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Taking stock of the USMNT’s 3-4-3 option


One of the more interesting wrinkles of the U.S. Men’s National Team’s March friendlies was the deployment of a 3-4-3 system against Northern Ireland, which allowed fans to catch a glimpse at a potential formation variation we haven’t seen very often throughout the recent history of the USMNT.

No, Gregg Berhalter isn’t ready to scrap his preferred 4-3-3, but Berhalter’s desire to have some tactical variety at his disposal, coupled with the reality that several key USMNT players have been gaining experience playing in various three-centerback setups for their clubs, makes the experiment an understandable one.

The first big requirement for the system is depth at centerback. At present, John Brooks is the top central defender in the USMNT pool and is a lock starter no matter the system. Aaron Long has re-established himself as the number two, and his showings in March served to solidify his standing.

The third centerback spot is a bit more unsettled, with Matt Miazga currently holding down the position, but with plenty of young talent in the pipeline. Chris Richards, Mark McKenzie, Miles Robinson and Erik Palmer-Brown.

The second big requirement is capable wingbacks. Sergino Dest starts at right wingback for Barcelona and can play wingback on either side, which gives the system considerable flexibility. Antonee Robinson has experience as a left wingback, and his recent showing against Northern Ireland showed a comfort in the role. DeAndre Yedlin is another player well-suited for right wingback, and Bryan Reynolds has the look of a strong long-term prospect for the position.

If there is an issue with the 3-4-3, it’s the reduction of central midfield slots, and increased space the central midfielders have to cover. A Tyler Adams-Weston McKennie central pairing works well in the 3-4-3, leaving Yunus Musah as a third option, but that isn’t a setup you are going to want to deploy against elite teams with quality midfields.

What would a first-choice lineup look like in a 3-4-3? Here is a lineup Berhalter could deploy if he had all his top players available:

Of course there are plenty of position battles to consider for the first-choice lineup, with players such as Tim Weah, Yunus Musah and Reggie Cannon players who could easily be starting options, but if this projection does anything, it shows that Berhalter does have the pieces to deploy a 3-4-3 with a squad familiar with playing in variations of a three-centerback system.

The plethora of young players boosting their stock on a regular basis will make for some difficult decisions for Berhalter, particularly in central defense, where Chris Richards, Mark McKenzie, and Miles Robinson are just some of the prospects who could very well play themselves into starting roles in the coming months.

As that crop of central defenders matures, Berhalter will have more reliable centerbacks to choose from, and he will have more reason to consider playing three centerbacks. Right now Brooks and Aaron Long are two locked-in starters, while Matt Miazga has a tenuous hold on the third spot, but plenty could change between now and June’s Nations League, and certainly between now and World Cup qualifying in the fall.

The challenge for Berhalter will be continuing to find time to train the 3-4-3, and finding the games that make sense to continue the experiment. The 4-3-3 is still his preferred system, and there are enough relatively new faces in the USMNT mix that Berhalter still needs to work on finding the right lineup for the 4-3-3.

Make no mistake, the 4-3-3 is still the more ideal system for the USMNT, and Berhalter isn’t about to change that with the current player pool in its current state of development, but it absolutely makes sense to train and develop at for the toolbox, especially given how many top USMNT players have experience in that type of system.

The good news is the 3-4-3 is a system Berhalter sees as being a viable one for his team, which is a testament to the increased level of tactical sophistication the current player pool has, even at such a collectively young age.


  1. Dont you think the 3-4-3 allows more freedom for the wingbacks though? I dont like seeing Musah out but to me its not a minus Musah and plus a cb as much as its a lets get Dest in an advanced a freed up role as much as possible agains teams that may bunker Vs us in wc qualifying. Lets hope one of the young bucks takes over for Miazga as I do not trust him over 90 in a match that matters

    • I think their in the exact same space in both formations if you look at the two friendlies. I think the difference is they were combining with the Outside CBs and the CMs in their offensive triangles which I think hurt Dest because he was working with Acosta and Long instead of Pulisic and Lleget. It does free up CP and Reyna it the middle though. I also think it’s funny we think of Miazga as an old guy, he’s 25.

