USMNT’s back-to-back clean sheets are deceiving, they’ve been more lucky than good ahead of Nations League

The United States men’s national team have just produced back-to-back cleansheets in friendlies against Morocco and Uruguay, and that overall will make manager Gregg Berhalter happy. You are always content when the other team fails to score, but if you look a bit deeper, there are still reasons to worry. Put aside the issue in attack that this team does not have a capable, consistent striker, and you’ll see that the defense is missing not only key players, but cohesion and shape remains absent.

Here are three takeaways from the last 180 minutes:

1. Chris Richards is sorely missed

It feels like things are trending towards Walker Zimmerman locking up a spot at center back for the World Cup as he’s been first choice at the position for a while. He’s validated the selections by putting together some formidable performances, and he has a consistency that is needed. Against Uruguay, his block late on Diego Rossi was a prime example of his awareness to close down when it matters most.

But who in the world is going to be next to him? Will John Brooks get another shot? This team is on the verge of going too young for its own good, which could lead to a humbling experience at the World Cup, but I would slot Chris Richards next to Zimmerman and not look back. 

After allowing an xG of 2.13 to Morocco and 1.36 to Uruguay, the Americans somehow did not concede. It wasn’t because of a superior defense — it was torn apart more than once, but a lack of precision from a guy like Edinson Cavani and some fine saves by Matt Turner and Sean Johnson helped mask the issues this defense currently has.

Richards can play with both feet, he has so much versatility, he’s improving in attack, and he is the center back in this pool with the highest ceiling. He’d be there now if it wasn’t for injuries, and not playing will hurt him, but he should get the chance later this year to show why he should start at the World Cup. The question is if there will be enough time when he returns to the team.

The options behind him just aren’t all that great. Aaron Long, Erik Palmer-Brown, Cameron Carter-Vickers and others looks like decent options but simply at backups. If Richards can have a good start to next season, be it at Bayern Munich or somewhere else, he’ll be right back in the conversation, and the U.S. need him.

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2. The lack of width has been concerning 

Too often we’ve seen the fullbacks get caught inside, and that is giving teams way too much time in the box. It will result in strong crosses across the face of goal, and sooner or later those are going to start going in.

Just look at the image below early on against Uruguay, where the defense is so out of sync that Zimmerman has to be the guy to close down the widest Uruguay player as one defender is dealing with two attackers in the box. DeAndre Yedlin stayed inside after being beaten instead of tracking his defender, and the U.S. were fortunate not to concede.

Every U.S. defender was closer to the goal than the player with the ball.
FOX Sports

Having Zimmerman in front of goal, with his ability to block shots, is crucial. He stepped out on Jose Maria Gimenez because nobody was there, and that was the right thing to do, but it was all because of a lack of execution from the left side of the defensive unit.

3. Keeping shape at the back must improve

Late on in the game a ball went over the top to Darwin Nunez with Cavani with him. Uruguay at one point had what looked to be a two-on-one that resulted in a shocking Cavani miss at the death. But just look at the defensive shape a few seconds after the ball is sent long. They were essentially clean through on goal with two defenders behind them. A fortunate deflection off Palmer-Brown was able to throw Cavani off enough, but being caught out like this is alarming.

Where is the U.S. defensE?
Fox Sports

It’s something Berhalter will surely continue to address, because others might not be as forgiving. 

Now, this all probably will mean very little in the Nations League against inferior opponents, at least early. But when it comes to preparing for the World Cup later this year, there needs to be progress, and it has to come quickly. While on paper Group B with England, Wales and Iran doesn’t seem all that bad, you can expect quite the test for this inconsistent U.S. backline. We all know what England have in attack, Wales’ Gareth Bale can still be a top performer and Dan James can cause trouble, and Iran have two, legit striker options that are far better than what the U.S. have at the same position.

The issue is minor right now, but it could become major later on if not corrected.

With an improved defense, there should be a realistic belief this team will escape the group. Without it, don’t be surprised if they are watching the knockout stage at home.


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