MINNEAPOLIS -- Over the years, style of play has been a steady source of debate as it relates to the U.S. men's national team. The question usually centers on if the U.S. ever will reach the point where it, more often than not, plays on the front foot and dominates opponents. Or will it remain a team content to defend and counter?
Much of this is specific to the opponent, but many a U.S. manager has wrestled with this dilemma before usually deciding that against the best teams, a pragmatic, defense-first approach was the best way to go.
Gregg Berhalter is merely the latest coach to tackle this conflict. He has talked often of wanting to use the ball to disrupt opponents and is trying to implement a system that fits this goal, one in which the U.S. strives to play out of the back and has two attacking midfielders with wingers close by, all in support of a central striker. To provide defensive stability he'll have an outside-back, usually the right-back, step into midfield alongside the holding midfielder, giving the U.S. a better shot of winning back possession when an attack breaks down.
The initial returns were promising, too, with a trio of wins followed by a draw against a formidable Chile side. Then the first rough patch of Berhalter's tenure hit with consecutive losses to Jamaica and Venezuela. The latter result, a 3-0 home defeat, set off alarm bells in terms of the program's overall direction, the personnel and tactics. The fact that Berhalter was missing a chunk of his preferred lineup was countered with the reality that the U.S. shouldn't be getting walloped at home by Venezuela.
The CONCACAF Gold Cup, which starts for the U.S. in St. Paul, Minnesota, on Tuesday against Guyana, makes for an interesting test case in terms of what style this team should adopt.
The biggest issue? Covering for injuries
The Gold Cup contains some minnows and Guyana, making its first appearance in the competition, certainly qualifies. The latter portions of the tournament, when the likes of Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and Panama turn up, pose bigger challenges. And then there is the biggest one of all, Mexico, which can be counted to put the U.S. under pressure with its possession game.
It will be downright shocking if the U.S. isn't the aggressor on Tuesday, but Berhalter's approach has been tested further by a spate of injuries. Neither the LA Galaxy's Sebastian Lletget nor Derby County's Duane Holmes was expected to start, but both were penciled in as "supersubs" should an extra dose of attacking verve be needed. Now both will miss the tournament due to injury.
The biggest loss of all is RB Leipzig midfielder Tyler Adams. Berhalter settled upon this system with Adams in mind, expecting the former New York Red Bull to operate in the hybrid right-back/extra central midfield role. Now a recurring groin injury has sidelined him for the entire offseason, as well as the Gold Cup.
"This happens, and we'll figure out a way without [Adams]," Berhalter told reporters shortly after the team arrived in the Twin Cities.
So with the team short on momentum, and shorn of a key player in terms of talent and tactics, what is Berhalter to do?
Most signs point to the U.S. manager staying the course. He doesn't appear to be a man who will be dissuaded by a couple of poor results. "Our job is to evaluate and make adjustments as necessary. It's not to be reactionary," Berhalter said earlier this week.
"We know the groups we had going into those games. We know what we need to work on. We know what was good, and it's just about improving and continuing to make progress."
In terms of personnel, the often-mocked January camp saw Nick Lima emerge as Adams' understudy. Given the U.S. is playing what looks to be an overmatched opponent, there seems to be every reason to continue with the system and see how it plays out. The progression of games certainly will give Lima the opportunity to grow more into the role.
Finding the balance further upfield
Tuesday's match will also be a chance to see how Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie fare as the two attacking midfielders. The two have spent just 62 minutes on the field together in the Berhalter era, and the hope is that the two longtime friends will have developed some semblance of chemistry in the new U.S. system over the past week. But what may be most important of all is what happens behind that duo in terms of the cover provided.
The friendlies against Jamaica and Venezuela saw Wil Trapp struggle on the defensive side of the ball, especially in terms of the amount of bite he can deliver. The alternative is to slot Michael Bradley into the holding midfield role, but that is by no means a perfect fit either, and Berhalter seems to understand this.
"Do we need a stable figure [as a holding midfielder], more of a passing figure or do we need activity?" he asked during an interview with ESPN FC just prior to the Venezuela match. "Right now, I like having stable and activity in that position. Then it's simple: OK, how do we achieve that? That's the dilemma. That's why we think of something like that [system]. We get the best of both worlds when we have the ball."
Without the ball is where the U.S. has run into problems. Against Chile, Cristian Roldan was forced to drop back and help Bradley cope with the attacking movements of Arturo Vidal and Diego Valdez. Guyana is no Chile of course, and the Golden Jaguars will also be without Philadelphia Union midfielder Warren Creavalle, who has been sidelined with a broken foot. But the games will get more difficult as the Gold Cup progresses and the limits of having either Trapp or Bradley in that role and in that system will become more apparent.
For now, the team's focus is on Guyana. A comfortable victory is expected, but given recent results, the U.S. is in a position where nothing can be taken for granted.