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Berhalter's tactical changes help subdue mighty England in 0-0 World Cup tie, setting up a must-win showdown for the U.S. with Iran on Tuesday.
AL-KHOR, Qatar — Give Gregg Berhalter credit for his tactics. The U.S. men’s national team coach had a tall order on Friday: a World Cup showdown in front of a giant U.S. television audience against mighty England, one of the tournament favorites, a team that was coming off a six-goal demolition of Iran. So talent-laden are the Three Lions that Phil Foden, one of the world’s most dangerous young attackers, rarely even plays for them.
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Yet Berhalter and his staff had a plan. After analyzing the way England midfielders Jude Bellingham, Declan Rice and Mason Mount had overwhelmed Iran, the U.S. brain trust decided to alter the U.S.’s usual 4-3-3 formation into a 4-2-2-2 when it didn’t have the ball. The idea was to close down the middle with compact pressure and funnel England out wide. But a move like that also required Christian Pulisic, the best U.S. attacking player, to put in loads more defensive effort than he typically has to in a game.
It worked. England’s central midfield, worth something close to a gazillion dollars on the global market, was punchless. Its centerbacks exchanged harmless passes for agonizing amounts of time, struggled to advance the ball upfield and found resistance from a steadfast U.S. back line on the few occasions they did.
That fearsome front three of Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka? They were thoroughly frustrated in a 0-0 tie at Al-Bayt Stadium that left a number of England fans booing and whistling their team off the field, kept the U.S. undefeated in World Cup history against England (a win and two ties) and now has the Americans controlling their own destiny: a win over resurgent Iran (three points) in a supercharged match on Tuesday will send the U.S. (two points) to the World Cup knockout rounds.
In the end, the U.S. outplayed England on Friday and had the game’s best scoring opportunities, including a first-half strike out of a half-chance by Pulisic that hit the crossbar. But it was Pulisic’s defensive work that symbolized the collective effort of the entire U.S. team.
“One of my concerns was the effect [the U.S.’s defensive shape] was going to have on Christian and making him defend more than we wanted,” Berhalter said afterward. “But Christian was selfless, like he always is. I talk a lot about Christian, about the character that he has and the type of person he is. And it’s amazing to see our biggest superstar being one of the hardest-working guys in the field. When you have that, something’s going right in the team.”
“I think it was a really tough opponent,” England coach Gareth Southgate said. “They defended incredibly well. Their front six make it so difficult to play through and get at their defense.”
Tyler Adams, the 23-year-old U.S. captain, continues to be in the form of his life, a tireless ball vacuum who covers vast amounts of territory in the midfield. His performances in this World Cup and for Leeds United are drawing interest from some of Europe’s biggest clubs, and against England he led a teamwide mission to suffocate England’s players not just when they had the ball but before they even had the opportunity to receive it.
“Limit their space,” Adams said when I asked him how the U.S. defused England’s attack. “When you play against a lot of these good players, people think that it’s much easier to sit off of them. And as soon as you sit off of these players, they’re going to run at you. They’re going to dribble by you, and then you can see penalties, fouls, free kicks, all these things. So limiting their time and space before they get the ball is important.”
Berhalter had a tactical wrinkle on the attacking side, too. He moved midfielder Weston McKennie wider to the right than normal—“triple-stacking the right side of the field,” as Berhalter put it—and made use of right back Sergiño Dest’s ability to beat defenders on the dribble to create an overload.
“That was something that we saw with [England’s] defending in the last game, and we wanted to key in on it [with] Serg getting the ball and being able to bypass his defender to find Weston free,” Berhalter explained. “And then Luke Shaw would have a decision to make. He’s either going to leave Timmy [Weah] and release to Weston, or he’s going to get held by Timmy … It’s difficult to deal with. You’ve got to be smart about it and understand when to pressure, when not to pressure, but it definitely put us in some good positions to continue advancing the attack.”
Are there concerns about Berhalter’s substitution choices? No doubt. Despite having five subs to make, several tired starters (Dest was asking to come out) and the deepest quality of healthy wingers in his tenure, the U.S. coach didn’t make his first changes until the 77th minute and only brought on potential game-changer Gio Reyna in the 83rd minute for his first action of the tournament. That’s not nearly enough time for Reyna to make an impact in a game where three points (and a shot at winning the group) were there for the taking.
But overall, Berhalter got his tactics right in this game, and this time the U.S. didn’t suffer a second-half swoon as it did against Wales on Matchday 1. In fact, the Americans spent a good 10 minutes in the second half unspooling corner kick after corner kick and preventing England from escaping its half of the field.
The U.S. now finds itself in an eerily similar position to the one it had at World Cup 2010: After two ties, it has to win its last group-stage game to stay in the tournament. Controlling your own destiny is important heading into Game 3, but the challenge will be complicated by the fact that Iran needs only a tie to advance ahead of the U.S. and is coached by one of the modern game’s park-the-bus masters in Carlos Queiroz.
Throw in the historical context on and off the field—Iran’s taking of American hostages in 1979-81 and its elimination of the U.S. from the 1998 World Cup—and the stakes for both teams on Tuesday will be enormous.
“The thing about soccer is you meet so many different people from around the world, and you’re united by the common love of the sport of soccer,” Berhalter said. “And I envision the game being hotly contested for the fact that both teams want to advance to the next round. Not because of politics or our relations. We’re soccer players, and we’re going to compete, they’re going to compete. And that’s it, really.”
After Iran’s 2-0 shock win over Wales earlier in the day, one of the big questions heading into the U.S. game was whether Berhalter should consider not maxing out his best possible lineup and substitution choices.
