National teams around the world are often immediately recognized as having a distinct brand of football. The English are known for their direct and physical play, the Spanish thrive on possession-based ball movement, the Germans play organized and efficiently, while the Brazilians are all about beauty, fun, and creative freedom on the pitch.
So what is the American style? That might be the question that stands between the U.S. Men’s National Team and qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Gregg Berhalter’s young, unproven squad is full of potential - Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and the emergent Gio Reyna all have UEFA Champions League experience going back to their teens - but it has yet to translate into results, or even a coherent style of play.
Berhalter’s record isn’t terrible - 12-5-2, although one of those losses was to Mexico in the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final - but he has been rightly criticized for his stubborn insistence on playing short passes out of the back in a kind of fluid, possession-based way that is usually reserved for club teams competing at the highest level. This is something new for many of the players in his pool, which has been all too apparent at times as fans have been treated to a whole lot of build up with haphazard execution.
Being adamant about developing a style of play as a national team coach is all well and good, but it has to be suitable for international play. Club coaches have an advantage, as they have the latitude to work with their players on a daily basis. In turn, the players naturally develop a coherent system that not only accentuates each individual’s abilities, but allows the team to thrive as a unit.
The international game is different, thus making Berhalter’s forced insistence on playing a certain kind of way - especially one that deviates from his player’s strengths - all the more odd. As a national team coach, you choose players who you think will be your best options on that given day, or with an eye to the future. Berhalter, or any national team coach for that matter, doesn’t have the luxury of working with his players on a daily basis, thus organically forming that team unity and form that the U.S. men’s team so desperately needs right now.
This was all too clear during last summer’s Gold Cup, when fans had to frustratingly sit through while U.S. goalkeeper Zack Steffen and his backline were doggedly trying to play a cheeky but dangerous game usually reserved for the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Rather than capitalize on the traditional strengths of the program - determination, fitness, hard work, and a never-say-die attitude - the Americans looked out of place, a bullheaded attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole.
The U.S. lost the final of that tournament to Mexico, 1-0, but the gulf between the two national team set ups seemed to be much wider than that. When the U.S. played Mexico in the early 2000s, at arguably the height of the U.S.-Mexico soccer rivalry, both teams played to their strengths. They had an identity, they knew who they were, and they were bent on getting where they knew they wanted to go. The Americans often came out on top in these games, as they weren’t trying to be something they weren’t.
The 2020 iteration of the U.S. men’s national team is not Barcelona or Bayern Munich. That is all too painfully obvious after watching the team struggle to win, look good on the pitch, and attract fans in the years following the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
The players understand this. “We don’t have an identity right now”, Steffen recently said. “We’re very young and inexperienced and immature in the international soccer world right now. We’re trying to find our feet, we’re trying to find leadership, we’re trying to find our playing style".
There are encouraging signs. Young players like Reyna (17) and Sergiño Dest (19) are thriving in the Bundesliga, with Reyna reportedly being targeted by Real Madrid and Dest by Barcelona.
The pillars are there for the dawn of a new era in the U.S. Soccer. Rather than hinder progress in an institutional and managerial sense, perhaps its leaders need to step out of the way and let the youth of tomorrow put their own stamp on the American game.
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