USMNT’s World Cup exit prompts one final report card for Gregg Berhalter

USMNT’s World Cup exit prompts one final report card for Gregg Berhalter

It wasn’t a pop quiz, but the 3-1 defeat against the in the round of 16 served as Gregg Berhalter’s final exam for this cycle.

So often, analyzing a match requires highlighting the heroes on the pitch and putting player performances under the microscope. With Paul Tenorio and Sam Stejskal expertly handling that angle from Qatar, we’re going to take a different approach and focus on the man on the touchline.

First impression against Holland: As has been the case for nearly all three games following the draw, Berhalter only really had two lineup decisions to make. At center back, he reinstated after a capable shift from Cameron Carter-Vickers against . Zimmerman represents a slightly more mobile alternative to Carter-Vickers, which is necessary given the pace of and on the break.

Less-convincing was the decision to give his debut. The FC Dallas striker looked like the first-choice option up top for nearly all of 2022 before cut ahead of him for pole position and the start against Wales. Once checked in for the striker on that day and then started against , it was clear that the pressure which plagued Ferreira throughout the postseason was as worrying to Berhalter as it had been to scores of U.S. fans. To see him leading the line in a knockout match without a minute to his name in the group stage didn’t instill much confidence.

Lasting impression: It got overlooked for the most part, but Zimmerman deserves an immense amount of credit for shaking off his gaffe against Wales and returning to his dependable self for the ensuing three matches. He and Ream did well to keep the Dutch from threatening in the air. Unfortunately, the duo was often forced to make decisions in numerical disadvantages as Holland was on the break. While we can appreciate his intention with the late bicycle kick as the U.S. was 3-1 down, it’ll ultimately serve as no more than a meme-worthy sendoff for this U.S. side.

Regardless, Zimmerman’s inclusion wasn’t nearly as much of an issue as Ferreira’s one and only World Cup involvement. In the first ten minutes, he gave glimpses of why he was on the roster as he pulled Virgil Van Dijk all the way into the center of the field to create pockets of space for and Timothy Weah. Unfortunately, the defender caught on by the time Depay opened the scoring, and the gambit never resurfaced after the U.S. restarted play.

From there, Ferreira looked like a player whose confidence had been shattered. One has to hope he can bounce back in the 2023 season; however, few players on this team have seen their stock plummet as mightily over the past three months. Hindsight is 20/20, but Haji Wright may have been a wiser choice to start simply due to the fact that he had already played between Pulisic and Weah.

As a whole, this match was the first time in which it appeared that Berhalter’s approach was overshadowed by his opposite number. Unlike Rob Page, Gareth Southgate and Carlos Quieroz, Louis van Gaal entered with a game plan which dictated the flow of the game. No matter how the U.S. tried to add width, Holland wrestled the game back into the central channel of the field to play into their numerical advantage. When the U.S. sent and further up to add options further out, the Dutch (and in particular) were enabled to exploit the open areas.

That, coupled with the Netherlands’ confidence in allowing the ball to funnel towards Ferreira in the box, kept the U.S. from fully getting under their skin even as they made final third entry after final third entry. While individuals like Pulisic and can take some solace from their performances, this is not the type of game where you want to be focusing on individual performances over the collective.

Just look at , whose only glaring mistake of the tournament — taking a brisk jog behind Depay as he entered the box unmarked to open scoring — ended up flipping the entire gameplan on its head.

The initial gameplan wasn’t wrong, per se; the Netherlands were just the team which studied the tape closest and found ways to exploit individual matchups.

First impression: We’ll count the halftime inclusion of here, as his introduction in place of Ferreira represented more of a tactical tweak than a like-for-like substitution. Unfortunately, what Reyna does best (breaking lines either on the dribble or with a pass to create chances) wasn’t what the U.S. was struggling to achieve.

Lasting impression: In the group stage, Berhalter often took a conservative approach to adjusting his gameplan at the break. It was for understandable reasons, as the U.S. never trailed at any point in their first three matches. If the game had stayed 1-0 after stoppage time, it may have even been understandable to just emphasize areas to improve with such a young side rather than knocking them sideways with a last-ditch overhaul.

Once doubled the lead with the first half’s final kick, however, something more drastic was necessary. The thing is: if a team’s kitchen sink approach can’t change the tide, what does that say about either the personnel called in or the manager’s ability to necessarily deviate from Plan A? Van Gaal dared the U.S. to bring its lines of engagement further up the pitch, recognizing the young opponent’s desire to strike on the break, and also recognizing that few nations have as good and deep of a defensive pool as the Netherlands. If the U.S. forced a turnover with their press, Holland was comfortably set up to keep threats at bay. When the U.S. failed to take the ball, they were caught out of shape and with ample room for Gakpo, Depay and to operate.

