Success of USA's modern player pathway on display as maturing USMNT reaches knockout stage

The U.S. national team has advanced to the knockout stage of the 2022 World Cup following a grueling 1-0 win over Iran to secure second place in Group B. The game wasn’t pretty, but the U.S. was very effective in limiting Iran’s chances and scoring in the first half to alleviate the pressure of needing to score as minutes ticked off the clock.
After three games, many themes remain the same for this U.S. squad.
First, the U.S. team continued to grow in maturity both in dealing with the pressure of the moment, finding what needed to be done, and in closing a game out. The improvement the team has shown since the Wales game alone is significant.

Second, the commitment to defense among the midfielders and front line has been a driving force as to why the team only conceded one goal in the group stages. The USA is led by Tyler Adams in the defensive midfield position, and most opponents have seen their chances fall apart before the backline is even tested.
Third, and on the critical side, the USA continued to be unproductive at center forward and from set pieces. That has worked in group stage games but moving forward into the knockouts where the U.S. team is attempting to pull off upsets, those weaknesses need to be overcome. Typically, set pieces are at the heart of upsets.
Here are some more thoughts on the U.S. team in the win over Iran ...

Adams continues a remarkable surge

If you were to make a World Cup Best XI for just the group stages, there is an excellent chance that Tyler Adams would be the defensive midfielder. Against Iran, Adams played his third big outing in a row. The stats showed he had 84 touches and was highly successful winning duels, passing from distance, and breaking up Iranian attacks.
Adams alleviating so much pressure from the backline has been critical to the team’s success. Even with Christian Pulisic’s long list of accomplishments, Adams is the team’s most indispensable player. When Adams is on his game, there are very few who can do what he does.
Adams is also a great model for the modern development path for an American player. He came up through U.S. development channels that were not available to previous generations. When the U.S. team achieved success 20 years ago in South Korea, there was hope that this would give rise toward mechanisms that create continued success. That has happened and Adams was able take advantage of the new pathway.

He signed an MLS homegrown deal, played for U.S. youth teams at the U-17 and U-20 World Cups, and won a USL title with Red Bulls II. He then helped the Red Bulls win the Supporters' Shield. His success with the Red Bulls put him on the U.S. national team. He firmly made his stamp on the domestic game before earning a sale abroad where he played in a Champions League semifinal with RB Leipzig. From Germany he moved to the Premier League. Now he’s the captain of the national team at the World Cup and is preparing for the round of 16.

When you consider that he is not even 24 yet, it's even more remarkable.

Others who took a similar route to Adams' included Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie at Philadelphia and Canada’s Alphonso Davies with Vancouver, but Adams has been carrying the torch in modern American player development.

Pulisic’s 'Landon Donovan' moment

Christian Pulisic has been the face of the current generation of young American players. He’s also been groundbreaking, given his Champions League success. Even with his uncertain status at Chelsea, he has raised the level.

At the international level, he has always been there for the USA at big moments – such as wins over Mexico in the Nations League final and then in World Cup qualifying. For the national team, to be considered with the team’s greats he needed to deliver on the big stage. Clint Dempsey scored in three World Cups and in the win over Spain at the Confederations Cup. Landon Donovan helped carry his team to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, the semifinals of the Olympics, the final of the Confederations Cup – and then, of course, the Algeria goal. Brian McBride had success with the USA as the best true No. 9 the USA has produced.
For Pulisic to get there, he needed to have his moments on the international side of the game outside of Concacaf. The assist to Tim Weah against Wales certainly laid the foundation but this goal against Iran was it. He can now stake his claim at being not just a groundbreaking and great American player, but a great U.S. national team player.

It wasn’t a beautiful goal, but Pulisic risked injury (which he suffered) to give his team the decisive goal and change the tone of the game.
Pulisic says he will be ready for Saturday, but players are often the last person to trust about a recovery from injury ahead of a big game. If he can indeed play against the Netherlands, it will be a huge emotional lift.

