Five at the Back

For years I’ve been pushing for a five man back line for the USMNT. We’ve shown against soft teams to not have the attacking prowess to drive forward and when we face giants we change to a more defensive posture. Why the inconsistency without the results? Now, more than ever, we need to move in this direction and formulate a true identity.

We are and have always been weak at outside back and had at least modest depth in the middle
It has been some time since we’ve had a legitimate left back not named Beasley and he was fading in his role long before he was allowed to rest. This has been a continuous pain point for our team that through three coaches we’ve not been able to dig up a legitimate solution.

On the left back we’ve had threatening runs from Antonee Robinson and talent wasted like Fabian Johnson because coaches didn’t unleash them to drive forward. The solution for this weak role is not serviceable Tim Ream being played out of position and it won’t work against better teams.

However, we’ve been able to watch DeAndre Yedlin develop as a dangerous right back in the English Premier League. Yedlin is one of our only players in the top league in the world getting regular playing time. When he is let lose to go forward in Rafa Benitez’s formation he is dangerous on the attack with overlapping runs. Yedlin has strong 1 v 1 defensive skills on display this past season against the likes of Manchester City’s Sane and other top talent around the league. However, like most of our back line, is poor in defensive positioning and maintaining a line. Having additional support behind him and the rest of back line will only improve our results.

We are not a strong possession team
This is a painful reality to absorb for many fans, but you don’t turn into a possession team over night. We are developing our U-20s and younger to be a counter attacking squad, it has shown some success and made us at least competitive at that level. Many were (and are) calling for the U-20s coach Tab Ramos to be named senior team Coach.

Our best player in Christian Pulisic does not play tiki-taka football and most of our top talent in Europe is in Germany. These players are encourage to take defenders on and play in a more counter attacking high press fashion. This was developed by Jurgen Klopp (who recruited Pulisic) and others around the league who play this style of attacking soccer.

Tyler Adams plays fantastic balls from the #6 and would be great at pressing forward with three center backs behind him helping on the counter attacking. Weston McKennie has played every position on the pitch outside of goalkeeper this season and his versatility would be fantastic for counter attacking football. The reinforcements behind him would give him the flexibility to drive forward in an unpredictable way keeping opponents unsure of the flow. Michael Bradley took advantage of this a few years ago, surprising Mexico in the early minutes of the qualifying game at Azteca .

We are short on forward and attacking players quality and depth
Our depth chart consists of most of the same forwards it has for several years now. Primarily mid-tier MLS forwards, one chasing a top spot in MLS and a few edge cases for European b-squad players or lower league success. I am a huge Josh Sargent fan, but he has not “arrived” yet.

Our wings are at most serviceable. Paul Arriola has a phenomenal work rate, but lacks finishing and technical crossing. There are several young up and coming players in Europe who might be nice additions eventually, but our current pool is lacking. This is why Greg Berhalter, early in his tenure, has already turned to the likes of Jonathan Lewis (who was loaned to USL team Louisville City FC last season) and using forwards Jordan Morris or Jeremy Ebobisse on the wing. It’s not a strong position for us, so why force the issue and play players out of position who are not showing success with it? Firing awkward and erroneous cross after cross that never have a chance of connecting really does little for our attack.

Jozy Altidore is our best holding forward, but is recovering from injury and is often injured anyway. Gyasi Zardes had a great 2017-2018 season, but has not shown the consistency or technical ability that we need. Half of his last four goals have been comical erroneous luck. A goal is a goal, no questions there, but how long can that and the massive whiffs hold up against quality teams? We don’t have much experienced depth behind them. I don’t see value in loading the field with attacking players like Djordje Mihailovic or Cristian Roldan, that have little positive impact on games and are poor at possession and provide counter attack after counter attack with dangerous turn overs. It just doesn’t make sense.

It’s what we do anyway against top teams, so why not be good at it?
One of our best games in recent memory for me was that performance in Azteca when Michael Bradley scored an early goal, maybe one of the most incredible goals in US history. As mentioned earlier, the formation gave him the freedom to press up and move in a more attacking fashion.

Against top European clubs when we’ve deployed a three man back line we’ve at least been able to stay in games. One year ago against France with a field of Griezmann, Mbappe, Pogba, Kante and Giroud we held them to a 1-1 draw. A week prior we tried to take on the Republic of Ireland with a four man back line and lost 2-1, had far less passing and less possession.

Rafa Benitez uses this formation in the Premier League with inferior players to most of the rest of the league and has achieved mid-table results the last few years with some very average players. Yedlin has shined and been one of our most successful players in the top league in the world. If he’d had Pulisic, Adams and McKennie in his midfield he may have been able to accomplish more.

If our plan is to deploy a stronger back line against top teams, with as little opportunity that these players have together why not train in that formation against weaker opponents? Increased reps, more comfort playing in the positions and with the same players can only improve our game. Costa Rico has embraced the formation and reached the World Cup quarter finals as recently as 2014. We showed last night against Panama adding these sloppy attacking players doesn’t necessarily lead to better results.

It’s time we face who we are as a nation and develop a formation that works for where we are. It gives us far more flexibility and less pain of watching our defense get diced apart as our inept offensive players go unused. If we find success in it or play a weaker team we can give Yedlin and Robinson the freedom to roam forward or loose Adams to drive forward and push the attack up the middle. It gives our center backs freedom to take runs forward in possession if they have the opportunity. It’s a formation that suits where we are as a football nation.