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3 Thoughts as USMNT Returns to Concacaf Nations League Semifinals
Ricardo Pepi's immediate go-ahead goal off the bench in the second half saw off a typically stubborn El Salvador side.
Before we get into the major takeaways from the United States’ two wins over the weekend, just a tip of the hat to both head coaches in last night’s USA-El Salvador game. The U.S. only needed a draw to advance to the semifinal stage, and El Salvador never really looked like scoring, but as always they made things tremendously difficult for the U.S.
I was really impressed with the way Anthony Hudson managed the minutes of the squad over these two games, essentially doing what I said in my preview at the end of the last week by deploying more of a backup team and defensive unit in particular in Grenada. The 4-2-3-1 formation without Tyler Adams was not perfect but it is nice that the U.S. central midfielders in particular are not uncomfortable operating in such a system.
As always, former USMNT legend and current El Salvador head coach Hugo Perez had his team well organized and it took the USA a long time to finally get their breakthrough. I don’t know if Perez is on the shortlist for the full-time USMNT job, he was very coy when asked about it, but he certainly should be with the consistency he’s been able to produce with a routinely tough Cuscatlecos squad.
The win sets up an interesting semifinal in the CNL, where the four A Flight winners are seeded based on their group stage performance. Right now, the USA is the leader in the clubhouse with 10 points, and Mexico after a second draw while Jamaica has only 8. There are still two groups to play out - Group B where Costa Rica (6 pts) hosts Panama (7 pts) and Group C where Canada hosts Honduras who are tied (6 pts) but it’s the Canucks who hold the goal difference advantage.
It’s unlikely that Panama will make up the five or six goals they’re behind the U.S. on for the tiebreaker, but it’s entirely possible that the USA will be the top seed facing “last” place Mexico in the semifinals later this June prior to the Gold Cup.
In the meantime, the USA have some issues to work through on the field along with maybe hiring a head coach…and a general manager…and a technical director…
1 - STRANDING STRIKERS
We knew this was an issue for the USMNT at the World Cup and it is still an issue as of yesterday. How the US consistently insists on beating teams by only utilizing 10 players on the field is beyond me.
This is not a Daryl Dike problem, he drew two fouls in fairly good positions when he did get the ball, but too often the USA refuses to get their striker involved in the game significantly and it shows.
The other half of this problem is utilizing Christian Pulisic on the left wing in a 4-2-3-1 because then you waste both Gio Reyna in the middle and your right winger which started out as Alex Zendejas last night. By not utilizing your attacking midfielders correctly, you reduce their effectiveness tremendously and fail to capitalize on overloads and runs because the ball is always on one half of the field and players are getting pulled out of where they need to be to expose the defense.
When the USMNT is using a central midfield triangle in a 4-3-3, Pulisic cutting in as a defacto CAM works because it helps create the overload when the fullbacks bomb forward. When there is already a CAM there, Pulisic is just running into Gio and stranding Dike. Your best player wants the ball and naturally wants to go toward the middle of the field - just start him there and you probably will accidentally solve a lot of issues for your own team tactically.
There were other subpar individual performances yesterday, as Jedi Robinson was not spectacular, Pulisic in particular and the team as a whole wasted just about every set piece chance, and Gio I don’t think did well on the ball but had good distribution moments and nearly had the opener if not for the post. Were these two games in a 4-2-3-1 good for the USA? Yes, but there is still a lot of room for improvement and to address still glaring problems.
2 - THE PEPI TRAIN
If the USMNT is going to consistently strand their striker in the build-up, then Ricardo Pepi is the best option because these types of runs will unlock defenses. The absolutely spectacular finish here as well for someone who had been on the field for mere moments
Dike is the prototypical back-to-goal type that should be combining with his teammates and then going at goal. But since the U.S. doesn’t get those types of strikers involved, this is the best way to get any production from the position. Direct line-breaking runs that create a 1v1 in on goal or open up the entire box for multiple runners to crash into.
Similar to how the New England Revolution are utilizing Bobby Wood right now, Pepi’s all-around skill set in the box will get him and those around him opportunities if the U.S. is able to unsettle defenses and get multiple players involved against a non-set backline. When the U.S. is pumping mediocre crosses and set pieces to no one against an established defense they’re going to continue to struggle.
I expect Pepi and Dike to be back later this summer, but at the rate Jordan Morris is scoring for the Sounders, he should get a look as an attacking option as well.
3 - MILES ROBINSON IS BACK
I know that the myriad of injuries the USMNT had at the end of last year led to the legend that is Tim Ream at the 2022 World Cup, but my goodness Miles Robinson is good at soccer. I don’t expect him to remain in MLS past this year and he should get a ton of starts this summer with the national team which should lead him to a contract overseas when his contract runs out this year.
Weston McKennie was really good once Pepi was on the field, hitting numerous line-breaking passes into space that forced El Salvador out of its defensive block and gave the USA their best run of play in the second half. In addition to his assist to Pepi, he found Taylor Booth streaking up the right side and Booth’s centering pass to Pepi was nearly the USA’s second were it not for a timely intervention from the Salvadorean defense to send it out for a corner.
Overall, I think this weekend was a general success - the USMNT got two wins, a lot of players got significant minutes, and the U.S. got to play outside of their standard Berhalter-ball 4-3-3 without losing much on the defensive side of the ball. With the USMNT likely not involved in qualifying as hosts for 2026, Nations League and Gold Cup games are the premium experience boosters the squad will have over the next three years.
Congrats to the Turner clan on the newest addition to their roster and hopefully future Boston Breakers player.