Closing games out

Closing out the win over Iran was not easy. Fatigue set in. The team was missing Pulisic in the second half and Coach Gregg Berhalter also had to sub out Sergino Dest and Weston McKennie because they are not yet 90 minutes fit after battling through injuries in October. Even Tim Weah is limited physically after only starting his first game of the season for Lille in late October.
Berhalter had to get creative. He shifted formations to a five-man backline in a 5-4-1 by putting Walker Zimmerman into the back to win aerials – which he did. Possession was conceded and Iran was launching balls into the box. The Iranians had a few dangerous chances but generally the team was able to keep its composure when playing in a tough situation.
It wasn’t perfect. The U.S. team needs to be better on the counterattack and Shaq Moore and Haji Wright missed opportunities to put the game out of reach. But the defensive composure has improved, and the team is more mature now than it was when the tournament began. There was no panic from the team’s defense and goalkeeper Matt Turner was never called upon to bail the team out. There were certainly nerves as Iran controlled possession for the final 12 minutes of regular time and the 10 minutes of stoppage time, but it was a positive sign that the defense would bend without breaking.

The outside backs

The USA was able to control the play for 70 minutes against Iran in large part due  to the play of its fullbacks. Sergino Dest and Antonee Robinson were on the ball a ton and both players stayed far to the outside to stretch Iran’s defense and open play in the middle. That was mostly successful. Dest assisted via a header, his dribbling kept Iran on its heels, and while his defense has been questionable in the past, he has been very strong on that side of the ball in Qatar. Robinson’s engine had him cover a ton of ground, and he was frequently involved in the attack.
Dest and Robinson, however, haven’t been great at crossing in Qatar. In this game, both players sent in a wave of crosses, but neither was able to connect. Dest or Robinson connecting better with crosses would provide a big boost for the USA in the knockouts.

Looking ahead to the Netherlands

There is no doubt that Berhalter knows a big part of what he wants to do against the Netherlands on Saturday. He should be able to keep the “MMA” midfield together as all three have had great tournaments and, thus far, have escaped injuries and suspensions. He will also keep Antonee Robinson and Sergino Dest as outside backs as both have been able to stretch the defense. Central defender Tim Ream is one of the best stories of the tournament given his age, and his re-emergence within the team. Matt Turner has also been a rock in goal. While Tim Weah missed some good chances against Iran, he is a clear starter.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t questions Berhalter will have to resolve. The biggest one that doesn’t involve injury will be who partners with Ream in central defense? Walker Zimmerman started the first two games, and while he conceded the penalty kick against Wales, he’s been solid defensively and performed well against England.  One of the reasons why Berhalter started Cameron Carter-Vickers against Iran is that he expected Iran to sit back similar to how Scottish opponents sit back against Celtic. But against the Netherlands, the USA will be back on its heels more. Does that then make Zimmerman the preferred option as he was against England?

The remaining questions come down to health of key players and what to do if players can’t go.
The issue of Gio Reyna has been murky, but details over just how fit or unfit he is are unclear. That has been unfortunate. Reyna has immense talent but has suffered numerous re-injuries since his original injury he suffered while playing for the USA in September 2021.
If Pulisic can’t go, Berhalter could start Brenden Aaronson, who replaced Pulisic at halftime against Iran. But Aaronson has been a key midfielder to replace McKennie when needed.
There is also the case of Josh Sargent, who was forced out of the Iran game in the 77th minute. If Sargent can’t go or isn’t at 100%, Berhalter might very well turn to Jesus Ferreira because Wright hasn't impressed during the group stages.

No matter what Berhalter decides, it will take an upset to beat the Netherlands. But if the USA plays up to its ability, an upset is realistic.

Photos: AFP, Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos, Doug Zimmerman /ISI Photos

18 comments about "Success of USA's modern player pathway on display as maturing USMNT reaches knockout stage".
  1. humble 1, November 30, 2022 at 5:46 p.m.

    I question whether there is a modern development path.  Too much change.  DA imploded in 2019.  Tyler was part of that.  Then came MLS Next.  USL was part of the pathway for some clubs, Red Bull, for a long time, but MLS began MLS Next Pro and I believe next year no MLS team will have a USL peice in the academy configuration.  So Tylers path no longer exists.  How can we call that a system?  We fool ourselves.  At least 6 of the USA starters from the Iran game developed some or all of their U18 work abroad.  Ream is a SLU product, god forbid, college player, outside the scope of USSF and FIFA, 2006-2009, four years.  How is this possible?  The truth about player development in the USA, in my experience is that the system still struggles, and it could be argued that all these top players succeed in spite of the system, and that players that develop here, typically have a bespoke pathway, one that is not repeatable by others.  Have a nice day. 

