With three games remaining in the World Cup, the United States men’s national soccer team (USMNT) is in a good position to qualify for the tournament in Qatar later this year. Despite making their task more difficult than necessary in certain games, the USMNT has shown an ability to get the results it needs to more often than not. The team is coming off an excellent year in 2021, in which they set a record for wins in a calendar year and won two trophies. The current crop of players representing the United States in international competition is a young but talented group, and many of the team’s regulars play at a high level in Europe. The only thing holding the team back currently is their head coach, Gregg Berhalter. Clearly it is hard to be that unhappy with the current state of the national team, but if the United States wants to make the leap from perennial, plucky underdogs to an international team that is willing to play and dominate a game, they would be best served by finding a new coach.
One of Berhalter’s most frustrating tendencies is giving time to players who have not done enough to earn playing time in critical matches. In the qualifying defeat to Canada on Jan. 30, Berhalter elected to start Gyasi Zardes at striker. While Zardes remains a solid Major League Soccer player, his lack of technical ability was readily apparent in the defeat. He failed to successfully link up with his teammates, and it was clear that he was not in season. When he was substituted for Ricardo Pepi, the team’s attacking play became noticeably more urgent and incisive. In an important game like the one in Canada, the manager should be selecting their most talented striker to lead the line. While Pepi has suffered through somewhat of a dry spell since his move to Augsburg and the Bundesliga, the club clearly thought the FC Dallas product was talented enough to be worth the $20 million they spent to bring him in. Multiple other players who are clearly talented enough to play for the national team have been underutilized under Berhalter. Before the last qualifying window, Heracles midfield player Luca de la Torre had played less than 15 minutes for the national team but turned in a man-of-the-match performance in the 3-0 win over Honduras. Joe Scally is another young player playing at a high level with his club who has yet to even receive a call up.
Another stifling aspect of Berhalter’s tenure has been the lack of an obvious style of play, whether it is possession-based or places an emphasis on high pressing. Berhalter has emphasized “verticality” and trying to make runs in behind the back line, which is all well and good, but also not particularly difficult to defend against. His team has not been defined by their flowing attack play or high amounts of chances created. The United States has struggled going forward during qualifying, having only scored 16 goals in 11 qualifying games. Furthermore, two games against Honduras are responsible for seven of the 16 goals scored. The lack of an attacking identity, especially against stronger opponents, is clear.
One American coach, who also happens to be unemployed at the moment, has cultivated a clear sense of attacking identity within his teams wherever he has coached. Previously the head coach of New York Red Bulls, RB Salzburg and RB Leipzig, Jesse Marsch’s teams have traditionally played an attacking and aggressive style of football. After winning the ball, he encourages his teams to be aggressive and aims to score within seconds of regaining possession. Marsch keeps his fullbacks high and wide and encourages his creative players to drift centrally in order to create more chances. Marsch’s attacking tactics would allow a technically gifted American generation to properly express themselves on the field. Marsch has also spent significant time as a manager in Europe, making him more suited to a pool of players comfortable with competing at a higher level.
It remains unlikely that Gregg Berhalter gets fired and, barring a massive collapse, the United States should qualify for the World Cup. But with Berhalter at the helm, the national team will not be able to compete with the best teams at the World Cup. The team has the talent to make a deep run in the World Cup, but under the supervision of an underqualified manager, the potential inherent in the current generation of American footballers will never come to fruition.
Theodore Brita is a sophomore majoring in political science.