When the United States men’s national team takes on Morocco in a friendly on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET, watch live on ESPN2), it will be the 51st time the Americans have taken the pitch under the stewardship of manager Gregg Berhalter. The former Columbus Crew boss took control of the national team in December 2018, and the 50 games he has since overseen give us a more-than-reasonable sample size to evaluate his impact on the USMNT.
How has Berhalter put his stamp on the U.S.? How has he shaped it in his image? How has he influenced games from the dugout? How will his management style dictate results at this winter’s World Cup in Qatar?
In order to answer these questions, we asked Kyle Bonagura, Bill Connelly and Jeff Carlisle to dive into Berhalter’s national-team tenure and detail where the U.S. stands after 50 games of Berhalter.
What is Berhalter’s style?
From a 20,000-foot view, one would guess that Berhalter has installed the identity he wanted with the USMNT. Known from his Columbus days as a manager with a preference for long spells of possession — building patiently from the back and unfurling more lengthy possessions than opponents (albeit without the rigorous counter-pressing that some sides attempt) — Berhalter has established exactly that: In 50 matches, his U.S. has enjoyed 56.8% possession overall and averaged 5.6 passes per possession. For context, that would have ranked fourth and fifth, respectively, in the Premier League this season. Acknowledging that international opponents vary widely in quality, that still suggests that execution is matching intention.
Under Berhalter, the U.S. has also slowly eliminated the sudden-turnover disasters that can occasionally emerge from patient build-up play; opponents scored four goals from possessions starting in the attacking third in 2019, three in 2020-21 and none in World Cup qualification. Meanwhile, the possession rates have slowly risen — the U.S. was at 63% possession in 2021 friendlies and 57% during qualification.
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This all makes it sound like things are working out as imagined, but if you’ve watched the U.S. play in the past year or so, you’ve seen something that amounts far more to pragmatism than possession. Thanks to injuries, the quintet of Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Sergino Dest — all of whom currently play for renowned European clubs — have played in the same match just once for the U.S.: They teamed up to beat Mexico in last summer’s CONCACAF Nations League final … in a match in which they saw 43% possession and averaged 3.4 passes per possession.
In last summer’s Gold Cup, with what was considered a primarily second-choice squad, the U.S. beat Canada with just 45% possession (thanks in part to the fact that they led for 89 minutes), produced just six shots from 58% possession against Qatar, then managed just 37% possession in the victory over Mexico. And while they may have averaged 57% in World Cup qualification, the range was immense: from 72% in an easy win over Honduras and 71% in a draw with Canada, to 51% in a dispiriting loss to Panama and 50% in a draw with El Salvador to 39% in a win over Panama and 38% in a draw with Mexico.
In qualification, the U.S. was far more placid in possession on the road than at home and catered its style dramatically to game state. And against an opponent like Mexico, which also prefers to dominate possession, the U.S. seemed to often revert to the old “tenacious goalkeeping and route-one counterattacks” style of previous decades. It occasionally worked, too. The U.S. qualified despite a run of injuries that prevented its top 11 players from ever seeing the pitch at the same time, but its identity — both what’s preferred and what’s optimal — seems blurrier than it did a year ago. — Connelly
How has Berhalter managed his team?
Berhalter is not one to rule with an iron fist. In his relatively short tenure, he has established himself — mostly — as a players’ coach who has facilitated a culture that players want to be part of, and generally, speak highly of. In public, he’s so overwhelmingly positive that oftentimes it comes off as protective of the young squad.
Take the 2-0 loss to Canada in qualifying, for example. Anyone who watched that game understood that even though the U.S. had the bulk of the possession, Canada was in control for nearly the entirety. Berhalter described it as a “dominant” U.S. performance. It wasn’t. The only way to make sense of what he said is if Berhalter wasn’t genuinely assessing the game as much as he was trying to send a positive message back to the locker room. Whether that’s an effective approach is up for debate, but that has been his style.
It’s easy to see how Berhalter’s positive demeanor plays well when recruiting dual nationals, which is one area where he has experienced some big wins. Dest (Netherlands), Yunus Musah (England) and Ricardo Pepi (Mexico) all committed to the U.S. under Berhalter’s watch and played key roles during qualification. Bayern Munich‘s Malik Tillman (Germany) and Chicago Fire goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina (Poland) made similar decisions this month, and while others haven’t gone Berhalter’s way — namely LA Galaxy right-back Julian Araujo (Mexico) — his track record has been very impressive.
The most confounding part of his man management centers on one man: veteran center-back John Brooks. Despite playing more than 600 minutes more than any other American in a top-five European league this year (2,617 minutes in 31 league games for VfL Wolfsburg), Berhalter has routinely passed over him in favor of less proven options. Brooks wasn’t great when he did play for the U.S. early in qualifying, but Berhalter’s vague, changing reasons for his continued omissions indicate it’s something more than form or fit within the system. There’s no other way to explain how someone can ostensibly go from one of the team’s most important players to out of the picture in less than a year. More questions than answers remain. — Bonagura
How has Berhalter influenced games?
It was halftime of the United States’ away World Cup qualifier against Honduras, and Berhalter’s side was staring into the abyss. The Americans trailed 1-0, and a September window in which they had thought they were capable of getting nine points was suddenly looking like it would only result in two, a potentially disastrous start that would leave the U.S. in a sizable hole.