  2. Tusker Donkey replied, December 1, 2022 at 11:51 a.m.

    100% accurate

  3. Donald Lee replied, December 1, 2022 at 2:50 p.m.

    Haters gonna hate despite evidence and facts. 

  4. John DiFiore replied, December 1, 2022 at 9:10 p.m.

    Perfectly said. THAT is the truth.

  5. humble 1 replied, December 3, 2022 at 9:07 a.m.

    Haters?  No haters here. Please offer something a bit more concrete. Have a nice day. 

  6. R2 Dad, November 30, 2022 at 8:16 p.m.

    Frank, how do we beat Oranje ? 

  7. frank schoon replied, December 1, 2022 at 7:57 a.m.

    R2, lets just enjoy the experience, for I think we need a fluke to beat Holland.

  8. frank schoon replied, December 1, 2022 at 8:42 a.m.

    R2, One of the Dutch 'greats' isn't happy by how the Dutch play, as he stated that after watching the Dutch for 15min. he has to go outside to get some fresh air....Van Gaal is coaching the team and thus we're going to see tons and tons of passing and wait for the right moment. This style will make it difficult for us to even get possession of the ball to even try an attack.
    He also has 5defenders back there which makes it tough on the Americans to have an attack on the wings . I haven't been happy with this Dutch style of play with 5defenders, for that is not the Dutch style of play, it doesn't fit our nature to play this kind of wussy ball....

    This whole world cup sucks so bad. I've never so much defense played by ALL the teams ,either  442, 541, 451, 532, rarely 433. You take Messi and Ronaldo out of the picture, and what do you have to really enjoy watching, other than THE BRAZILIANS for the rest of the teams can be flushed down the toilet...

  9. Philip Carragher replied, December 1, 2022 at 10 p.m.

    I agree Frank. Most of these games are boring. All teams playing essentially the same way. Most non-soccer fans I've run across have now had their opinion of the game validated. Pulisic's goal was a good example of one of his strengths: he makes the runs. Not many do. They hang back but CP will make near and far post runs when others won't and I don't really understand why they don't or why their coaches tolerate it. It's simple and effective and leads to what seems to be the near impossible: a goal being scored. I hear lots of accolades for Adams, and I agree he is playing well, but to be honest, his position is one of the easier to play if you're a decent athlete and can read the game well. I'd be interested to see if he can move up and play a more creative role. Not now, but in the future. Most really effective players at the DA level (when there was such an animal) played defensive mid. An important position for sure but much less difficult than having to create in the offensive half of the field. Lastly, I'd love to coach this team from here. With the parity being demonstrated, a perfect storm might help us get to the final. That would be my team's goal for now, and I'd mix things up to create some "X" factors in order to try to get goals. Risky, but that would be fun and entertaining.

  10. frank schoon replied, December 2, 2022 at 8:36 a.m.

    Philip, You said it...This is the sh*ttiest World Cup I've experienced.  Yes, a perfect storm could happen but that ,to me, why have a world cup if you can't show your wares... I remember when the world cup introduced different country's style of play, showing the beauty of the game .It showed the greats which we have so few of in the world now ,when I remember every country has a few great players to  watch, but no longer.

    Winning by a perfect storm doesn't prove anything other than luck exist. I want a team to win because they play the best soccer and yes luck can happen where the weaker team can win, that is life. But the WC to me should be used as an instrument to blow new life into the evolution of soccer, that you admire in the same looking at the 'Night Watch' of a Rembrandt. Remember the days of Barcelona a decade, the soccer they expounded was beauty and what do we have now, it's back to the stone ages, beginning to look like the WWF. We need something one can look forward to....I want to feel proud of my country because they showed the world  what good soccer is....

    I don't want Holland to win the way they play, I want a country to win that represents good soccer, how it should be played... A perfect example was Holland in '74WC that lost to Germany, but are still talked about  how the Dutch played soccer... that to me is worth more than winning the WC.
    The 'horns and tooter' crowd doesn't care how they win but I at least want culture displayed in these games, so to speak, that does show a higher form of life, that one can emulate and follow

  11. Philip Carragher replied, December 2, 2022 at 10:43 a.m.

    I understand and agree with your perspective. You want the beautiful game on display for all the world to see and enjoy but most of this WC play lacks beauty. A huge missed opportunity for the game. (Arsene Wegner's book focuses on this topic and nails it.) I know I'm not observing beauty while watching this WC on my TV, and I wonder how the players feel about it? I remember playing beautiful soccer and it just plain felt good to play that way. Moving around with grace and rapt attention that carried me from moment to moment. A flow. It felt good and I wonder if the players get into a flow. If they do, unless they're playing for Japan or Spain (apologies to those I'm leaving out here), any fluid movement is fleeting at best. I wonder if they miss this experience of beauty while playing as much as I do while watching?

