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USMNT tactical review: Points shared in the World Cup opener vs. Wales

The United States got off to a cracking start, but then faltered in the second half under former Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter.

Soccer: FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022-USA at Wales Danielle Parhizkaran-USA TODAY Sports

The United States Men’s National Team returned to the World Cup after an eight-year absence this week, tying Wales 1-1 in the first group stage match of the tournament. This was also former Columbus Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter’s first World Cup match, after taking over the Americans for this cycle.

It was a tale of two halves with the United States dominating the first 45 minutes, but then allowing Wales back into the game to equalize on a Gareth Bale penalty. Berhalter’s tactics were nothing out of the ordinary to Crew fans, but in the end, it only produced a draw.

Let’s dive into what went right and wrong tactically.

The first half: Promise and domination

After what the American people saw in the friendlies leading up to the World Cup, the U.S. performed incredibly well in the first half. Many fans and pundits had no idea how this young team would step up in Qatar, but they responded well and controlled the game.

Berhalter started off in a 4-3-3 formation but it took on different shapes throughout the game. In the early moments of the match, it was clear that one of the goals for the squad was to get outside backs Sergino Dest and Antonee Robinson as high up the pitch as possible to aid in the attack. Their creative ability and pace were supposed to exploit Wales’ back three and allow the wingers up top to go infield and combine with the midfielders.

USMNT midfielder Yunus Musah drops in to support the U.S. centerbacks.

We know that Berhalter also likes to keep possession, a style that he had employed in Columbus. So, when the outside backs pushed high, midfielders Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie often dropped in that space that they abdicated to be an outlet for the center backs and to be a pivot to get the ball up the field to the outside. The midfielder on the opposite side of the field where the other dropped and the other pushed up higher to make runs in behind the defense.

On the defensive side, the output by this U.S. squad was top-notch. Every time the team lost the ball, the players fought back quickly to win it back high up the pitch on the press. When they could not win it back quickly, the defenders got in their shape and let Wales have the ball while applying a delayed press. This meant all the players downfield marked while the front three pressed on the defense and forced them into making a bad pass or touch to give possession back to the Americans. This worked well because Wales was set up to attack off of the counter and wasn’t set up to build out of the back.

All these factors came together to give the United States the lead after dominating throughout the half, but inexperience and fatigue came into play in the second period.

The second half: Tired legs and inexperience result in a draw

The U.S. came out in the second half much like the team ended the first, with high intensity on the offensive end and earned a corner right off the bat. From there though, there was less control and domination by the young Americans.

First off, the team just looked gassed and less passionate. The players weren’t sharp staying with their marks, pressing hard or even making tackles. They simply looked second best, which allowed Wales to get some chances going forward and control more of the game. Some of this may be due to the players giving it their all in the first half. They sprinted at a marathon and ran out of gas.

Secondly, Wales switched up the team’s approach going forward. Instead of living off of the counter attack, the Welsh decided to quickly build up and try to catch the United States on their heels. More Welsh players got forward than in the first half and this resulted in putting pressure on the U.S.’s backline. Wales also recovered from conceding in the first half and picked up the team’s intensity. There were more tackles flying in and better overall play than in the first half due to coaching adjustments and a short period to rest and regroup.

Thirdly, the United States didn’t adjust the game plan and got baited into a track meet after conceding. After Gareth Bale’s penalty kick, the game blew wide open. It was attack after attack from end to end, and the Americans got drawn out of the style of play planned coming into the game. Berhalter’s system is meant to draw out the opposition, possess the ball and wait for your opponent to make a mistake. When they make a mistake, then his team attack, but the key in patience. The United States lost the team’s identity in the second half, got baited into playing too quickly and it resulted in conceding a preventable goal, while dropping two points.

Lastly, Berhalter made some interesting decisions, most notably leaving Gio Reyna on the bench and opting for Jordan Morris. While Morris and Reyna have different strengths and skill sets, the game needed a playmaker who could create magic and find a goal and that’s what Reyna does. There is a certain level of qualifications that go into being named the USMNT head coach and Berhalter fits those, but he got this one wrong. Morris was invisible on the pitch, not contributing anything in the few minutes that he played.

All in all, the U.S. gain a point in the team’s first game back in the World Cup and has an important game coming up against England on Friday.