Why? Well, the thinking went that since there was little difference between a loss and a tie in the group standings for the U.S. if it wanted simply to advance as a second-place finisher, Berhalter should rest anyone sitting on a yellow card (Dest, McKennie, Tim Ream, Kellyn Acosta) and limit the energy used by other important players (Pulisic, Adams, Yunus Musah) in an effort to be 100% ready for a must-win group finale against Iran on short rest just four days later.
But that thinking was a non-starter for a few reasons:
1) Berhalter would never do it. You play to win the game. Back in March, Berhalter could have done something similar for the World Cup qualifier in Mexico to save his top players’ energy for the next game, a must-win home match against Panama three days later. But Berhalter maxed out his best guys in Mexico and was rewarded for it, earning a point in Mexico and winning easily against Panama. That point in Mexico made the difference between clinching a World Cup berth that week and having to go to the intercontinental playoff in June.
2) The U.S. players wouldn’t want Berhalter to do it. One federation source told me there was no way the U.S. players would respond well to their coach not going for it against England in a World Cup game with a giant audience watching on television in the U.S.
3) Why not try to win the group? The U.S.’s goal isn’t to advance from the group as a second-place team. The goal is to win the World Cup, and winning the group could have made a big difference in creating a better Round of 16 matchup for the U.S. team.
Ultimately, Berhalter made only one change in his lineup for England—Haji Wright for Josh Sargent at center forward—and as in the Mexico game, the U.S. came out with a point.
Another question that has emerged in recent days has started ringing more loudly: Where has the USMNT been with any sort of statements questioning Qatar’s woeful human rights record, including the rights of migrant workers, women and the LGBTQ community?
Same-sex relationships are illegal in Qatar. And while U.S. players have referred to their “Be the Change” campaign that started after the U.S. police murder of George Floyd, the players themselves haven’t made a statement beyond that during this World Cup yet. Germany, for its part, had its 11 starters against Japan all hold their hands over their mouths to show that they felt silenced by FIFA threats that caused a group of European countries to abandon their plans to wear the “One Love” armband.
At the international media center, I was asked several times this week by journalists (many of them from Northern Europe) why the U.S. men’s team has been largely silent here when the U.S. women’s team has spoken out so strongly on social justice issues in recent years.
On Thursday, two former members of the USWNT posed the same question when it came to LGBTQ rights. Spouses and World Cup champions Ali Krieger and Ashlyn Harris brought up the topic on their podcast Ash & Ali Unfiltered:
Krieger: “I wonder what our men are actually feeling and thinking right now. Because I haven’t really seen a lot of them really speak out on this topic.”
Harris: “Of course not.”
Krieger: “Because I know for us and our team, we’re 100% together.”
Harris: “We wouldn’t be playing in this tournament in Qatar.”
Krieger: “We’re protesting. We’re speaking up. We’re using our platforms. We’re doing the absolute most against it. So I wonder why it’s so difficult for our men to kind of do the same and to fight for issues that they believe in and fight more on this grand stage. It’s like the perfect time. You have to be careful, because you don’t want to take away from the task at hand. But these are people’s lives.”
Krieger: “These are your coworkers’ lives. Because you know good and well there are men there who are a part of our community and who are queer, and they don’t feel safe.”
It was a reminder that if this were a women’s World Cup that FIFA had chosen to stage in Qatar, we might well have seen serious boycott threats from the world champion USWNT and other prominent teams. And with the women’s game full of proudly gay players who show no hesitation to support social justice, you can be certain that FIFA president Gianni Infantino will get a cold reception (and more) from top players at the women’s World Cup in July after his speech saying that Western countries have no standing to challenge Qatar on human rights—including LGBTQ rights in a country where being gay is illegal.
What is the USMNT players’ plan for potential protests or shows of support for marginalized communities here in Qatar? I asked Walker Zimmerman in our one-on-one interview the day before the Wales game.
“We’ve definitely had internal conversations among the group,” he told me, “especially when we found out about the countries wearing the different armbands and everything. And I think at this point, and things can change for different games, but I don’t think we’re going to be doing anything in terms of collective armbands or anything like that. But at the same time, I think there’s been a really good awareness in the group about things that are going on in conversations that we’ve had. And I think everyone feels like in a really good place about who we are as a team and what we believe in and how we can still make a significant impact regardless.”
One source in the federation told me that U.S. Soccer didn’t pursue doing a “One Love” multicolored armband as several European countries had planned because U.S. Soccer thought it was a “half-assed statement” and reasoned that FIFA could control it by issuing threats to stop it anyway (which is exactly what happened).
U.S. Soccer instead decided it wanted to send a message that it knew it could control, and so the federation posted a giant rainbow U.S. Soccer badge in the media interview area at its training site. The rainbow badge drew global coverage from the start of the tournament and didn’t incur any threats of punishment from FIFA.
It might be possible that U.S. players could send a message of support for women in Iran ahead of their group-stage finale to back the protests in Iran over the death of Mahsa Amini, who died in custody in September after being detained by Iran’s morality police for not wearing a hijab in accordance with regime standards. Protests have been constant inside Iran ever since, along with a crackdown by Iran’s hard-line rulers.
Iran’s players responded on Matchday 1 by not singing their national anthem, causing the Iranian regime to insist that they sing it for Game 2. Iranian fans in the stadium could be seen crying as the players half-heartedly mouthed the words.
It was a sign that the context around Tuesday’s USA-Iran showdown couldn’t be more meaningful in soccer and social terms. Buckle up. The next four days are going to be something we’ll remember for a long, long time.
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