, and the willingness to be part of team defense. people keep acting like i am suggesting a more dramatic difference than i am. all i am saying is push the wing attackers back to a midfield line position for defense. they would start further back for outlet play — but we could actually use two more people to pass to. they would be back for defense — and i think we could use some help. it also clogs the open wide space if we play the central mids pinched in. you then have less need to artificially “press” and can instead just calmly wait for mistakes and then counter. dest could be both a wing mid or back in a 451. pulisic could play wide, 10, or 9. reyna could play 10 or wide. i don’t think the formation would squeeze many players out of a job because most wide forwards could also play wide mid just the same. you’d just be expected to track back as well.

    • IV that was a mostly if not all domestic based Mexico squad with an interim manager (was managing Tigres at the same time). It was a nice friendly victory but not much can be applied from it to any match 3 years later. I counted only 3 players from Mexico’s starters that would even make a current first choice roster and probably only Edson Alvarez would start. That night Mexico used a 5-4-1 nothing like the 4-3-3 Tata employs or the 4-2-3-1 they used in their lost to Wales last week.

      • flaw in your analysis is we tried 433 with the first choices twice and lost. we didn’t lose playing my way, we won. you say it was more like a b team game, well, that means mine is “untried” or “successful but needs to be tried against the first choice also.” just because the personnel changed doesn’t make mine into a “loss.” but yours are still losses and you’re saying line up and do it again…..

    • June will be the first true test of the 4-3-3 against Mexico. The GC final was without Adams, Reyna, Brooks, Musah and actually was pretty much a 4-4-2 with CP sitting under Altidore. Arriola and Morris were sitting deeper and certainly that was the plan when Roldan came on but then Pizzaro scored and we had to open back up. The friendly was an experiment that only turned into a blowout because we subbed on Lovitz and Tata countered by putting in Lozano, in a competitive match Dest isn’t subbed for Lovitz. Also in that match again your missing Musah, Adams, Reyna, Sargent, and Brooks.


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