It would be hard to convince everyone that USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter was preparing for exactly this, last spring. I would like to believe he was, just because I would like to believe fully in Berhalter. Maybe he sensed it was a possibility. Maybe it’s just a coincidence.
You’ll recall last March, the Stars and Stripes were faced with something of a dilemma. They had one of those hellish three-game windows. It included their two toughest away matches (at Mexico and at Costa Rica), sandwiching a home game against Panama. The home game against Panama was the must-have, the three points that would pretty much guarantee passage to Qatar.
There were a fair amount of voices that said Berhalter should punt on the match at Azteca. Save the legs for the Panama match, because they would surely be drained by the high altitude and high intensity of a match against Mexico (not to mention the high level of smog). Sure, a result against Mexico always looks and feels shiny, but there are no “statements.” There’s only qualifying and not qualifying.
Berhalter said “fuck that” and sent his strongest team out to beat Mexico on their own turf. And they should have, but only got a scoreless draw. The U.S. then rode the buzz from that to a 5-1 pounding of Panama in Orlando, which rendered the last of the three games pretty meaningless.
Here we are again. While hardly as loud or numerous, there was a school of thought that said the U.S. didn’t need anything from the match against England on Friday. Everything was going to come down to the match against Iran, regardless. Save the guys on yellows from the Wales game, and anyone else whose legs wouldn’t be up for three games in eight days. No matter how badly that might have turned out against England, the U.S. could always save itself with a win against Iran, which they would now be more prepared for, so went the thinking.
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Again, Berhalter said, “Fuck that.” He sent his best team out with a clear plan to beat England. They should have, but only got a scoreless draw. Has it all been the perfect prep?
There are differences. The Panama match was at home. Against Iran today is basically an away match. Panama actually ended up having more of the ball that match. That will not be the case against Iran. The U.S. has never looked comfortable trying to break down a determined, bunkered-down defense. Their only goal against Wales was one of the few times they got to play on the counter. The noise around this match is much louder considering the opponent, and the issues at home and at the tournament. You need only look at yesterday’s press conference with Tyler Adams for evidence. And this is the World Cup, not the qualifying period.
Berhalter’s biggest call is how and when to get Gio Reyna on the field. The U.S. will need to score, and in order to score a team should have its most offensively gifted player out there. Should they not score, this will almost certainly be Berhalter’s last match in charge. Is he going to go down holding Reyna in reserve?
So where to put him? You’ll hear little call for it to be ahead of Weston McKennie, who is the best candidate to score the type of goal England opened their scoring against Iran with, using Jude Bellingham, the midfielder arriving late and meeting a cross. And against a team that will have as many people packed into their own box as Iran will, having a player who’s an expert at finding space no matter what is as valuable as it gets.
Yunus Musah? Hard to take out the side’s best dribbler and one of its best passers. Tim Weah on the right? His ability to get in behind a defense and speed to stretch both vertically and horizontally will be crucial, too. It’s not so easy, is it? There’s been a push to start Weah as a central striker to allow Reyna to come into the startling lineup. It’s a thought, but it’s not a role we’ve seen Weah play for the national team in a long while, if ever, and one he rarely plays at the club level either. This really isn’t the time to try shit.
The first two games have seen a more reserved Sergino Dest, letting Antonee Robinson on the other side be the marauding fullback. Perhaps if Dest is let off the leash you don’t need Weah as much as Dest will be the wide outlet. Maybe that’s where Reyna goes. The vote here is for McKennie, as Reyna’s ability to weave through traffic will be more needed in the middle right outside the 18-yard box where Iran is sure to pack with defenders. You need intricacy there. Reyna is intricacy; McKennie is not. Whatever Berhalter decides, he must pull the trigger quickly if Plan A isn’t working. He’s been slow to react in the first two matches (no sub before the 66th minute and only one before the 76th).
The U.S. doesn’t need to be in a rush. Yes, they need to win, but they have 90 minutes to do so. Scoring early would completely flip the game on its head, but if they head to panic stations if they haven’t scored in the first 20 minutes, there’s going to be less and less air to find around them.
It’s hard to know what faces the U.S. Iran was awful against England. And England is really good. They were much better against Wales, but Wales was also terrible. The U.S. is not terrible…but also couldn’t put Wales away. They also couldn’t put away England, but it’s an accomplishment that they were in a position to at all.
The main problem to solve will be keeping Mehdi Taremi from creating havoc down the U.S.’s right, which may mean the more conservative Dest we’ve seen. He had an assist and created eight chances against Wales. Limit Taremi and the U.S. will have cut off one of Iran’s legs.
They’ve been here before. Whether by design or not, they’ve run this drill. Step right up.