After a frantic start, USMNT looses control of tempo & focus in "moments" during 3-1 loss to Germany
October 15, 2023
THE UNITED STATES national team dropped a 3-1 decision to Germany on Saturday afternoon in Hartford, Connecticut. After the U.S. team scored first, Germany eventually rose to the challenge and scored three times to coast to a comfortable win.
By now, everyone has seen the highlights. Christian Pulisic’s goal in the 27th minute was a brilliant strike that was indeed world class. It came on the heels of a goal he scored that was called back for “offside” and then a penalty he argued for, but was denied by the official earlier in the half.
Germany then grew confidently into the game. ?lkay Gündo?an equalized in the 39th minute, Niclas Fullkrug put Germany ahead in the 58th minute, and Jamal Musiala capped the scoring in the 61st minute.
The highlights tell the story.
Here are my thoughts on the game.
The U.S. team didn’t lose this game because it was overwhelmed or it was simply played off the field (like it was at the 2014 World Cup against Germany or Belgium, where Tim Howard masked a seriously lopsided performance, or against Argentina in the Copa America Centenario semifinal or the group stage loss to Colombia earlier in that tournament, or the loss to Germany at the 1998 World Cup), the U.S. team lost this game because it let its guard down in certain moments. This loss was similar to the quarterfinal loss to Germany in 2002 or even the recent loss to the Netherlands at the World Cup in 2022.
But that is often how games are won and lost when you get into the higher levels of the game. As the 2022 World Cup showed, the U.S. team has enough talent to create chances against good teams. This wasn’t always the case.
The questions now are how does the team both finish off their chances better and, more importantly, stay focused so that it doesn’t let its guard down against an extremely talented opponent? That is an enormous challenge. From 1994-2018, Mexico made the knockout stages for seven straight World Cups but never won a single Round of 16 game – sometimes it was close against great teams, but getting over that barrier was elusive. Winning a knockout game is an extraordinarily difficult test of mentality and it typically comes down to those moments.
This wasn’t a knockout game. This was a low-stakes friendly. But the U.S. got another taste of how tough it is to beat an elite team, even when the U.S. was creating some good chances. The game will be defined by those moments where an opportunity comes, either out of brilliance from the attacker or a mistake from a defender. For the good teams, they know exactly what to do in those moments.
Gregg Berhalter repeatedly talked about those “moments” after the game.
“It's really these fine moments and these split seconds where you need to be well positioned and not let any gaps in your backline,” Berhalter explained. “That's where it went wrong. In one case, it's tracking runners going through, keeping an organization of four and three in front of the four that's very difficult to break through. We lacked that in those moments. But Germany is a good team and they're going to open teams up.”
“In the first half I thought we were really good,” Berhalter added. “Then it came down to some moments where we conceded a bit too easily. But overall, I am happy with the effort of the team. I am happy with the mindset and the intentions of the team. I think that was important.”
“What we did learn was those moments,” Berhalter also pointed out. “The speed at which these top teams can play at, the combinations they can play in really tight spaces… As we plot towards 2026 on this pathway, it's about learning from these moments and understanding we need to stay in it for every single moment of the game.”
Managing the tempo
The question then becomes, how to be on the winning side of games where the result is dictated by “moments.”
The U.S. team came into this game very aggressively. The game was wide open, especially for the first 30 minutes. Yes, the U.S. team had their chances, typically through Pulisic. But as promising as this looked, so did Germany. Pascal Gross hit the post in the 11th minute. Fullkrug forced Matt Turner into a big save in the 26th minute. Weston McKennie had to block a dangerous Leroy Sané shot just before halftime.
The U.S. team wanted to play an open game against Germany, and that is very hard to do. Germany is both talented and tactically disciplined at a world-class level.
The question then becomes expectations. How long did the U.S. team think it could match Germany in an open game? Open games typically favored the more talented team.
After the game, Berhalter acknowledged the energy level it requires to play at such a high tempo before things become unglued.
“But to me, it's also about controlling the tempo of the game,” Berhalter said. “That is what we really need to learn. It costs us so much energy, even with our own counter attacks, then it's hard to really stay consistent in your own actions - defensive shape. To me, that's a learning experience.”
He went onto praise the U.S. team’s performance in the first half, but the questions for Berhalter is whether the first half was too frantic to the point where it becomes unsustainable? How does Berhalter still get the team to create the opportunities it did, while not playing at such a high tempo before things become unglued?
That seems to be a question not just for this game, but in general how the U.S. plays against top opponents.
This was reminiscent of the U.S. team’s loss to the Netherlands at the World Cup, also a 3-1 score. While the U.S. team didn’t score first in that game, there were times when the U.S. team was playing well. But a disciplined team like the Dutch were able to stay focuses, stay on their game plan, and wait for the U.S. team to make errors – such as failing to pick-up the trailing runner, or not adequately defending a cross into the box.
