With their backs against the wall and the weight of the country on their shoulders, the USMNT did what had to be done – beat Iran. It was a nail-biting 1-0 win that secured this group’s first World Cup win and a spot in the knockout stage.
There were several question marks surrounding this team heading into the World Cup. Some of them have been answered while new questions have arisen.
Here are three group stage takeaways from the US’s World Cup journey so far:
The USMNT came into the tournament with the second youngest roster and with only one player with World Cup experience. We knew this team was talented, but this was a stage they had yet to be tested on.
But it turns out that what people believed to be one of this group’s weaknesses ended up being one of their biggest strengths. They’ve approached this tournament with a level of perhaps naive fearlessness that only youth could bring.
It helps that many of these players have been professionals since they were teens and play at the highest levels in Europe but to come out on the front foot the way they have has been nothing short of impressive.
With youth also comes buzzing energy and relentless endurance on the pitch which has been tough for opposing teams to handle. The latter minutes of World Cup matches tend to become battles of attrition and youthful legs tend to prevail.
It’s clear that this young group is bought in, that they’ve developed a brotherhood, and that their self-belief is unshakable. All ingredients to a successful World Cup.
The other question mark was head coach Gregg Berhalter. Tactically he was a mixed bag throughout World Cup Qualifiers but it was in the two warm-up games against Japan and Saudi Arabia where things looked concerning.
There was a tactical stubbornness that left the team void of ideas and scrambling to just hang on against Japan, and that couldn’t threaten Saudi Arabia. It turned out to be a humbling experience that Berhalter, thankfully, learned from.
Unlike the rigidness of the past, Berhalter showed tactical flexibility in his approach to every group stage match. Making sure of balancing the line of not throwing cohesion by making extreme changes but making significant enough changes to give the team the best shot at winning.
Defensively the team has looked like a well-oiled machine, working as a single unit rather than 11 individual players. Berhalter has adjusted the team’s shape and press according to the opponent making the team difficult to break down.
Defense has been the bread and butter of this team in the tournament and through three matches the USMNT have:
- Conceded zero goals from open play
- Conceded a total of five shots on target
- Only allowed an overall total of 2.31 xG (excluding the xG from Wales’s penalty)
While scoring is still this team’s biggest issue, we’ve also seen some tinkering on the offensive side that has made the team more dynamic. I’m talking specifically about the wide rotations and fluidity he’s instilled. There was no better example of this than the goal the US scored against Iran:
In the group stage, Berhalter’s substitutes have been questionable but when it’s come to his tactics they've been spot on and the players’ execution has been near perfect. This flexibility will come in handy against their next opponent, the Netherlands, who play a different style of soccer than that of any other team the US has faced so far.
Wasteful in Transition
Now the bad...
I mentioned earlier that scoring is the biggest issue for this team but it isn’t because they don’t have opportunities to create chances. In all 3 group stage matches, the US found themselves in good counter-attacking scenarios that were wasted.
Whether it was because of the wrong decision or poor execution, not capitalizing on these moments could have very well cost the US a spot in the knockouts.
Just take an excruciating look:
The Netherlands will play into the US’s hands as they’re a team that likes to possess and take risks in the buildup. There will be chances to exploit this in transition and the US is going to need to be sharper in those moments if they want a chance to win.
Up Next, the Netherlands
The Netherlands is a historic soccer nation with loads of talent but they are still very much a beatable team. The USMNT tends to play better against teams that like to possess because there are more opportunities to cause turnovers and use their athleticism to their advantage in transition.
It’s not going to be easy but the USMNT has a real shot of making the quarterfinals for the second time in their history. If you want to enjoy the match with fellow USMNT fans make sure RSVP here for Charlotte FC's Watch Party.
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