What we learned from the USMNT September camp

In case you missed it, the U.S. Men’s National Team played their two matches before the World Cup kicks off in November.

The performances were… underwhelming, to put it lightly. A 2-0 loss to Japan and a scoreless draw with Saudi Arabia didn’t answer any of the questions being asked before camp. In fact, they only raised more.

With just 53 days until the U.S. take on Wales in their Group B opener, Ben Wright, Chris Ivey and Jonathan Slape tried to break down what, if anything, there is to learn from the September camp.


What’s the biggest takeaway from September camp?

Chris Ivey

We’re four years into Gregg Berhalter’s reign as the U.S. Men’s National Team coach and there is still no cohesive vision for how this team plays. Just when I started to believe he had adapted, Berhalter reverted to jamming square pegs into round holes. It’s the cardinal sin of national team coaches. 

When you’re a club coach, you’re given countless hours to implement and drill tactics. If they don’t work, you find new players in the global soccer marketplace that better fit that vision. You don’t have the same luxury as a national team manager. The job requires adaptation to the best of what your country has produced, subject to health and form. 

In this window, Berhalter returned to a vision for USMNT that doesn’t fit the personnel and leaves out the most in-form players. With a young and extremely athletic roster, the national team has looked at its best this cycle when playing direct with greater verticality in build up.

The best U.S. performances the last few years (think back to the big wins against Mexico) have largely come from this style of play. The worst (also think back to that early loss against Mexico and more recently against Japan) have come from a militant desire to play an attractive brand of soccer with patient build up out of the back. It simply does not fit this personnel. 

We all love Walker Zimmerman, but it’s not his game. He’s much more dangerous pinging long balls to runners (such as Christian Pulisic, Timothy Weah, and Brenden Aaronson) that sneak behind back lines than he is breaking a high press with the ball on the turf.

It’s also certainly not the tactical style that best fits potential starters Matt Turner and Aaron Long either. Neither of the center backs are asked to play this way with their club teams. So do we really expect them to magically turn on this ability in their short spurts with the national team? Turner is in the same boat only just recently joining Arsenal where more will be expected of him in developing this quality over time. He’s not there yet. 

A more vertical approach would aid the U.S. defense. It also better fits the most in-form American strikers, Jordan Pefok and Josh Sargent. As good as Jesús Ferreira has been for F.C. Dallas this season, it has never translated into goals for the national team. The aforementioned pair have also struggled in goal production, but both can provide hold-up play, prevent compacted defensive lines by playing as a traditional #9, and serve as a strong aerial target in the box when ideas break down. 

A national team is at its best when it plays to its strengths. Right now, Berhalter is not setting up this team to succeed based on the player pool’s relative strengths and weaknesses. If he adapts, the U.S. is capable of standing toe-to-toe with almost anyone in the world. If he doesn’t, it will be three and done for the Yanks.

Jonathan Slape

For me, it’s the importance of Yunush Musah and Antonee Robinson.

Leading up to this window, there was a lot of discussion about who were the most important players in the team. Lots of calls for the likes of Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, etc. Coming out of this camp, it is very clear that Yunus Musah, Antonee Robinson and Timothy Weah are definitely in that “most important” conversation.

Musah was a late scratch due to a minor injury that he picked up right before the window. Gregg Berhalter and staff opted to leave him at home and allow him to rest and after the past two games. His absence made it increasingly clear that he is one of, if not the most important player in the midfield.

In June, Gregg Berhalter tweaked his system slightly and dropped Yunus Musah back next to Tyler Adams in more of a double pivot. It is still the same 4-3-3 but with a single attacking minded midfielder instead of the free eights that we’d seen prior. While some hailed this as a huge change, Musah had already been doing some of that role, albeit in a less defined way.

The double pivot of Musah and Adams does two things.

First, it covers up for some of Tyler Adams, deficiency on the ball. Adams’ ball winning ability is second to none in this team allowing him to break up play and stop opponents from progressing further. However, he struggles with some of his distribution, which we saw against both Saudi Arabia and Japan. Placing Musah next to him gives Adams a player to play the ball off to who is much better both in possession and distribution.

Second, Yunus Musah is fantastic with the ball at his feet and his ability to progress the play through his dribbling allows the U.S. to both break the press and play quickly in transition. Against Japan specifically, the U.S. struggled with the press and how to beat it. Luca de la Torre has at times shown to be a formidable back up but with his lack of match sharpness, he struggled in that role.

The midfield as a whole does not function the same without Yunus Musah and the team struggles to do what they do best, playing in transition, without him.

Yunus Musah may have proven to be one of the most important players in the team, but Antonee “ Jedi” Robinson is probably the most irreplaceable. Jedi picked up a knock and missed Fulham’s match before the international break leaving Gregg Berhalter without his starting left back.

In Robinson’s absence, Sam Vines and Joe Scally were brought in to both fill in but also to evaluate if either were a suitable back up. Sam Vines has been performing well in the Belgian league and was award a start against Japan while Joe Scally never featured on the left.

