Gregg Berhalter leads the USMNT back to success following a tragic 2018

The U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team had an extremely disappointing 2018 season. There is no getting around that.

All they needed was a draw against a Trinidad and Tobago team that had just three points in World Cup qualifying in order to qualify for the tournament. However, that fateful day in October turned into an absolute nightmare for players and fans alike.

Pundits all over the U.S. called for the firing of the entire U.S. Soccer Federation, a search for an entirely new player pool, and, most of all, a new head coach. Although that search took much longer than most fans would have wanted, January 2019 brought us the beginning of the Gregg Berhalter era.

Berhalter steps into the role after a successful coaching career in the MLS with the Columbus Crew. The Crew was a constant threat under Berhalter, making the MLS Cup Playoffs in each of his four full seasons at the helm as well as appearing in an MLS Cup Final in 2015.

In an interview with , Berhalter explained some of his tactics with the Crew, noting that his teams are usually attack-based, to the cheers of every USMNT fan, but also control the midfield first on the defensive end of the ball.

This allows his teams to win back the ball in an area more suitable to spring an attack. These tactics were on display in both friendly matches as the U.S. cruised to victories over both Panama and Costa Rica.  

Against Panama, the U.S. scored in the first half on an excellent break from midfield. Nick Lima sprang Gyasi Zardes behind the back line, who then found Cory Baird out wide, and Baird’s ball to the top of the 18 yard box set up Djordje Mihailovic for a one-touch shot.

Lima made a sliding tackle near midfield in the 80th minute, sending in an early cross, which Walker Zimmerman sent in for the second goal of the night. Christian Ramirez finished off the match in the 88th minute scoring on a low cross from Jonathan Lewis. All three goals came from winning the ball in a dangerous area of the midfield, just as Berhalter’s tactics are set up.

The U.S. didn’t score quite as early against Costa Rica, but again, they set up their first goal by winning back the ball in the midfield, allowing Lewis to find Sebastian Lletget at the back post in the 80th minute. The second goal was just an explosion of pace, as Paul Arriola flew in behind the back line on a pass from Ramirez to chip the ball over the keeper in the 87th minute.

The results are spectacular, especially given the context. January camp is comprised of almost entirely American players in the MLS because the Americans who are playing abroad in Europe are in season. This means that Berhalter achieved solid victories over quality CONCACAF teams with what was essentially a ‘B’ side and without some of his best players.

There are two things to take away from Berhalter’s first couple games in charge:

First, his style of play fits well within the American player pool. Aggressive outside backs like Lima double as midfielders when given the opportunity. Wingers with pace, such as Baird, can get in behind the defense and provide depth to the attack, and forwards like Ramirez and Zardes have a place in this system, solving the mystery of the depth at the striker position.

Second, the MLS player pool has tremendously improved in recent years. The idea of fielding a starting 11 comprised of entirely MLS players for any international match would have been laughable in the past. Now, they have shown that the MLS can compete in the CONCACAF setting against the upper levels of competition.

Berhalter has about a month to plan for his upcoming matches against Ecuador and Chile. Both will be solid tests for the new head coach and the young team, but Chile will be a landmark match for the USSF as a whole. It seems as though Berhalter has steered the USMNT in the right direction, but one question arises. How far do they have to go in order to be able to compete with some of the world’s best?