      • I dont think hes old, I think hes mediocre and in a 90 minute match makes 1-2 big mistakes that at a high level will kill us. Hes a solid back up no doubt but I hope hes not our starter going forward. Reminds me of Omar Gonzalez, steong physical presence but is good for a howler or two a game. Im thinking our 3-4-3 could look like chelsea where it enables their wingbacks to see a lot of the ball in certain games and allows of course their wide players to tuck inside as you mentioned. If this becomes the pattern then this could be a good thing as Dest will probably be one of our most important attackers over the next two world cup cycles IF we can get him into the attack successfully.

    • I don’t think we’ve ever had trouble not getting Dest heavily involved in the offense out of our 4-3-3. Perhaps against Mexico but that would likely be a problem out of our 3-4-3 as well. As you mentioned if the Concacaf team is bunkering he’ll be free to be involved no matter our formation. I like that it gives us flexibility both in games if we need a change or in a window or tournament due to injuries or a suspension but I’m not sold it gives us much difference offensively for what we give up defensively.

  2. Richards is obviously the 3rd CB to me. As for Musah. The middle 2 could be a double pivot with Wes and Musah and Tyler as RWB and Dest at LWB. Not ideal to play tyler out wide… but RB Leipzig certainly has some thoughts on that. One could argue that gets our best 11 on in a 3 back setup.

    • I think I’d slide Wes to the RWB slot since he plays wide for Juve. Since Gregg wants his WB to initiate offense I think Wes is a better fit than Tyler based on how Nagelsman uses Adams as a RB.

  3. I’d like to see more tactical flexibility and not be locked into a fixed system like a 3-4-3 or 4-3-3. Personnel and opponent should dictate formation, not rigid adherence to a system because reasons. We should try 4-4-2, 3-5-2; 4-2-3-1; 4-1-4-1; 4-4-1-1; etc.

    Against a better team than NI, the 3-4-3 would have been completely exposed.

    • I think that’s the idea. Now that players are familiar with build up patterns and how we want to counter press and defend that those principles can be applied no matter the formation. With positional flexibility of guys like Weah, Aaronson, Lletget, Reyna, McKennie it shouldn’t even effect roster selection that much either.
      Berhalter claimed they spent 8 minutes in training on the 3-4-3 so I do think we could tighten it up a bit.

  4. At least Berhalter is experimenting the 3 backline in friendlies. Trying to forget the time we rolled that out vs Mex to start the last Hex. Fun times.

  5. I think Richards fits the formation better than Miazga. If deployed on the right you have a quality distributor of the ball on either side of Long…with more mobility than Miazga.
    If you deploy him on the left it’d allow Brooks to slide centrally and places Long in a position where his lack of passing can be covered by Dest’s abilities.

    • I think the thought would be Long is better defending in space than Brooks, also if you look at NI match it was Ream and Long carrying the ball forward and Miazga the CB staying deep. By playing Brooks at LCB he would be able to use his passing skills more. I’d also rather see Richards than Miazga, I think Ives just isn’t sure 3G is ready to put Richards out there for 90 in must win matches. I could see Richards getting the GC as his chance to get 4 or 5 starts.
      I’m still unsure why people are so excited by the 3-4-3. The FBs occupied the same space in possession as in our 4-3-3. So then your just removing Musah for Miazga, no thank you. Good to have a change up though.

      • I see the 3-4-3 as a possible 2nd formation for tournaments to deal with suspensions and/or injuries. It also easily transitions to a 5-3-2 formation if we need more defensive tactics/support, so practicing/experimenting with the 3-4-3 against some of these weaker opponents gives you the grounding needed when the competition goes up a level (or 2).

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