Berhalter's plan for his U.S. team: balance, structure and learning how to 'disorganize' opponents
CHULA VISTA, Calif. -- From the moment Gregg Berhalter was hired as manager of the U.S. men's national team, the questions about style began. After all, his tenure with the Columbus Crew revealed a team that prized possession and regularly ranked in the top third in the league in terms of chances created.
There has also long been a craving for the U.S. to not only win but win well, even in the face of a player development system that doesn't regularly crank out the kind of players who lend themselves to an expansive approach. That feeling has only intensified in the wake of the World Cup qualifying failure, and will be there when the U.S. faces Panama on Sunday in Glendale, Arizona. But the question remains: Will the style Berhalter implemented in Columbus simply be transplanted to the U.S., or would some tweaks be made?
As Berhalter sat in the lobby of the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center, with the afternoon sun shining through, he made it clear that the latter approach would be taken.
"I think the philosophy will be very similar. We want to use the ball to disorganize the opponent and create goal-scoring opportunities," he said. "But we have to make some adjustments from what we did in Columbus.
"There needs to be more balance to the game. Now we're working on how do we get that balance, but still be able to disorganize the opponent. It's still based on positioning, it's still based on spacing, it's still based on the principles of the game. When we're coming up with this game model, a lot of principles are the same but the formation will be different."
Berhalter's reasoning is two-fold. Not only does he have a different set of players at his disposal, but this is a national team that, by its nature, has a limited player pool. That point was driven home when the name of Columbus playmaker Federico Higuain was brought up. There is simply no one like him available to Berhalter here, a point he not only agreed with but expanded upon. He added that in the Columbus midfield he also had Artur, "who could make up for people's mistakes alone."
The second factor driving Berhalter's thinking is what he views as the nature of the international game. Since he officially took over back in December, much attention has been paid to his meetings with U.S. players and their clubs. But Berhalter also spent time talking with other international coaches. Those discussions reinforced his belief that he needed to alter the model he had in Columbus.
"I think league soccer is different than international soccer," he said. "When you look at the World Cups and you look at how teams played, it's a game of who can make the least amount of mistakes. It changes a little bit. So we want to build a team that is proactive and is looking to break down the opponent, but also has good structure to it. If there is a breakdown, we can recover from it."
Berhalter breaks the game down into 10 areas. On the attacking side, there is buildup from the goalkeeper, buildup from midfield, attacking in transition and finishing attacks. On the defensive side there is high pressing, middle-block pressing, low-block defending and defensive transition. Then there are attacking and defending set pieces. He's touched on five of them so far, with more to come when the team reconvenes in March for a pair of friendlies.
Yet Berhalter's comments hint strongly at an approach that is more conservative than what he put forward in Columbus. Fans will get to see the outside-backs join the attack, but the full-back on the weak side may slide centrally to offer a bit more midfield support if the ball turns over. Defensively, the U.S. will look to set traps to funnel the ball into certain pockets and then pounce, though there may be moments when a high-press is called for.
For Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, patience is the byword when it comes to the attack.
"In Seattle, it's a little bit more free-flowing and if a guy ends up on the other side of the field, so be it. The other guy will cover," he said. "Here, you pretty much stay in your designated spot and be patient and wait for the ball. You have to trust your teammates that the ball is going to get there.
"The important thing for me is you rely on your teammates. I think here you have to pick your moments, to really go deep. We have to be patient and be in our spots offensively and defensively."
It's still early days, of course, and the players are very much in preseason mode. But the hope is that the principles Berhalter has put forward over the past few weeks -- from denying central passes to recognizing when and where to press or when to push forward in attack -- will begin to take hold. These might be simple concepts, but they're nevertheless important and can serve as a default when things tend to break down.
"I think the game is unpredictable, so to have these perfect plans, they'll be broken," said Crew midfielder Wil Trapp. "That's just the way the game is. So more or less it's providing a framework that we can rely upon always in games, and understanding now that when we're playing these are the five, six, seven things that we're looking for when we have the ball, and these are the five, six, seven things that when we don't have the ball that we're trying to accomplish."
Sunday's game against Panama will be the first test.