"It's good to get some top-quality competition and we had some positives, for sure,” Pulisic said. “But we have to figure out how to win these games."
The U.S. team played a more effective game in the 0-0 draw with England at the World Cup when it created opportunities but was focused throughout.
Midfield connection & turnovers
One of the reasons where the U.S. team became unglued over the course of the game was in the midfield. All three of Germany’s goals came up the middle of the field, which should not happen. It was clear that the U.S. team seriously missed Tyler Adams and that the team doesn’t have a great way to play against a top team without him.
Yunus Musah playing that deep with the U.S. team is still a work in progress. He was beaten by Florian Wirtz in the early part of the game. He also came up short in a slide tackle on Sane during the play that led to the equalizing goal.
The midfield shape defensively in this game played an important part of the U.S. team’s loss. Musah was far from the only culprit. McKennie’s role and position in this game was also off. He was sloppy and that put Musah in too many bad positions. Then in the second half, Luca de la Torre was forced into a more defensive role and was not involved offensively as he should have.
“Against a quality opponent like Germany, you have to be able to make plays and stay connected in and around the penalty box,” Berhalter said. “With the three goals, it was all a loss of connection in the backline and the midfield. Overall, it was a loss of organization. Those three plays let us down a little bit.”
It was a snowball effect that put central defenders Tim Ream and Chris Richards into too many difficult places to defend. They struggled as well, but the bad play started in the midfield.
“There are things defensively we can work on, for sure,” Pulisic said.
Matt Turner also summed it up perfectly in how the team was just too sloppy against a team when you need to be exceptionally clean, in order to win.
“It's frustrating,” Turner said. “I think we were our own worst enemies today in a lot of areas on the pitch if we want to beat elite teams in the world. We're going to have to clean things up around both boxes, really. That's what it boiled down to. The game was won in our box, and we didn't do enough in theirs.”
Germany’s shape changing
Despite new manager Julian Nagelsmann having such little time with his team, Germany was very well coached in this game. Particularly it was with the constant changing of shape, which clearly threw the U.S. team off.
Even while Germany was struggling prior to Nagelsmann coming on board, they still had a ton of individual talent and a huge experience edge that allowed them to quickly adjust to Nagelsmann’s dynamic approach.
“We thought they were going to play this 4-2-2-2 and we were going to use the 4-4-2 defensive shape against them preventing central passes,” Berhalter said. “As they moved to three and built up, we were going to switch and get to three and get to three and two and prevent access to their center midfielders which is really hard. It's actually an interesting exercise to watch because Gündo?an has a ton of class. Pascal Gross does that type of thing with his club. It's challenging.”
The U.S. team’s attack
The U.S. team was let down by its inability to stay focused for 90 minutes, getting into an overly open game against a superiorly talented and focused opponent, a lack of connection between the defense and the midfield, and Germany’s constant shape changing, there were still some positives.
The U.S. has an attack that can still generate chances. Yes, the team relies heavily on Pulisic to deliver against the best teams. But Weah still fits nicely into this team at a high level.
“I didn't think I was offside on the first goal I scored, and obviously he didn't call a penalty,” Pulisic said. “I just kept going. Obviously, it's nice to score a great goal and it put us in a great position. But in the end of the day, we want to win the game.”
The addition of Balogun is very important. Prior to the game, Berhalter said that a big priority of the team this window was getting the team on the same page as Balogun to spot is runs so he can get behind the defense. The team is not there, but there is progress. Having another focal point of attack beyond Pulisic is something that the team desperately needs and Balogun can be the answer there.
Berhalter said that the attack three (Pulisic, Balogun, and Weah) along with Gio Reyna in the attacking midfield was positive to take away from this game.
“We also learned we can hurt teams like that. It should give us some bit of confidence,” Berhalter said. “I was pleased with that. With Gio, you see the pass that he gave Balo that resulted in Christian going 1v1 with the keeper, I didn't see the replay but to me it looked like a penalty. I thought he did a good job exploiting the backline, him, Timmy Weah, Christian - we should talk about the goal he scored, that's a world class goal... we put Germany on their heels a little bit.”
Much love, New England ???? pic.twitter.com/43iamj20Zi— U.S. Men's National Soccer Team (@USMNT) October 14, 2023
“All three attackers did a good job,” he added. “For us, it's about how do we maintain it. How do we keep that going for 90 minutes because the game isn't just 45 minutes.”
Turner agreed with Berhalter.
“There are a lot of positives we can take,” the goalkeeper from New Jersey said. “We scored a great goal. We did create some really great chances. We had a goal disallowed. It would be really nice to get a clean sheet [against Ghana] and build from there. We gave away chances today that typically weren't like us. We seemed a little bit easy to get in behind us to create chances.”
The problem for Turner and company is that that while these mistakes typically aren’t like them, they are more common, and more costly against teams like Germany and Holland than anything CONCACAF can throw at them. This was another example.