By Charles Bohm – WASHINGTON, DC (June 16, 2022) American Football Players – It was wet, wet and muddy, and Yunus Musah was playing his third game in 14 days at the end of a long club season. The USMNT was leading 1-0 thousands of miles from home as time ticked away in the second half. A surprise was in preparation for the local public. The sodden center of the pitch under his feet quickly dissolved into mud with just over half an hour to play.
Still, Musah still had the wherewithal to catch a square pass and accelerate between two converging Salvadoran players and into the open field despite the choppy turf. His speed and candor once again set the home side’s defense back. He fed the ball to Tim Weah, who sent a return pass to his feet in the penalty area. A few quick touches set him up to complete a safe golazo, only for Mario Gonzalez to deny it with a superb close range save reaction.
Musah’s hands flew to his head in frustration as the so-called equalizer disappeared. But he and his midfield teammates continued, even after a harsh red card against Paul Arriola reduced the USMNT to 10 men. Minutes later, Weston McKennie embarked on a similar solo push, with the USMNT pushing for an opening.
Soon it was Musah’s turn again. The Valencia starlet sniffed out a turnover in the defensive third and ran away to spark a counterattack. Finding Jesus Ferreira’s feet, he continued his run, accelerating after Ferreira’s one-two pass behind the back line. Ronald Rodríguez had to foul him to prevent a one-on-one with Gonzalez, earning a red card which helped turn the tide of the game.
“I was a little hesitant, just thinking about his skill set and how it was going to work today,” Musah coach Gregg Berhalter said after the game. “But of course he took advantage of the dribbling, in bad pitch conditions sometimes that can slow you down, and he was great today. If there was a man of the match, we would probably give it to him because of his performance…he did a great job.
Just over 10 minutes later, another central midfielder, substitute Luca de la Torre, delivered an accurate cross over the head of Jordan Morris for a superb late leveler. A 1-1 away Concacaf Nations League draw had been snatched from the jaws of defeat, pushing USA to pole position in the Group D standings. More importantly, it sealed a night of resilience and resistance of the Yanks a few months before the World Cup.
There is an argument that central midfield has generally not been an area of overwhelming strength for the USMNT over the decades. The domestic development pipeline has long shown its ability to produce strong mid caps. Yet incisive playmakers and ball-progressing #8s, the kind of players who control the engine room and set the tempo of a game, have often been in short supply. It was partly for this reason that Bob Bradley often used the proverbial “empty bucket” form. It could also be detectable as a nuance in Jurgen Klinsmann’s mixed results to favor a more “pro-active” style.
Today, the center of the park has become one of the team’s biggest weapons. The ‘MMA’ trio of McKennie, Musah and Tyler Adams was the foundation of Concacaf’s successful octagon qualifying campaign. Their speed, reach, bite, and personality beyond their years made the USMNT extremely difficult to contend with for much of the road to Qatar. De La Torre added depth and variety with his rise to a central spot on the roster. And at the start of the June window, Berhalter showed another option, deploying Brenden Aaronson at center after using him mostly in wide positions during the Ocho.
This last part was part of a larger shift in the construction of the USMNT, what Berhalter called a 3-2-2-3 form in possession. Others might categorize it as “switching the midfield triangle” from a No.6 and two No.8s to a “double pivot” or twin No.6s behind a No.10. El Salvador game, we saw something that looked more like a 3-5-2 formation.
The aim was to test subtle differences in roles and spacing to free up Christian Pulisic and the rest of the attack without unduly exposing the back four. Eventually, all of this can allow the coaching staff to bring more of their top-rated players into the XI.
“It’s part of the idea of making room in a pocket for a guy like Christian, but also helping a guy like Tyler prepare,” Berhalter explained Monday. “We’ll see. We want to keep working on that, we think against a certain type of opponent it could be an impactful way to create those spaces. And we’ll keep pushing forward and seeing how that works.
The coach appears to be considering the possibility that possession control will be harder to achieve in the World Cup than it was in Concacaf play, as transition threats remain. This will likely require more precision and efficiency with the ball and careful attention to defensive form without it. With Musah and de la Torre showing the potential to adapt to the responsibilities of a deeper midfielder, June’s action brought greater fluidity.
“I think I’m comfortable doing either job,” de la Torre said after his standout performance in the 5-0 Nations League win over Grenada last week. “I like having the freedom to see what the other team is doing and decide for myself if I should be higher or lower.”
As impressive as MMA has been over the past year, the addition of de la Torre and Aaronson to the mix hints at additional flexibility. It’s also an extra layer of recon difficulty for opponents.
“He’s a guy who fits in really well with what we do, and really carves out a role for himself, whether it’s as a starter or a guy who can come in and impact the game from a point. from an offensive point of view,” said Berhalter of de la Tour. “Luca had a great camp, a good carryover from a disappointing end to his (club) season. But he really picked up and performed well this camp.
Much of the team’s recent away talk has revolved around questions about the striker and goalkeeper depth chart. It is perhaps more heartening to consider that this month has shown how far the central evolution of the USMNT has progressed.
“We are still learning. We want to see how that potentially affects other defensive forms, and how we can still create spaces both between the lines and in the wide areas, the lower wide areas,” Berhalter said. “So we’re going to keep working on those kinds of things…it’s just, I think, recognizing what kind of pressure (we’re facing) and recognizing the best formation to give us quick circulation of the ball and open spaces between the lines.”
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Photo by John Dorton – ISIPhotos.com