USMNT played Switzerland and lost 1-2. The US was mostly dominant in the first half outshooting their opponent and having most of the ball. The second half was a different story. Three things stood out to me. I hope to write about each of them this week. I’ll start with the Press.
Press, Press, Press
This game was all about the press. When things went well and the US had near complete control it was due to the press. When the the US gave up the equalizer it was a failure of the press. When the game slipped out of control it was due to the press.
In the first half the US mostly pressed well. They wanted this. Man Marking all over the field. Aaronson was in his element. Notice the angle he’s taking here. He’s using his body position to turn a 2v1 into a 1v1 and push the ball back toward the center where they have cover. This repeatedly caused the Swiss GK or CB to try long balls which the US mostly easily collected. This worked extremely well through most of the first half.
Possession was also part of the success of the press. Except when in their own defensive third, (which I will talk about in the future) the US progressed the ball well. I said when we started that I wanted to see some La Pausa from the team. I wanted to see that they could press with intensity, attack in transition if they could but when it wasn’t there realize it was time to slow down and break the opponent down. This was a key piece the team has lacked. The USMNT is a young team. In the past, they have only been able to choose one way or the other. Either they played “composed and brave” and possessed the ball or they played high intensity. We have not seen them able to mix the two and good teams can do that. They press with intensity, transition quickly but when it’s not there or when the opponent does a good job making that an inefficient option, then they can change the rhythm. They did exactly that in the first half. The benefit of that was this.
Pressing is dangerous. US Fans love the idea of the press. High octane, attacking defense instead of passive low block defense. More transition play and more (in theory) play based on athleticism. The bad part of a heavy pressing scheme is that it’s risky and depends on 1v1 defense.
This is particularly hard for players and fans who grew up with the sport in the last 30 years. I’ve seen retired defenders marvel at the bravery of modern defenders. The things they’re asked to do today would have gotten defenders yelled out before. If one word can describe soccer tactics today its bravery. Bravery to pass out of a press in their own third. Bravery to commit numbers in the final third and mostly bravery to defend 1v1 with limited cover. This requires mobile defenders who attack the ball in the midfield.
A key defensive principle that is taught at even the E License is Press and cover. When I’ve ever decided to coach a young recreational team who has little to no experience with the game, I teach press and cover.
This simple principle will take an untrained recreational team who gets beat by that one super athletic player and make them competitive. It’s a basic principle that’s true at the highest level. It’s the core principle behind the concept of keeping +1 in the back. +1 in the back means just what it sounds like. Most teams, even EPL teams try to keep one more defender in the back than attackers. So if the opponent is keeping one striker up, the team will keep 2 cbs. If the opponent is keeping 2 attackers, then the opponent will keep 3 in the back with the 6 or fb falling in. Offensively this keeps a free man to keep possession. Defensively this ensures that if they do lose the ball, the cb has at least 1 cover.
I say all of this because the Press often removes that cover. It plays 1v1 defensively, even in the back. It requires the 6 and cb’s to step up to make challenges in the midfield. If you watched Chelsea and Man City in the finals, you saw Rudiger literally breaking De Bruyne’s face because he was doing exactly that. He was stepping up as part of the press to challenge De Bruyne 1v1.
This works great if the defender wins their battles and if they get back in position. The equalizer came from that not happening. Yueill mostly had a very good game(which I will get to later) but in this case, he pressed forward (appropriately) and then didn’t get back into his 6 spot.
The 6 protects the back line. In a pressing scheme they have to switch back and forth between a man to man press concept and zonal concept. Yuiell, who plays mostly man to man concepts with the Quakes, and who usually has very good game IQ to play the zonal 6 concepts, failed to quickly get back into position.
The US pressed well as they did the whole first half. They forced the Swiss into a difficult arial ball to the cm. Yueill correctly stepped up and challenged. Dest (who was incorrectly blamed for not getting back) also stepped up to press. The ball was bobbled by the Swiss attacker and Yueill hesitated between trying to win that ball or get back. The Swiss settled it and they were able to get it to the Swiss attacker right into the zone normally patrolled by the 6. This created a 2v1 on Brooks that the Swiss exploited all the way down the field for the equalizer.
The second problem of a team fully dependent on the press reared its head in the second half. Fatigue. I’ve said to fans before that Berhalter and his staff use friendlies as training sessions. Mckennie said post game that a key goal of the friendly was altitude training. Given their next competitive match is in Denver, this is really smart. They pressed heavy all game as part of altitude training. By mid way through the second half, the team was gassed. They had just spent 60+ minutes running full speed in a pressing scheme in high altitude. This was after training sessions geared towards altitude training. The subs came on and couldn’t match the pace of the game.
This is a big problem with depending on the pressing scheme for the US in the World Cup. Assuming they qualify, which no one is taking for granted this cycle, can the US press through a tournament in Qatar? I’m personally doubtful. It’s not just the heat of Qatar. It’s the lack of US depth. The press for EPL teams was less effective this year than recent years. Many blame the lack of fans which is probably part of it. The other is fatigue. Watching both Chelsea and Man City this year, I don’t think it was a coincidence that the two teams in the finals are two of the deepest teams in the UCL. I watched as both heavily rotated their squads throughout the season. Both were able press and play with intensity with tight schedules because they have the depth to rotate star players. In the WC, Germany, France, and England will have that depth to rotate their squads. The US has a starting XI that I would say (with complete bias) is starting to be up there with elite teams. They do not have the depth.
Lastly, the US has limited time to prepare for matches. The “System” has an answer to most questions asked of teams. Positional Play possession, high press, mid block press and low block defending.
We saw against the first Canada match what happens when the team focuses mostly on possession play and they need verticality. Canada saw the difficulty the US has handling a heavy central press. The coaching staff may tell them to respond to this with vertical passing (which btw, we saw against the Swiss). But you could tell they hadn’t worked on it. The plan is vertical pistoning between the 8’s, 9 and wings.
We saw a really good run by Mckennie going deep using this agains the Swiss. We also saw him coming back for the ball.
Against Canada in the first game, this was still the plan. We saw Brooks constantly waving his wingers for movement. It’s great that the team seems to have gotten this concept but it’s a reminder that in each window, they can’t work on everything in the system.
This time I thought they struggled in the low block. It makes sense as with the plan to high press and possess, the low block is where they plan and hope to spend the least time in the game. However, It resulted in the second goal.
This is neither a low block, nor is it pressing. You generally don’t press trap in the middle of the field. The reason you don’t is because of this very reason. The Swiss slipped a pass passed Musah and had a 2v1 on Cannon. This resulted in the cross and second goal.
We can blame this on either the lack of time to drill the low block (which tbh most should know) or fatigue.
Berhalter admitted and took accountability for the fatigue and risk of the constant press. He admitted that in future games they’d have to balance that press with defensive integrity. This will be key for the US going forward. How do they use the press and their athleticism to their advantage while not burning out their players?
The press made them dominant in the first half but was ultimately the cause of the loss. There are multiple phases of the game. The US cannot depend on only the press and transition attack the way Jesse Marsch has or teams like RB Leipzig has. They are going to have to adapt and lean on different phases of the game in different games. They are going to have to do that with line ups beyond a single starting XI. I hope we see them start to figure that out in the upcoming competitive games.