The US head coach, Gregg Berhalter, has ditched the fading veterans who flopped during the last qualifying cycle, swum through a large pool of promising youngsters and installed a dynamic pressing style that retains the US’s hallmark spirit and energy but is more sophisticated and possession-orientated than the direct approach of previous generations. Theory, meet reality: Berhalter conceded that players were lacking confidence and were “below our normal levels” in the final two World Cup warm-ups, a 2-0 loss to Japan and a goalless draw with Saudi Arabia in September. At least the struggles were educational. “Things became pretty clear,” he said, without elaborating.
The zestless efforts weren’t aberrations. The US generally struggle to score away from home and often look ordinary against opponents outside the mediocre CONCACAF region. There’s an abundance of wingers and the midfield is busy and bright, but the centre-back and centre-forward positions are problematic and frequent injuries have prevented Berhalter from playing his best eleven. Nor is it clear that the US are good enough on the ball to outplay World Cup-level teams, and there’s little evidence they can adjust if exuberance does not carry the day. So wedded to youth and athleticism is Berhalter that there is a real lack of World Cup experience in the squad, although that is partly down to the fact that the US missed out in 2018.
With so many untested players – not to mention the coach – it is hard to predict whether they will rise to the occasion, be cowed by it, or perform more or less in line with their talent level – which would mean that with a good start against Wales they could qualify from the group, probably in second place, then be outclassed by the first major nation they face in the knockout round.
Following a nearly 14-month search for a successor to Bruce Arena, Gregg Berhalter was appointed in December 2018 after spells in charge of Hammarby and the Columbus Crew. This worried fans who wanted a head coach with a more distinguished pedigree and many are still to be convinced of his merits – but the thoughtful and thorough 49-year-old New Jersey native has won 36 and lost only 10 of his 56 games in charge. Berhalter’s playing career as a defender included a season at Crystal Palace and 44 international caps. He made two appearances at the 2002 World Cup and was an unused substitute in 2006.
Christian Pulisic will cut in from the left wing and much responsibility rests on the captain’s shoulders, especially since the US don’t have a top-quality central striker. At 24 the Chelsea forward is not the same fearless, rampaging kid who emerged during the failed 2018 qualifying campaign. For his country he now tends to drop into midfield in search of the ball. That’s the weight of expectations (and injuries) for you. There’s even a car ad about the pressure in which he reclines on a therapist’s couch and runs into a wardrobe to escape the media.
In 2021 Yunus Musah chose to represent the US rather than England, Italy or Ghana, and the calibre of his suitors is evidence of his ability. Blossoming at Valencia, he’s an energetic midfield disruptor who is calm under pressure with the ball at his feet. If he can add goals and assists the 19-year-old is a potential superstar, though that may not be obvious if he plays in a deeper-lying role to liberate Weston McKennie and act as a bulwark against superior opponents.
Probable line-up, (4-3-3) Turner – Dest, Zimmerman, Long, Robinson – Adams, Musah, McKennie – Aaronson, Ferreira, Pulisic