The Differences are Striking?

Most USMNT will point to one position, on the team, as the weakest and that is striker (no reason to discuss Left Back, that is always a problem).  There are options that sound perfectly fine on paper:  A young up and comer that started most games for his Bundesliga team after the virus break, a national team star who is only 30, a player that has scored 32 goals over the past two seasons in MLS.  But, and it is a big ‘but’, all three of these have nits that can be picked.  So, lets pick the nits on Josh Sargent, Jozy Altidore, and Gyasi Zardes; whom seem to be, in some order, the top three options at striker for Gregg Berhalter.

Berthalter’s Strikers

The striker for Berhalter seems to need to do three things:

  1. Get into the box and finish off crosses
  2. Drop into midfield and help the team maintain possession and move forward.
  3. Lead the press

Now, anyone who has watched the USMNT over the past 18 months will know that the strikers haven’t done all three of those in any consistent amount of games.  I believe that is because none of the three options could do it, at least at that time, and one or more of the criteria were dropped for that reason.  Or, the player was trying to do it and was just not able to.  If the national team is evolving under Berhalter, I’m putting more weight on the last games, where pressing high was an actual strategy.  Before November 2019, pressing was not something that was done effectively or with coordination.

Get into the Box and Finish Off Crosses

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Berhalter’s team seems to value the cross much more than many of the best teams do.  But Gregg also seems to value the, “Man City Zone”, which is the deep side of the opponent’s penalty box where the ball can be squared back to a player behind the two lines of defense.  In either case, on a cross or a cutback, the striker has to be able to be first to the cross around the 6 yd box or pulling the defenders to that spot with him to open the space behind him.  This is the best thing Zardes does and why he is consistently picked over other MLS forwards.  This is the thing Sargent has struggled with in his stints with the national team.  At his club, they almost never attack well this way.   Does Jozy do this well?  I’m not sure how well he does it, I can’t think of a USMNT goal where he beat a CB to a cross.  There must have been some when he was younger, but he is past prime now and his goals for the USMNT lately have more come when he was stationary in the box, like the goal off a set piece against Panama in the Gold Cup.  Jozy’s instinct is to drop back in these situations to get the lay off, not draw the defense away from the spot.  Jozy also likes to rotate to the half space between the opponent’s left back and left center back.  But that is not where Gregg would optimally like his striker to be.

Ranking the players at getting into the box:  Zardes, Jozy, Sargent

Play Possession in Midfield

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Teams can try and take away the midfielders when the USMNT plays out of the back.  Gregg, and many other managers, work around that by having the #9 drop into midfield to create an extra unmarked player.  The ball is played to the #9, who then plays it one touch to a teammate.  Either an open winger or if a defender left a CM to close the striker down, to that CM.  Jozy is excellent at this.  Zardes can’t do it.  Part of the reason the team has had so many problems in some games is that Zardes tried to do this and failed, or the team tried to play out of the back without this option and it was too hard.  During the 3-0 Mexico friendly loss where the team tried to play out of the back at all costs, Zardes simply was not able to contribute at all.  I believe during the broadcast they said he hadn’t touched the ball in the entire first half.   Sargent is very good at this too.  He is not as good as Jozy currently with the ball to his feet, but he is much better than Jozy with the ball in the air to him.

Ranking the players in possession:  Jozy, Sargent, Zardes

Leading the Press

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This one is a little harder because Altidore and Sargent have not played in either game where the USMNT pressed as a strategy.  Zardes played in the Canada home Nations League game where the USMNT pressed effectively and he did it well.  Going by past USMNT teams under different coaches and his club career, we can probably say that Altidore is not effective in the press.  In his club career, this is the area that Sargent has really improved on and is the reason he started almost every game for Werder Bremen in their recent relegation fight.

Ranking the players in the Press:  Sargent, Zardes, Jozy

And So?

What you see is that each player is best at one aspect of the Berhalter system, is second best at another, and not very good at the other.  Therefore, none of the three have clearly emerged as an option.  But digging a little deeper we can see signs of hope with Josh Sargent.  He was not very good at pressing, not for a lack of effort but of concentration, but has added that to his game.  Is he really better than Zardes?   Hard to tell.  I ranked him there because Werder Bremen is a big team, in a top league, and when they were playing for their lives with immense pressure, the coach started Sargent in almost every game down the stretch.  He started him because of what he brought defensively and in the press.

And that hints at the answer.  Only one of the three can do all the jobs even at an average level.    Put another way, Zardes can’t do one of the jobs and never will (28 year olds don’t normally develop a sweet first touch after 28 years of not having one); Jozy can’t do one of the jobs (at least not for a whole game at the age of 31), and Sargent is not great at one job but not completely unable to do it and will get better at it.

This probably points to playing Sargent whenever possible with the USMNT and hope for continued improvement.  An improvement at the club level where he can work on these skills would also be helpful.  Do you start Sargent in a must win game?  That is a harder question and Gregg gets paid for that one.  But the other option is to play with Zardes or Altidore knowing that what you can ask them to do is limited and that will limit the whole team system.  We saw this in the Canada game in Orlando, Zardes started, the USMNT relied heavily on the press and played more direct rather than the slow possession game they had worked on all year.  The result was great.  So, all is not grim and there is hope.  Gregg tried many games before to have Zardes do that possession work and it simply did not work.

Jesus Ferreira played the #9 in January.  I didn’t include him because it was January Camp and he has only played the one game and really doesn’t play the position at club level.  He is very good at the possession job, based on that game, but he was totally unable to get into the box.  Jesus is kind of the opposite of Zardes that way.  He is young though and can improve.  People suggest others for the role like Jordan Morris or Tim Weah.  These are possible options, but Gregg hasn’t ever used Morris that way and we haven’t seen Weah with the national team in 18 months.  He played the wing for the U20 and U23 team except for one game (turns out it was against the best defensive team in the U20WC tournament) where he was not very effective.   Sebastian Soto looked good at the U20 World Cup but then his career has been on pause since.    

Even if Sargent does step up, we will need some depth and it is looking a bit tough which also adds to the feeling that the position is a black hole.  However, with the above in mind, there are options and they are all viable in their own way.  The team just has to adjust to some more than others and it could come down to which compliments the wingers the best.  It is there where we have the mirror of the #9 position weakness, which is a plethora of talent already arrived and more coming through.  It could be that Pulisic can provide the arriving in the box part and the #9 can be played more like Ferreira played it, as a “false 9”.  He is showing a world class skill at doing just that in the English Premiere League.  Or maybe the team plays more direct with a strong high press, like against Canada and all those chances Arriola couldn’t finish will be at Pulisic’s feet in the penalty box.

These are the options at striker, some better than others at some things.  All three players have a good attitude and will probably be important as the team tries to qualify for 2022.