U.S. must use Nations League to show it has turned the corner under Berhalter
WASHINGTON -- On Friday night, the United States men's national team opens its CONCACAF Nations League campaign at Audi Field. The opponent? Cuba, the 178th-best team in the world and 25th-best team in CONCACAF, according to the most recent FIFA rankings.
It's a game the Americans should not just win but dominate. They've done so in the past, posting a 3-0 record and a plus-14 goal differential over the past three home matches against the island nation.
"It's an athletic team, they have a standard level of technical ability and they will present some challenges," U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter said of the opposition. "For us, it's about speed of play, breaking them down and trying to get the ball in front of goal as quickly as possible."
Sure, but anything other than a lopsided scoreline will be a failure, full stop.
The same, frankly, could be said of Tuesday's game at BMO Field in Toronto. Canada is a quickly improving side, bolstered by a growing investment in the youth levels of the country's Major League Soccer teams and beyond, a handful of stars playing abroad, and a developing soccer culture.
That said, Canada still remains well behind the U.S. in all facets of the sport. This isn't the time to eke out a victory. It's a time to control the ball, create chances, finish them, get six points. This is about reestablishing an air of inevitability surrounding the results of matches against lesser CONCACAF foes.
To help him do so, Berhalter has called in arguably the most complete roster he has had during his now 10-month tenure as coach of the national team. DeAndre Yedlin is back for the first time since March, and newly pain-free after an 18-month saga that ultimately required groin surgery. Matt Miazga is here, too, as is D.C. United's own Paul Arriola. There are absences -- John Brooks (will he ever get healthy?), Jozy Altidore (hurt again, disappointingly), and Tyler Adams (how much can we judge this team without one of the best players at one of the most important positions?) -- but even so, it's a squad that should be able to play how the coach wants, and show more progress in terms of mastering "The System" to build on the last year-and-a-half.
So let's talk about Arriola.
"What comes to mind when I think of Paul is his relentless attacking," Berhalter said. "He just goes and goes and goes, and that has a cumulative effect on the opponent. We think with him being able to repeat his high-speed running puts us in positions to create goal-scoring opportunities."
On one hand, yes, this is true. The D.C. United winger has a remarkable ability to make things happen, tallying three goals in 11 national team matches so far this season, putting in dangerous crosses, and generally running riot on the flank. He has been effective, for sure.
On the other, there's little elegance to his game, as he is largely about straight lines, verticality, work rate and repeated sprints. MLSSoccer.com's Matt Doyle called it "attritional soccer," which is a perfect phrase. This is not meant to be a criticism. Much of the traditional success of U.S. Soccer is a direct result of attritional soccer: wearing down opponents, playing together, leaning on good goalkeeping and being relentless and fit. Getting away from attritional soccer cost the Americans a spot in the 2018 World Cup.
Yet isn't the hope that the team moves beyond attritional soccer and finally get to a better place? That's part of the excitement, the forward progress fans desperately want. Cuba (and to a lesser extent Canada) are perfect opponents to see how far along this project is. One player who can help get them there is Sebastian Lletget, a creative visionary fighting for the No. 10 spot.
"I've had a good go at it so far," the LA Galaxy playmaker said. "There is a lot of good competition in that position. That's the fun part. You're playing for a spot, and I think there's room in there for me or for a lot of guys."
The hope is that he he gets it, and hope Christian Pulisic plays out on the wing where he can create (a major part of Berhalter's system is getting his most dynamic attacker alone in pockets of space). Hope Jackson Yueill, another young guy with vision, makes a leap and presses for time. Hope that Josh Sargent, who with Altidore out should get more opportunities up top, continues to develop into his generation's lethal finisher. Berhalter likes what he has seen from the 19-year-old, who responded well after being left off the Gold Cup roster over the summer.
"He has gained confidence [at Werder Bremen]," the coach said. "They've been playing him sometimes on the wing and in different positions. For Josh, it's just a matter of two things: him getting rest and being fresh in his mind, and him attacking. Him saying, 'I want something. How am I going to go about getting it?'"
"I want something. How am I going to go about getting it?" If you were thinking about a motto for the U.S. men's national team over the next 12 months, you could do worse than that refrain.