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.