Berhalter was then aggressive in his choice of alterations. Out went Brooks, George Bello and Josh Sargent; in came Antonee Robinson, Brenden Aaronson and Sebastian Lletget. The formation changed, too, from a 3-4-3 to a 4-3-3. The changes worked a treat, as all three substitutes scored, and with Pepi tallying as well, the U.S. went on to secure a vital 4-1 win. While the rest of the campaign had a few hiccups, that victory in San Pedro Sula allowed the U.S. to breathe easier and stay firmly in control of its own destiny throughout qualifying.
Granted, not every tactical change has that kind of impact, but the victory highlighted Berhalter’s flexibility. Rather than stubbornly persist with his initial plan, he was willing to junk it if it wasn’t working. He didn’t care about reputations either, as evidenced by his decision to pull Brooks — widely regarded as the U.S. team’s best defender — from the match. He hasn’t played for the U.S. since.
All of these are positives in terms Berhalter’s ability to adjust on the fly.
Of course, the path the Honduras game took raises the question of how Berhalter and the U.S. found themselves in such a situation to begin with. In fact, there were other instances in which Berhalter seemed to overthink things, whether it was the decision to start Gyasi Zardes against Canada or the near-wholesale changes made for the away qualifying defeat against Panama.
But it’s also clear that triple-fixture windows, which typically involved three games in a seven-day timeframe, forced Berhalter into some tactical and personnel decisions that he otherwise wouldn’t have made. Injuries at times to key players like McKennie, Reyna and Pulisic only amplified that.
The World Cup will offer up a more forgiving schedule. There will be three full days between games in Qatar instead of the two that were the norm during qualifying, yet it seems likely that the extra day won’t be enough for Berhalter to trot out the same lineup for all three games. The U.S. team’s depth will still be tested, and given the greater stakes involved, a premium will be placed on the manager getting his tactics and personnel decisions right from the get-go.
Berhalter’s tactical evolution hints at progress in this area. The U.S. manager started out his tenure with an almost dogmatic approach of building out of the back. As time went on, starting with the home match against Canada in the CONCACAF Nations League, pragmatism crept in, and there was a greater willingness to be direct when circumstances dictated. There was more of an emphasis on pressing as well.
Granted, at the World Cup, things never go fully according to plan. Berhalter’s willingness to adapt and change gears bodes well in that regard. — Carlisle
How will Berhalter’s team perform at the World Cup?
Group B seems impossibly tight in terms of the relative strengths of the teams involved. England has a clear talent advantage over the others and seems to have hit its stride under manager Gareth Southgate, although the U.S. has given the Three Lions fits in the past. Securing the second spot in the group looks like a challenge, though. The U.S. could just as easily advance as not. If one of Wales or Ukraine makes it through, it will have a roster comparable to the U.S. team’s in terms of quality. Iran is a complete wildcard given the relative unknown strength of the Persian Gulf Pro League, although history has shown that it would be a mistake to take Team Melli lightly.
Stylistically, the games will likely be a bit more open for the U.S. given that, unlike matches in CONCACAF, opponents won’t be as inclined to bunker in, but circumstances will dictate that as well. If the U.S heads into its final game against Iran needing a result, which seems likely, it might find itself facing precisely that circumstance. The U.S. team’s health will play a huge role. If the likes of Pulisic and Reyna can avoid injury, that will bode well. The big worry remains the No. 9 position. Pulisic, Reyna, Aaronson and Tim Weah can each win a match, but production out of the center-forward spot would be a big boost.
The U.S. is a confident bunch, borne of a core group of players performing for some of the best clubs in the world, but advancing out of the group will likely go down to the wire. — Carlisle
The pragmatism we saw from Berhalter’s squad in the past year, shifting in intent and strategy depending on the opponent, isn’t going to go away in Qatar. And that’s probably the way it should be. While we don’t know who will join England, the U.S. and Iran in World Cup Group B — Ukraine and Scotland will play on June 1, with the winner facing Wales on June 5 for the final spot — we can already see that the diversity of approaches within this group is immense.
In England, the U.S. will face one of the most talented teams in the world, one that combines an often conservative approach with pure playmaking talent. England is often OK with bunkering deep to defend at times, but with the skill in possession its players naturally possess, it still tend to dominate the ball against all but the best competition (last two years in tournament play: 61.9% possession, 7.9 passes per possession). The U.S. will almost certainly end up with 40% possession or lower whether things are going well or poorly. — Connelly
Since the draw, just about every casual conversation I’ve had with anyone about the national team has begun with some version of: “Do you think they’ll get out of the group?” For the USMNT, that’s the most basic way to measure success at a World Cup. If the answer is yes, it’s a success; if it’s a no, it’s a failure. For an event that is generally considered the only one that really matters for the United States (good luck making the case for the Gold Cup or Nations League), it’s a bizarre paradigm.
It’ll be easier to have a stronger feeling once the final team in the group is determined, but one of those teams will be widely considered the USMNT’s chief rival to get out of the group, behind favored England. Iran can’t be taken lightly, but on paper, it is the weakest of the six. — Bonagura