Gregg Berhalter was hired just a little over 3 years ago. In that time, he’s put up fairly impressive numbers and won two major trophies for the US Men’s National time. Just over halfway through qualifying for the Qatar World Cup, it’s a good time to review his performance as a head coach.

What can we learn from the USMNT if we just look at the 96 goals that have been scored under Gregg’s watch? There’s a lot of interesting information to be gleaned. It doesn’t have the depth of detail that shots or other detailed data might have but each goal is in and of itself a crucial moment and an encapsulation of the team’s approach.

To analyse these goals I went back through video of each one. I did my best to categorize the phase of possession in which they were scored as well as the key events leading up to them, and the players that performed those events. This can help us see who makes the biggest contribution to the USMNT offense.

First, a little bit of a glossary to explain the terms I’m using. 

The phase of possession describes what is happening on the field during the goal. A direct attack started in the USA half before moving quickly into the opponent third and creating the goal before the defense can be settled. A transition moment is when the attacking move started in the opponent half, whether through a turnover or winning a 50/50 or aerial duel. In some cases I have included long carries as well. In these cases the defense was still disorganized like in a direct attack. Breaking down a set defense is what it sounds like – the defense was able to recover and pack the box, and the USMNT had to break them down.

The key event is the action that caused the defensive breakdown that led to the shooting opportunity. This is not necessarily the final or penultimate action, but the most important one to create the goal. Possession Play in this case means that there was no specific standout event, but a series of passes to create the opportunity.

The key pass/action is the final action before the shot. If a player passes to the shooter, that’s the key pass. In some cases, that’s not a pass; it’s a foul, a carry, or something else. The assists in the chart above do not track with official statistics – just creating the opportunity gives you an “assist”, it does not have to be a pass.

General Observations

First, the transition Berhalter has made over time away from using long balls to create offense is obvious. Berhalter favored Michael Bradley, Will Trapp, and even Jackson Yueill early on, but has moved away from that style to make room for players like Tyler Adams and Kellyn Acosta.

Instead, there has been a clear increase in scoring from turnovers. This tracks with personnel choices and a general increase in the high press. The press always been a part of Berhalter’s approach, but for whatever reason turnovers been a major source of goals in 2021. Part of it is the personnel, but I think there is a growing level of tactical maturity with the coaches and players as well.

Also of note is that the USMNT is showing an ability to break down better opponents. This has always been a criticism of the Berhalter system – creativity is not prioritized in the midfield and forwards, and at times the team has seemed helpless against a tough, organized defense.

Looking more closely into the actions directly preceding a goal is interesting as well. As a bit of prior reading, I can’t recommend the Where Goals Come From series enough. The three most productive key actions are crosses from the end line, cutbacks, and layoffs. Cutbacks and end line crosses can appear similar but I drew a line between them. For me, cutbacks are passes that are both low to the ground and moving away from the goal. A layoff is a short pass in the penalty box from one attacking player to another.

Cutbacks are a very efficient means of creating scoring chances, with a high conversion rate from the subsequent shot. We have seen the USMNT trying to create cutbacks intentionally – think the way Tim Weah attacked Mexico in the World Cup Qualifying matchup. 

If there’s any criticism to the approach, it’s that the over reliance on attacks from outside (cutbacks and crosses) means that the most dangerous pass, the through ball, is a little under represented. Being able to create scoring chances for forwards and wingers with balls between defenders will help add variety in the attack.

Who Creates Goals?

Who are the best players when it comes to scoring or creating goals against quality opposition?

If we limit it to just opponents who had an Elo rating of 1600 or more, that filters out most of the weak opponents that offer little resistance.

The first thing to notice is that Sebastian Lletget leads the team in goals or goal creating actions. That seems counterintuitive for all the complaining about his place on the team, but it makes sense. Lletget is actually good in the final third; it’s just when he is asked to help out in buildup or ball progression that he struggles. He’s also played the most minutes against this band of opponents by a fair margin.

Pulisic, Reyna, Pepi, and Weah stand out as major contributors. The challenge for Berhalter is finding a way to get all four of these players on the field at the same time. Lewis and Gioacchini have also done well but in very limited minutes, so it is hard to draw too many conclusions from that.

Sargent has not contributed to a goal against a decent opponent, despite having 380 minutes to do so. I think that he has to figure out how to make an impact before we see him on the field much more for the USMNT.

The midfield is the biggest area that needs improvement. Musah is the most promising, averaging a goal creating action in just under every two games. McKennie struggles to create goals, as does Adams. Roldan surprised me; I hardly remember any contributions from him but he has helped create 3 goals in just 637 minutes against quality opponents. Still, that is a lower rate than when he plays for Seattle. This is an area where Gregg needs to experiment.


Wrapping it up

There are plenty of limitations to this approach to analyzing Berhalter’s system, but it can still highlight some potential issues. As Berhalter begins to prepare this team for a qualifying stretch run, there are questions that need to be answered and squad weaknesses that need to be addressed to have the team operating at its highest level.