WASHINGTON, D.C. — US men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter came into his pre-Concacaf Gold Cup camp with a clear directive.
Berhalter wanted to come up with an alternative formation his players could get used to if Plan A goes awry during the tournament.
The execution was lacking for most of the 1-0 defeat to Jamaica on Wednesday, but it also served as a learning experience for the group.
“One of the objectives of this game was to play an alternative formation so we achieved that,” Berhalter said. “There’s tweaks we can make that make that formation function better, but overall I think that was a positive.”
“As a negative, we lacked speed, we lacked aggression in the final third,” Berhalter said. “When you talk about when the ball is wide, there should be four guys making runs and we only had two.”
The significant change was made to the back line. Omar Gonzalez, Tim Ream and Matt Miazga set up in a back three with Paul Arriola and Antonee Robinson serving as fullbacks when defending and wingers when moving forward.
In the opening 20 minutes, Arriola excelled in getting forward from his right wing back position and combined well with Cristian Roldan, one of two No. 10s along with Djordje Mihailovic.
“You see with Paul at D.C. getting very comfortable with him playing different positions,” Berhalter said. “That gave us confidence to play him as a wing back, and particularly at the beginning of the game, I thought he was lively.”
“(Arriola) had a couple combinations behind the line,” Berhalter added. “He passed the ball to Cristian behind the line. Overall with Paul, you pretty much know what you’re going to get with him. We’re usually pleased with Paul.”
However, the USMNT was unable to create any significant chances in the final third from that pressure, which dipped as the first half went on.
The frustration seeped into the side and the crowd at Audi Field, for the rest of the contest, with few positives displayed out of the tactical approach, which was eventually altered to fit a four-man back line.
The negative takeaways will overshadow anything else when it comes to Wednesday’s game, but the formation change could do the USMNT good during the Gold Cup.
In previous international competitions when the USMNT was stumped by opponents, it failed to create a clear Plan B from the tactical perspective.
While it didn’t work out against Jamaica, Berhalter at least has a plan and 90 minutes of film to pick out the inefficiencies in a system he may employ later this summer.
“I think it’s great,” Gonzalez said. “We’re adding more skills to our bag and it’s not scary because we train it. We get all the information we need and (Berhalter) and his staff prepare us in a great manner. I felt confident out there tonight and toward the end there we switched to a back four so it’s great to see we can execute like that.”
In the system, there is reliance on the wing backs to not only create pressure down the flanks, but defend as part of a back five as well.
Arriola fits the bill of a player capable of taking on those responsibilities because of his versatility.
“The difference with Gregg is he wants you to stay high and when you’re attacking he wants you to be a winger,” Arriola said. “But you also have the responsibility to get back when the ball is on the other side of the field and create a line of four. I definitely thought it was interesting. Gregg makes it very simple for you in terms of if he asks certain things from you.”
Robinson was more out of place in the formation. He failed to put much pressure on the Jamaican defense on the left flank, and in turn, it affected the overall production of the squad in the final third.
“The wing back role is always different for me,” Robinson said. “It all depends on what the whole formation we’re playing is. I don’t really see myself as a player who is on the ball and getting at players. I like more open space to run into and then get crosses into the box.”
“It’s something that (Berhalter) wanted to try out and we saw it tonight,” Robinson said. “It wasn’t great from a personal point of view, but it’s a learning curve.”
Even though Robinson struggled in the role, Berhalter believes he has players in his squad capable of achieving success if he calls on that formation.
“That’s one of the things we were looking at,” Berhalter said. “Can a winger play that role? What’s the responsibility? Is it too much for a true out-and-out winger to do it? Any of the winger profiles that we have in the group could probably slide in there and then some of the more aggressive attacking left or right backs could also do that.”
From an attacking perspective, Berhalter tasked Roldan and Mihailovic with being the bridge between defense and the forwards and setting up dangerous chances for Josh Sargent.
“The main instruction for me was to turn and play penetrating balls,” Mihailovic said. “I think I forced it. I had to force it in some occasions just because it is a friendly. I wanted to try things, but when we look back on things I will learn some things to improve.”
With Mihailovic and Roldan unable to crack through Jamaica’s defensive wall, the service for Sargent dried up and he only received one opportunity in front of the net, which was saved by Andre Blake late in the contest.
“It was tough to get on the ball sometimes,” Sargent said. “It was a difficult game for us to get a rhythm it seemed like, so that was a little frustrating for me. We have to learn from this experience and move on.”