Say what you want about the United States men’s national team, but there's no arguing Gregg Berhalter's side has left its mark at the 2022 World Cup.
A rousing performance in Friday's 0-0 draw against England reflected the progress the team has made in the eight years since it was last at a World Cup tournament. It was a match that saw the USMNT in control against a heavily favored opponent, looking more dangerous in attack, and the U.S. was likely the team that should have won it.
It was an effort to be proud of and paid tribute to the mentality, talent and tacticians behind this team. Ultimately, though, the biggest test of the tournament awaits them. The United States will play Iran on Tuesday, in what Berhalter is calling the first knockout match of their World Cup. They’ll need win to remain alive.
Notably, they’ll need to figure out how to score some goals in order to do so.
Berhalter Gets His Tactics Spot On vs. England
Berhalter’s men showed real tactical flexibility in adapting to a different style of game in Matchday 2.
Against Wales, the U.S. held the majority of possession, breaking their record for completed passes in one half of a World Cup.
But against England, the U.S. didn't just outplay their English counterparts, they also out-coached them. England’s formidable lineup of big-name stars was expected to dominate possession, and the U.S. came prepared to address that. Berhalter trotted out his squad in a 4-4-2 formation—an adjustment to the typical 4-3-3—which they executed to near perfection.
Weston McKennie, in particular, shone brightly in his adjusted position on the right side of midfield, looking electric alongside Sergiño Dest and Timothy Weah.
Adjustments on the left worked well also. Berhalter told media in the post-match press conference he’d had a slight reservation playing Christian Pulisic deeper, asking him to feature more defensively. Nodding toward Pulisic’s selflessness as a player, Berhalter commended his impact on both sides of the ball, agreeing he deserved official Man of the Match accolades.
McKennie, Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams were at their absolute best in a match dominated by the American midfield, further affirming belief in the powers of the “MMA” trifecta, when they’re reaching peak performance.
By the end of the match, the U.S. chipped away at England’s possession to near equity. They broke through England’s press with composure. They took 10 shots to England’s eight. And though England fired off slightly more shots on goal (three to one), the U.S. garnered a higher xG (expected goals), and had the biggest chance of the evening.
Given the narrative weight attached to a compelling showing against England, the U.S. will be reasonably happy with the result.
All or Nothing Against Iran
Fate is in their hands to get out of the group. But it requires them to defeat Iran; a draw won’t cut it. And to win, they’ll need to start putting away those chances.
Iran’s first showing against England was hardly their best foot forward. England cut quickly through Iran’s defense, defeating them 6-2, in ways not entirely emblematic of Iran’s abilities. Their manager, Carlos Queiroz, is a highly regarded tactician and one who’ll know how to test this U.S. team.
They'll be a tough opponent, scrapping for their place in the knockout stages. And especially given Iran only need a draw to get out of the group stage (assuming a Wales loss to England), the U.S. can expect they’ll sit back, compact defensively, daring the U.S. to hold possession and break through them.
Struggling to break down low-block defending teams has been a long-running theme of this U.S. squad. It followed them through CONCACAF World Cup Qualification, and despite holding possession in an impressive first half against Wales, the U.S. produced limited opportunities to score outside of Weah's lone goal.
With absolutely everything on the line, they’ll need to account for that on Tuesday, which could require changes.
Berhalter has kept loyal to his starting lineup this World Cup, making just one adjustment at striker from Wales to England. To address fatigue, fitness and beyond it, further tweaks may be needed.
Brenden Aaronson’s unrelenting press and tenacity in the midfield might be well-timed for this match. His energy could provide relief for McKennie, who has excelled but is still returning to full fitness.
Josh Sargent and Haji Wright were both solid in their run-outs at striker. But failing the ultimate test to produce goals, it’s possible we’ll finally see Jesús Ferreira. His impact off the ball is unique in this striker pool, and his ability to open up space for teammates might be precisely what’s needed for the Iran game.
Berhalter has wheeled out some tactical surprises this World Cup, and one wonders if their final and most important group-stage match will feature another.
With spectators clamoring for a fit Giovanni Reyna to feature more prominently, and an in-form Weah willing to act as a striker, you have to imagine that there must be some consideration of a front three of Pulisic, Weah and Reyna. It might be what is needed to unlock Iran’s defense.
Beyond breaking the block, the U.S. will need to be wary of quick hits in transition. Iran is a team twice proven capable of scoring late, breaking through on the counter.
Berhalter’s men have been commendable this World Cup. They’ve broken through stereotypes held in foreign media and showed creativity, adaptability and belief. Berhalter, too, deserves credit for his performance.
But the narrative of this World Cup in the eyes of the USA, and in the estimation of their peers globally, rests entirely on the ability to beat Iran and get out of the group stage.
Their biggest test lies waiting. To pass, they need to answer one remaining question: Can this U.S. team score the goals necessary to defeat Iran?