There’s been a common strategy in recent years for teams trying to get better over a period of time – the idea of The Process. It was most commonly associated with the Philadelphia 76ers who spent half a decade or so losing on purpose to hoard draft picks and then build a championship team. They’re not quite there yet, but the turnaround is undeniable. Other teams have had similar success with the strategy across other sports, including the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Browns though they are still trying to figure it out.
It’s fairly difficult to decipher what the USMNT is trying to achieve in terms of its Process or if such a thing is possible in international soccer. The tanking and hoarding picks idea won’t work for obvious reasons, but the US does seem to be taking a patient approach to realizing its ultimate goal – whatever that may be. One common theme in the idea of The Process is that the person making the decisions about personnel basically gets free rein to implement their ideas with no consequence. After all, the point is to lose and by the time the strategy is shown to have failed it’s way too late for their exit to be meaningful.
Gregg Berhalter is not tanking the USMNT. However, he got the job after being the only candidate interviewed when the position was essentially held open for a year. At the very least the idea of free rein seems like it applies. In his case it not only applies to personnel, it applies to tactics. Here’s how it looks like the manager is leveraging this power in The Process ahead of the start of the Nations League.
After a competitive tournament where the USMNT was great against terrible teams, OK against mediocre teams, and pretty bad against a good team, that license was fairly evident. Last month was the international friendly break with not much on the line. The matches were underwhelming with a bad defeat in New Jersey and a meaningless result in a baseball stadium (I really cannot emphasize how inappropriate it is for soccer to be played at a baseball stadium, it is very absurdly and embarrassingly inappropriate). Now it’s led to a roster that looks like this with 20 of the same players from those September games:
GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Zack Steffen (Fortuna Düsseldorf)
DEFENDERS (8): Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Daniel Lovitz (Montreal Impact), Matt Miazga (Reading FC), Tim Ream (Fulham), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle), Walker Zimmerman (Los Angeles Football Club) Miles Robinson (Atlanta United)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Schalke 04), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)
FORWARDS (7): Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Corey Baird (Real Salt Lake), Tyler Boyd (Besiktas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew SC)
There is an obvious Problem on the roster. It is a problem that we all know and love and can never solve. On the eve of DaMarcus Beasley’s retirement, the USMNT has the following left backs coming to the team: Nick Lima (who seems like a more natural right back), Daniel Lovitz (who features for a Montreal team that missed the playoffs and had an atrocious goal differential in MLS), and Tim Ream (who was routinely smoked in the Gold Cup and usually plays centerback). The solution may not be at hand even if it is within our grasp. Sergino Dest is weighing his options while Antonee Robinson and Chris Gloster are… well, not on this roster. So The Process has afforded a solution of having the left backs in the pool being not very good or not on the team.
Then there are the players who can safely be called Gregg’s guys: for sure that’s Trapp and Zardes while maybe Lima, Ream, and Lovitz also fall into that category. These are guys who Berhalter likes but who can’t keep up with top international competition, at least with the tactics the team is trying to use. While there are others like Sebastian Lletget, who seems like he’s OK but not superlative in central midfield, and Corey Baird, who took a step back from his rookie of the year campaign, have again been called in.
There’s a new face though – it’s Brenden Aaronson, a technically gifted teenager who is always on the cusp of producing a highlight reel dribble, pass, or is in fact shooting a ball past Brad Guzan. Miles Robinson got called in after Walker Zimmerman withdrew from the squad, but there’s not much youth or excitement on the roster. Plus, the roster will be cut to 23 by the time the games roll around so their participation in the squad is still up in the air.
Meanwhile, Tim Weah, Tyler Adams, and John Brooks are all recovering from injury so were not called in. Nothing to do about that, but there’s never a guarantee that the team will have its roster fully healthy when it comes time for The Process to show results. They will be missed, but their absence also shows how far the depth chart dips when they’re gone. In place of those three are players like Baird, Yueill, and Zimmerman. For now, the players named here are making up the core of what The Process will look like on the team sheet.
That roster will enable a 4-3-3 against Cuba (probably, I guess, whatever, it’s Cuba) and depending on how confident the manager feels about playing Canada – another 4-3-3 or a more cautious 4-1-4-1. Obviously, Berhalter is mainly associated with possession based tactics that take a long time to figure out due to needing to be finely detailed. In practice, the results have been uneven, but that’s what should be expected of The Process – a bad loss in a friendly to Mexico means it’s working – or at least that’s the idea.
Those results are building to something – presumably a good performance at the World Cup, but what will it take for the US to put that together and what will it look like anyway? For fun, let’s review the USMNT at the World Cup with a quiz. When was the last time the USMNT has won more than one game at the tournament? How many games has the US won since returning in 1990? How many times has the US won more than one World Cup game? How many times has it won zero?
Here are the answers – 2002, Five, one, three. Since 1990, the US is 5-6-15 at the World Cup.
All this is to say, when it comes to playing the best teams in the world, the USA hasn’t had a lot of success. If the recent matches against Mexico are much of an indication, that doesn’t seem likely to change… at least with the tactics the team is trying to implement. And what is the point of the tactics? Is it to win games or play to some ideal of “good soccer” that the manager has? Preferably it would be winning games while playing good soccer, but the games the US has won have been against less than impressive competition and historically the team just hasn’t been able to cut it against the best teams in the world on any kind of consistent basis. The US has won plenty of games playing soccer that doesn’t look particularly good while losing plenty of games trying and failing to play idealistically. Good showings in the 1995 Copa America, 2002 World Cup, and 2009 Confederations Cup are high points, but seem more like the exceptions than the rule and if those are three good achievements, the team is marking a decade since its last one this year.
Are these tactics going to turn it around? It’s hard to say and only time will tell, but it doesn’t seem like the USMNT really has the personnel that can trade punches with the top 10 or 20 teams in the world playing a possession based style. Whatever is said about the rosters that have been called in recently, the depth on the team is shallow. Even if names that fans clamor for are included, it isn’t like those players are making the Best XI of their leagues every week or are top performers year in and year out. Yet, what is being asked of the talent on the roster is to play a style of soccer that the top club teams in the world only perfect after spending hundreds of millions of dollars buying players and hiring legitimate soccer geniuses as managers.
The USMNT is not able to buy players and the ones in the pool aren’t transferring for tens of millions of dollars, with a few exceptions. Is that going to be good enough in three or seven years to be successful, whatever that means, in the World Cup? The style of play relies on the answer to that question being yes despite the hopes and dreams of the team currently riding on the decision of a dual national about who he wants to play left back for and the hope that hyped youngsters live up to the lofty expectations fans have for them. Meanwhile, the team struggles to break the press against good teams and has either crushed bad teams or gotten underperforming wins against them.
Still, this is what The Process is supposed to look like. Since the manager doesn’t have the high stakes of a Sword of Damocles hovering above his head, lackluster games and goals scored via deflections are just a part of it. The alternative is to play tactics that the team is probably capable and grind out results to prepare for games against the top teams in the World Cup. That would be the best version of what the USMNT was when those high points came: being fit with a high work-rate, having tremendous self-belief against poor odds, focusing on defensive cohesion, being fast on the counter, loving the long ball, and being tall on set pieces.
Would the best version of the current player pool surpass the best results from the past playing that style? It’s a question that will probably never be answered because The Process is affording a lot of time and resources to be something else – something that doesn’t quite look right and that there’s not choice but to endure in any case.