The Dutch were conceding ample space in the wide areas of the middle third of the pitch, a space which the U.S. dominated against England. It was by design, again a credit to Van Gaal, as a way to create more room for Dumfries on the break — and it worked. The U.S. sprung the Netherlands’ trap and were left hanging upside down by their feet for most of the last 80 minutes and stoppage.

So did Berhalter miss a chance to flip the game on its head? Few managers have achieved as much as Van Gaal, and even he tempered expectations of an international coach’s inclination to deviate from their team’s base ideology.

“We’ll have to wait and see,” Van Gaal said when asked if he expected future World Cup opposition to tailor their tactics more specifically to Holland. “I would assume that the stronger the country is, the less they’ll adjust to the system. The USA didn’t adjust. We based our tactical plan to that, and that allowed us to win. We don’t expect , , or to adjust to us.”

Reyna mostly did Reyna things, creating a couple of chances (0.16 expected assists) while sending a couple of speculative shots. It still confounds me that Berhalter wouldn’t at least try Weah centrally, instead having Reyna and Pulisic alternate faux-line-leading responsibilities. As usual, chance creation and entering the final third was not the issue for the U.S. today. It was finishing its chances and not allowing the defense to be caught unawares due to individual mistakes.

Even if Van Gaal agrees that Berhalter didn’t need a different approach to his usual initial gameplan, there were a couple of potential ways out of the early hole which the U.S. dug.

First impression: Bringing Reyna on for the full second half was the right call, as it was pretty clear to all watching that Ferreira wasn’t going to work back into the game. I would’ve liked to see Wright (as a necessary formation-settler since the team had no option at the heart of the attack) and Aaronson (to exploit the tiring Dutch defense and wreak havoc in transition) before the 67th minute, but both are equipped to fill the roles being asked of them today. and make sense for their responsibilities, but both full backs seemed ready to tap out well before the 75th and 92nd minutes, respectively.

Lasting impression as a whole: Not a lot to say about this one, but it was good to see Reyna and Aaronson involved at the same time for once. While he had little to do defensively due to the scoreline, Yedlin looked more comfortable in the role than had in the group stage, and it still confounds me how the depth chart shook out with the Nashville man ahead of the only U.S. player with World Cup experience entering the tournament.

There was a bit more urgency from Berhalter to change the personnel than in past games, which seemed like a necessary evolution. Still, bringing on another true No. 9 and the chaos-inducing Aaronson halfway through the second half left a lot of time without a clear approach to light up the U.S. half of the scoreboard.

It’s a bit simplistic to chalk this up as “Louis Van Gaal beat Gregg Berhalter today,” but… yeah, Louis van Gaal beat Gregg Berhalter today.

There’s no shame in being outclassed by a manager who has won a UEFA Champions League, several European league titles, an and led the Netherlands to third place in the 2014 World Cup. The U.S. should also take comfort from the fact that they were still able to create chances and stay in the final third against such a stout defensive unit.

Ultimately, however, van Gaal’s post-match assessment is pretty damning: the U.S. didn’t adapt. Berhalter trusted the players that got the team into the knockouts, and it wasn’t enough. There were maneuvers which would have helped, but some simple mistakes in both boxes and failures to react to the Netherlands’ gameplan did the young Yanks in on the day.

Thinking back on all four matches, this doesn’t feel like the United States’ elimination had much to do with Berhalter’s approach.

There are genuine questions to be asked about what Ferreira’s role in this team was compared to, say , who would’ve been a good hybrid alternative to Josh Sargent’s sorely-missed pressing acumen and Wright’s line-leading chops. I might have started Carter-Vickers on Saturday given how well he and Ream worked together to neutralize attackers while better progressing the ball out of the defensive third.

Entering the cycle, many viewed this tournament as a necessary step toward being very competitive when the 2026 World Cup is (mostly) played on home soil. Leaving goalkeeper off the roster allowed to feel confident in his standing atop the goalkeeper depth chart, and the 28-year-old’s form should keep him in the 1 shirt moving forward. It’s impossible to know if Musah would have committed to the program without Berhalter involved, and his decision to not represent England after doing so at the youth international levels is still a sore spot for Southgate. Conversely, the decision to bring Reyna but keep him to a single seven-minute shift in the group left him pretty untested before a big shift on Saturday.

There weren’t many times where Berhalter’s decision-making (whether it’s his lineups, his tactics or his substitutions) set this U.S. side back. Aside from Ferreira’s start and a coin-flip proposition between Zimmerman and Carter-Vickers against the Dutch, one could argue the coach got 42 of his 44 lineup decisions right. However, after not having to recalibrate due to strong initial tactics in the group stage, Berhalter didn’t adjust his side convincingly or quickly enough when his team was down 2-0 in a knockout game. Even after three pretty strong showings, that matters in a World Cup format.

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