The U.S. men’s national team had to make good use of this June international window, given that they have just one September camp left before Gregg Berhalter assembles his team for the World Cup in November.
On the surface, the results were, if not spectacular, then at least satisfactory. A rout against Grenada met expectations, and while the road draw at El Salvador was a bit of a letdown, the game was played in awful conditions, and no one got hurt. In the friendlies that lead off the window, a confident 3-0 win over Morocco was the highlight, while showing the steel and savvy to secure an even draw with veteran-heavy Uruguay bodes well for a young USMNT’s prospect.
However, the big thing in this window was picking up knowledge for the trip to Qatar. Here are four things we learned during the June window:
Ferreira has the edge
Berhalter called Jesús Ferreira and Haji Wright in as his strikers during this camp, and has looked at just shy of a dozen center forwards over the last year. There’s also been more than a little talk of moving Tim Weah inside once Gio Reyna is healthy, but to be fair, the USMNT probably has to correct that to “if Gio Reyna is healthy” at this point. It’s an understandable impulse, though, as camp kicked off without any one player seizing the position.
Coming out of this camp, though, it looks like Ferreira has opened up a bit of a lead on the pack. Yes, his four-goal outburst came against FIFA’s 170th-ranked team, but the starting No. 9 should be scoring four on Grenada, right? That’s doing the job.
Really though, the tell was that in El Salvador, down 1-0 and having had little success going forward, Berhalter brought Ferreira in for Wright in what was supposed to be a big test for the latter. One feels for Wright, whose big chance in this camp came in conditions that were such a mess that Berhalter shifted away from the normal formation and tactical approach, but when a coach makes a move like that, it’s a big indicator.
It doesn’t feel like we learned that much about Wright in this camp, if we’re being honest, but what we did learn is that a) Berhalter has a ton of faith in Ferreira, who remains the only viable false No. 9 in the pool, and b) the USMNT seems to play better with a center forward dropping off the front line rather than staying up as a more conventional target. Of the nine goals they scored in this window, eight came with Ferreira on the field.
It doesn’t feel like Ferreira is so locked-in that his form with FC Dallas no longer really matters. If he goes cold in July and August, the competition will be as unclear as it was coming into this camp. However, right now, he has to be the odds-on favorite to start against Wales at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in 157 days.
Unclear situation in goal
Ethan Horvath, Sean Johnson, and Matt Turner all got caps in this camp, but no one truly had the kind of game that really underlined their candidacy as one to watch.
Horvath certainly had the worst time of the trio. As with Wright, Berhalter marked out the El Salvador game as a big test for Horvath, who hasn’t been playing much at Nottingham Forest. Unfortunately for Horvath, the home team’s lone shot on goal flew past him as he telegraphed that he was expecting a cross and was caught out of position. It’s only one moment in many, but realistically it’s probably going to stick in the coaching staff’s thoughts when they’re selecting the World Cup roster.
This situation feels like one will only be resolved at the club level. Johnson has the clearest grasp of a starting role, but MLS is not the Premier League. Horvath may have an angle on a Premier League starting role, with Brice Samba saying he wants to leave Nottingham Forest, but it seems safe to expect Horvath to have new competition arrive in the summer transfer window.
That leaves Turner and Zack Steffen, both of whom are likely to enter the season at big-time clubs, but not as starters. Steffen’s place in the Manchester City hierarchy is clear, but Turner at least has the chance, as the new guy at Arsenal, to make a real first impression in preseason. If he creates a battle for the No. 1 spot with Aaron Ramsdale, he’s probably starting in Qatar. If not though, this question is going to carry into November.
Expect to see 3-2-2-3 in Qatar
Berhalter has long wanted to have his team be able to play different shapes in and out of possession, and he’s often come back to some kind of 3-2-2-3 look, generally asking a nominal fullback on paper to push higher up the field in possession.
In this camp, we saw a 4-3-3 on paper become 3-2-2-3 against Morocco, with Antonee Robinson going from left back to left winger, with Christian Pulisic shifting inside and dropping off the front line and Reggie Cannon tucking in from right back. Berhalter has to be happy with the result in that game, as the USMNT not only won 3-0, but created plenty of clear chances.
We saw 3-2-2-3 come back against El Salvador at halftime, and even when Paul Arriola was sent off, the alteration from Berhalter saw the U.S. play out of a 3-1-2-3 in possession, and with Robinson’s comfort in particular, it seems to be a serious option for the USMNT any time they need a goal, or when it’s 0-0 and they want to pursue a positive game state early.
The one question that remains unresolved? This version of 3-2-2-3 doesn’t seem compatible with Sergiño Dest at right back. Maybe Berhalter has a different alteration planned for Dest’s return, or maybe he’s got worries about the Barcelona man’s durability and playing time situation.
Either way, at this point, Berhalter’s tactical choices are about planning for the World Cup, rather than tinkering. The USMNT is setting plans into motion at this point, and some version of the 3-2-2-3 in possession is sticking around.
Aaronson makes his case
Aaronson has largely been a wide forward for the USMNT, even while playing centrally on a more or less full-time basis with Red Bull Salzburg this past season.
However, Aaronson played most of his minutes as a midfielder in this window, and looked at home in his natural position. With Pulisic and Tim Weah seeming like the best options as the wide forwards and Berhalter’s desire to be able to shift from 4-3-3 into 3-2-2-3, it’s a situation worth keeping an eye on, especially as Aaronson moves over to Leeds this summer.
It’s not that the USMNT needs a new central midfielder. Yunus Musah was excellent in this window, and both Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams are very well-established. It’s more than Aaronson’s continued progress is starting to make the case for leaving him out of the best 11 more difficult, and that he brings more of a goal threat running from midfield than anyone else in the pool. Aaronson’s eventual role in Qatar may be tied to Ferreira’s, as a goal-dangerous central midfielder making runs through the middle pairs pretty ideally with a false No. 9.
It’s a tricky situation to sort out at the moment, but you’re never going to hear a coach complain about having too many good midfielders.