  12. frank schoon replied, December 2, 2022 at 11:16 a.m.

    Philip, well said. I find soccer to be an art form to be appreciated. The game Spain vs Japan, I found very unique for here we were dealing with Psychology. Note after Japan scored those two quick and Spain became totally discombobulated. There passing became off, so unsure. Somehow that short moment blew a hole in Spain's confidence with the ball. They could not changed the way they played for they needed to score. Instead they continued to play the way they did and couldn't brake out that mold of how they played...This tells me they have placed themselves in a sort tunnel vision of play....This is why Spain has never great goal scorers themselves. They need to realize this ,take that and view that into building and evolving further in their style of play...

  13. Kent James, November 30, 2022 at 11:40 p.m.

    Generally a good analysis; but I do think Sargent has proven to be a good (not great, but he's still young) #9.  He has helped the players around him play better (he holds the ball up well, has made some excellent (and unselfish) passes, but has also put the ball on goal when given the opportunity).  I hope he is fit.  If not, Ferriera would be better than Wright (who so far, unfortunately, has failed to impress).  

    If Pulisic can't go, start Reyna and bring in Aaronson when he needs it.  If Pulisic can go (and Reyna is fit), start Reyna and let Weah come of the bench (not because Weah hasn't played well, but because Reyna is a more creative force).  Bring in Weah when the Dutch get tired...

  14. Ben Myers, December 1, 2022 at 12:43 p.m.

    Just as important as the maturing of the players of the USMNT is the maturing of Berhalter, choosing to start a non-MLS eleven in the third match, with Carson-Vickers experience in six Champions League matches taking precedence over Zimmerman's much lesser MLS experience.  Let's face it. Zimmerman got conned into the foul on Bale, resulting in the match-tying PK.  Carson-Vickers needs to start again for the US to have some chance against the Oranje.

  15. Donald Lee, December 1, 2022 at 2:49 p.m.

    Two statements here are bonkers:

    1 No productivity from the 9. This is vapid and ignorant of the modern game. The USA does not park a 9 in front of goal and charge the rest of the team to serve him. Sargent was instrumental in both goals. The second simply by creating space. I was in the Stadium and Sargent was boss. 

    2. Pulisic's goal was not pretty?  A team goal with 6+ precise passes starting from the keeper distribution involving most of the team is not a pretty goal?  WTF?  I am gobsmacked. That was a gorgeous goal. One of the best of the tournament by any team. 

    Sorry Brian. Your much better than that. 


  16. Donald Lee, December 1, 2022 at 2:49 p.m.

    Two statements here are bonkers:

    1 No productivity from the 9. This is vapid and ignorant of the modern game. The USA does not park a 9 in front of goal and charge the rest of the team to serve him. Sargent was instrumental in both goals. The second simply by creating space. I was in the Stadium and Sargent was boss. 

    2. Pulisic's goal was not pretty?  A team goal with 6+ precise passes starting from the keeper distribution involving most of the team is not a pretty goal?  WTF?  I am gobsmacked. That was a gorgeous goal. One of the best of the tournament by any team. 

    Sorry Brian. Your much better than that. 


  17. Andrew Brown, December 1, 2022 at 7:30 p.m.

    GGG made closing the game out harder on ourselves by settling into a defensive low block. Had he added an attacking player with size and skill (Reyna?) that would have alleviated some of the pressure the back line took with Pulisic and Weah out of the game. 

  18. Sean Guillory, December 2, 2022 at 8:25 p.m.

    Wow, can't believe what I am hearing.." I would rather play nice and beautiful soccer than win a WC"....serious?  No wonder the Dutch have never won one.  I'm sorry but the name of the game in competition is winning and getting a result.  It's not luck when another team beats another.  Maybe in 74 the Dutch did not mentally come ready to play or match the Germans competitiveness.  Just crazy sportsmen think like that.

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