Pulisic not the key to USMNT success for new boss Berhalter
Background Photo: Rick Dikeman, CC BY-SA 4.0
It was my birthday yesterday [thank you] and Christmas is just around the corner. As a Manchester United fan who is at least half-American, however, the past few years brought a new appreciation for that old Rolling Stones ditty, You Can't Always Get What You Want.
Before I get into that, I suppose it's only fair I explain the "at least half-American" remark. I was born here then returned to make it home after being raised and educated in Canada. As such, I hold dual citizenship. American acquaintances think of me as Canadian. Canucks call me a Yank. I'm an outsider wherever I go. Glitter Twins lyrics are no stranger to my life.
Obviously, Manchester United weren't my secret Santa last year. They almost certainly won't be again this. They're more like the Easter Bunny, laying an amazing variety of eggs. Paul Pogba benched, Alexis Sanchez 'injured', Jose Mourinho living in the past, Ed Woodward rating the club's centre-backs alongside Toby Aldeweireld, Harry Maguire, Raphael Varane and Leonardo Bonucci. Someone's been down to the Chelsea drugstore but not to have Jose's prescription filled.
News on the home front provides equal opportunity frustration although the year-long search for a new USMNT manager mercifully ended last week. Judging by the dearth of rumours and hints on potential candidates that emerged from the United States Soccer Federation headquarters, it apparently amounted to newly-appointed USMNT general manager Earnie Stewart checking his emails once a week to see if anyone with suitable credentials had sent him their CV. No, no they hadn't. After waiting as long as he could for a miracle to fall in his lap, Stewart finally recommended Gregg Berhalter as the team's new coach.
On the positive side, Berhalter kept a Columbus Crew team with less-than-dedicated ownership in the playoff places during four of his six seasons in charge. He plays an aggressive style reliant on a high press and swift counterattacks from speedy wingers. On the negative side, he never won a trophy in his club managerial career. Not with the Crew. Not with IF Hammarby in Sweden.
The USSF made the usual noise about conducting a thorough search involving 33 candidates pared down to 11, then five, then two who best met the federation's criteria, silverware evidently not ranking among them. One unidentified candidate eliminated himself due to contractual commitments, which is the polite way to choke down laughter while saying thanks, but no thanks.
Somehow, Stewart's widely cast net failed to haul in the man who built and managed the current MLS Cup-winning Atlanta United squad even though he was looking for a new challenge. Instead, it appears Gerardo Martino will manage the USMNT's chief rival, Mexico. World Cup finalist Bert van Marwijck and the always-rumoured-for-a-new-post Iran boss, Carlos Queiroz, also escaped Stewart's vigilance. Nevertheless, USSF president Carlos Cordeiro was absolutely chuffed by Berhalter's appointment a mere 13 months after previous boss Bruce Arena resigned.
It's probably been the most conclusive and comprehensive search for coach in our history. Gregg isn’t just the right choice; Gregg is the best choice. He will push our men’s team forward with an identity and approach that will be uniquely and fiercely American.
Berhalter's uniqueness escapes me. There's more than one American MLS boss who's been around a while, some without much to show for it, others with an achievement or two. Philadelphia Union's Jim Curtin keeps plugging away. So does DC United's Ben Olsen. Jason Kreis has an old MLS Cup trophy gathering dust in his office. Greg Vanney's is much newer.
I can hang my hat on "fiercely", however. In fact, I think it's the factor Berhalter most desperately needs to find for his side.
The recent emphasis on positive, attacking football has elevated skill above grit and determination as the critical quality sought in elite players. You're not going to find too many Roy Keanes and Mark van Bommels on the pitch these days, no matter how integral to Manchester United and Bayern Munich's success the two destroyers were. It's been argued [hello] that it was Javier Mascherano who dragged Argentina kicking and screaming to the World Cup final in Brazil 2014, not Lionel Messi.
Don't kid yourself, though. Big time managers still appreciate a bit of aggro mixed into their squads. Pep Guardiola has Fernandinho and Aymeric Laporte with the occasional cameo from Vincent Kompany. Adrien Rabiot has sandpaper in his game at Paris Saint-Germain. So too Casemiro at Real Madrid. Blaise Matuidi rubbed a few people the wrong way for Les Bleus in Russia.
Marouane Fellaini did the same for Belgium. He's also key to Jose Mourinho's plans at Manchester United, although the Portuguese manager takes it too far, seeming to believe everyone and their aunt should be going into tackles with both feet and studs raised. Most people think of the Belgian as goofy and awkward rather than nasty even though Matteo Guendouzi is still waiting for a fistful of his hair to be returned after Arsenal's 2-2 draw with United this past midweek.
Talent produces goals. That can't be denied. Berhalter inherits scoring aplenty with young talents Christian Pulisic, Timothy Weah and Gyasi Zardes. He can thank Jurgen Klinsmann, who tried to raise the bar on technical ability in the USMNT during his tenure as boss.
Klinsmann succeeded to a point. On the other hand, Jermaine Jones was arguably his most influential player. The retired star combined skill and aggression like few others. He was deadly in the air, a force on the ground. He'd score a golazo against Germany then bulldoze Mesut Ozil into the turf if it was necessary. Occasionally, when not.
That willingness to cross the line now and then is what makes players like Jones and, by extension, their squads, so intimidating. Arturo Vidal is another example. Chile didn't win the last two Copa Americas because Alexis Sanchez outdazzled Messi. Each match finished without a single finish. It was Vidal's bullying that negated the Argentine maestro and brought both matches to penalties. Arturo won Man of the Match in the first final and was named to the Team of the Tournament in both editions.
Vidal and Jones brought a visual element to their work as well. Fellaini is 6' 5" but until his recent trip to the barber, opponents were more amused than concerned by the sight of his floppy afro. Seriously, who's frightened by a flamingo in a wig? Vidal's mohawk and Jones' flying dreads [that probably inspired the Predator film franchise] were another proposition, especially with the psychopathic stares emanating from underneath. The first instinct was to cut both men a wide berth and you can't give anyone space in football.
Michael Bradley wasn't quite as intimidating as Jones in the US squad. Klinsmann played him out of position too often to accommodate the Schalke legend. Nonetheless, he would bust a lung to break up an attack then make a marauding run or bury a long volley at the other end.
Berhalter desperately needs such a presence in his starting XI if he is to guide the Americans back to the World Cup. CONCACAF is notorious for its thuggery. The US have been rudderless for a year and a month because they couldn't go down to Trinidad and do a job in their final qualifying match. Like Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, they need a little red in their ledger.
All descriptions mined from WhoScored.com
The closest thing to fierce Berhalter has is central midfielder Kellyn Acosta and he's a long way off, headed in the wrong direction. The 23-year-old from Plano, Texas lets his nasty off the leash once in a blue moon but is too focused on creating despite his woeful passing skills. It's a bit like Shaquille O'Neal trying to get to the free-throw line. Credit where it's due, Acosta can thread a through-ball like Betsy Ross could the Stars and Stripes but there is no other pass in his sewing kit. He can't switch play to save his life. One-twos find their way to defenders' feet as often as to teammates'. He can hold the ball when pressed and let fly from distance with accuracy but his defensive contribution is minimal.
Unfortunately, the ferocity Carlos Cordeiro envisions is exactly what Berhalter's squad lacks. Until Acosta is willing to transform his game or another player with the proper mindset is identified, Berhalter will find life as USMNT manager tough sledding.