Despite having the second-best goalscoring record in the CONCACAF qualifying group prior to Sunday’s shut-out loss to Canada, the USMNT has often struggled to score goals when faced by a stout opposing defense.
Now ten games into the 14-game qualifying cycle, the Americans have netted a total of 13 goals, however if the early 4-1 win over Hondruas is removed from the equation, they are averaging a far less impressive one goal per game.
In these ten games, the team has been shut out three times, while only managing to put multiple goals on the board in four occasions. Even if, on balance, the overall record is generally respectable, the fact that they still continue to struggle to score against teams such as El Salvador, who they barely beat last week thanks to a moment of brilliance by Antonee Robinson, is a troubling trend with long-term implications in qualifying and, with any luck, in Qatar.
Part of the issue has been the overall lack of consistent production from the three attackers, whoever they may be on any given night, that make up the front line of Gregg Behalter’s preferred tactical arrangement. That aside, the more persistent, systemic, and troubling issue has been that the team simply has not had any answers at all for breaking down a stout, organized opposing defense.
Sunday’s performance in Canada was the extreme version of this problem; despite holding nearly two-thirds of possession, and to their credit generally dominating the run of play (a point which Berhalter was happy to emphasize at every chance in his post-game comments), the USMNT was still ineffective and flaccid when it came to creating any real danger around the Canadian goal.
This ultimately led to the 2-0 loss, which seemed contradictory to any quick viewing of game stats, but was an entirely reasonable (if not generous) result for anybody who watched the frustrating display by the Americans, coupled with the effective and opportunistic attacking work from the Canadians.
Knowing that this same task of needing to break down robust defenses will be a recurring theme over the last four games of qualifying – realistically only Mexico will likely attempt to play toe-to-tie with the Americans – Berhalter outlined some of his thoughts on how to deal with this potentially fatal dilemma in Wednesday’s game against Honduras, as well as the final three games coming up in late-March.
“Canada was in a very low block [with] ten guys behind the ball, [it] was very difficult to break down,” the coach reflected in his comments to the press in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the team is preparing for their Wednesday-night encounter against Honduras. “It became complicated [since] there was less space between the lines, [at times] there
were no lines with their back six, and it became challenging.”
He continued, “There were moments in and around the penalty box where we could have been more clinical with our passing [and] with our crossing, and then offensive transition should have been better. The moments that they were open and they were coming, we could have taken advantage of that in a better way.”
Looking ahead to Honduras, even though they are mathematically disqualified from even reaching the fourth-place playoff spot, Berhalter sees a similar challenge in breaking through to score, however with the added risk of facing a team that poses risks if they commit too much in the attack.
“We always have to take the opponent into consideration, what their strengths are, what their weaknesses are, and try to play [in] a way that’s going to hurt them,” he evaluated. “With Honduras we see some some clear strengths and weaknesses. One of their strengths is [their] offensive transition, so we need to be well balanced.”
In terms pressure, there is surely more on the Americans than Honduras as they remain at a potential tipping point of heading into the final three games either in a strong position, or needing to catch up. The former defender sees this difference as a possible danger, but also as a way to shape his overall tactical approach to the game.
“[One] could make the argument that now they’re playing free, they’re relaxed because they’re officially eliminated,” he posited. “It’s a dangerous opponent, [and] we know in World Cup qualifying [that] every opponent is difficult.”
“They’re going to be tricky,” he continued. “For us it’s about how do we keep the tempo high, how do we wear them down, and then score goals to win the game.”
In regards to scoring goals – the key that ultimately wins games, even if Berhalter’s post-game comments seemed to take that for granted – the plan is for the team to stick to their current strengths of cutting deep on the wing, then hoping that the play will develop a line of attack around the penalty area.
“That’s the hardest thing to do in soccer, we know that,” he stated in reference to scoring against a robust defensive structure.
“Part of our instruction is; can we penetrate on the strong side [and] can we get behind them on the strong side? If not, how do we switch field quickly to get behind them on that side?”
“When you can’t do that; what type of balls are you putting into the penalty box, what type of crosses are you looking to put in, and do you have runners?”
“As that whole thing is happening; are you well balanced [enough] that you can take advantage of any balls that come out to the top of the penalty box, [so] that you can be winning those balls?”
While this tactical approach, which he already described clearly before the game in Canada, didn’t yield any results whatsoever in their last outing, he is confident that it will provide success if they keep pushing again and again.
“It’s an exercise that you we need to keep working on, most teams struggle with that, but we’ll keep going,” he stated, concluding, “we play hard and we play to win the game, that’s the message to the team.