One of the hallmark’s of Jedi’s game is his ability to get up and down the field and be a creative threat down the left flank. Vines can do some of that but is far from the dynamic attacking threat. Against Japan he found himself way too far back and barely crossed the half field line in the first half, leaving Gio Reyna with no support on the left. Vines did move up the field a bit in the second half but clearly is not a threat in the attack.

In the Suadi Arabia game, Berhalter opted to go with Sergino Dest as an inverted left back rather than playing Vines or Scally. Worryingly, this leaves our best back up left back also being our best starting right back. 

Fortunately for the US, Antonee Robinson was back in Fulham training this week and is in contention to start on the weekend.

If the Yanks are to perform well in the group, Yunus Musah and Antonee Robinson have to be fit and available in Qatar.

Ben Wright

Here’s what sticks out to me. Maybe we’ve all got ahead of ourselves just a bit?

We’re early into the first wave of young Americans going to Europe and playing meaningful minutes for elite teams. It’s been sporadic in the past, but now it’s a trend. 14 of the 26 players called into September camp are starting consistently for teams in European top flights. That’s a big deal.

But cool it with the golden generation talk. This isn’t a golden generation. This is the first step in a long process of developing elite level talent. It started with the MLS academy overhaul and is just now beginning to pay dividends for the national team. We’re 10 years into this process.

There’s a difference between negativity and realism. The simple facts are that this team finished third in Concacaf qualifying, behind an upstart (and very good) Canada team and the most dysfunctional Mexico side of the last 20 years.

Their best player, arguably the most talented player ever produced, is a rotation player for Chelsea who has had cup of coffee in his preferred position over the last 10 months. Gio Reyna, their other most talented creator, can’t stay healthy and probably can’t be counted on for much more than a substitute role.

This is not a Germany, Brazil, Spain, Argentina or even England, that has an entire player pool at the absolute highest levels of the game. This is a team with some talented players and a lot of hard working players that still needs to be more than the sum of their parts. They haven’t done that consistently yet.

I know everyone wants the U.S. to go to Qatar and make waves. That may happen. These friendlies don’t mean it won’t.

This is a team that plays best in big, high pressure moments. Sure, the friendlies were big moments, but they were also played in front of a couple hundred people in cavernously empty stadiums. The intensity sucked, but I’ll be stunned if they look similarly lethargic in Qatar.

But whatever happens in Qatar, this is a young team of young professionals who are still comparatively inexperienced on the biggest stages, and as Chris already pointed out, they’re trying to play a system that doesn’t quite fit them.

A World Cup should never be written off, and I’m in no way suggesting that. Getting out of a tough group is incredibly important, and as we’ve seen at international tournaments countless times, anything can happen after that.

But let’s not forget where we are in our timeline. We’ve just scratched the surface of elite player development. We’ll have more high quality players and coaches to call on in the coming cycles. 2022 is just the first wave. We’ve been so focused on our own development as a program that we forget the rest of the world hasn’t been stagnant. Teams like Japan are both an example for the U.S. to follow and a reminder of the drastically improved competition.

I’m not trying to be a downer before the U.S. finally play in a World Cup again, but I think we’re ahead of ourselves by a cycle or two. This isn’t a golden generation. We shouldn’t expect this team to be a dark horse in Qatar. Save that talk for 2026.

Projected World Cup rosters

Chris

Goalkeepers (3): Matt Turner, Zack Steffen, Sean Johnson

Right backs (3): Sergino Dest, DeAndre Yedlin, Reggie Cannon

Center backs (4): Walker Zimmerman, Chris Richards, Aaron Long, Cameron Carter-Vickers

Left backs (2): Antonee Robinson, Sam Vines

Center midfielders (6): Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Kellyn Acosta, Luca de la Torre, Malik Tillman

Wingers (5): Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Tim Weah, Giovanni Reyna, Paul Arriola

Strikers (3): Jesus Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi, Josh Sargent

Slape

Goalkeepers (3): Matt Turner, Zack Steffen, Sean Johnson

Right backs (3): Sergino Dest, DeAndre Yedlin, Reggie Cannon

Center backs (4): Walker Zimmerman, Chris Richards, Aaron Long, Cameron Carter-Vickers

Left backs (2): Antonee Robinson, Sam Vines

Center midfielders (6): Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Kellyn Acosta, Luca de la Torre, Cristian Roldan

Wingers (5): Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Tim Weah, Giovanni Reyna, Paul Arriola

Strikers (3): Jesus Ferreira, Jordan Pefok, Josh Sargent

Ben

Goalkeepers (3): Matt Turner, Ethan Horvath, Sean Johnson

Right backs (3): Sergino Dest, DeAndre Yedlin, Reggie Cannon

Center backs (5): Walker Zimmerman, Chris Richards, Aaron Long, Mark McKenzie, Tim Ream

Left backs (2): Antonee Robinson, Joe Scally

Center midfielders (5): Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Kellyn Acosta, Cristian Roldan

Wingers (5): Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Tim Weah, Giovanni Reyna, Paul Arriola

Strikers (3): Jesus Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi, Jordan Pefok

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids.

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