European national teams traditionally present a high hurdle to the U.S. men, and on Sunday in Belfast, coach Gregg Berhalter added an additional challenge to his players’ plates: a new formation.
For the first time in nearly two years, the Americans played with three center backs and two wing backs in a 3-4-3, and although there were several predictable growing pains, the visitors handled their assignments and their opponents well enough to secure a tight 2-1 triumph over Northern Ireland at windy Windsor Park. Gio Reyna scored on a first-half deflection, and Christian Pulisic added the game-winner from the penalty spot.
The victory not only extended the Americans' unbeaten run to nine (8-0-1) dating back to the fall of 2019, it marked the first win against a European side on its home soil since June 2015. After four straight friendlies against Concacaf opponents and a nearly-two-year stretch during which 16 of 18 matches have been against regional rivals, Berhalter and his players were excited this week to prepare for a different sort of challenge.
“It’s going to be a test for us. It’s something we haven't seen in a little bit and I think the guys are excited to play a non-Concacaf team, and I know our coaching staff is really excited for this test and just to kind of get out of our own kind of region,” U.S. goalkeeper Zack Steffen said before the game. “We don’t have many opportunities to come to Europe and play European teams on their soil, so we want to get a win—an away win. So this is a really good test for us.”
Northern Ireland is hardly a top European team. It entered Sunday’s game on an 11-match winless run. It failed to qualify for this summer’s European Championship. It’s ranked 45th in the world (well below the USA at No. 22) and on Sunday, it fielded only one player who started in the World Cup qualifying loss at Italy on March 25 (Blackburn Rovers midfielder Corry Evans). Yet the Green and White Army still presented a stiff challenge, as European teams always seem to do when they’re surrounded by the comforts of home. The depth of quality on soccer’s most powerful and successful continent is just different.
Add to that the formation change, and the USA was in for an interesting day. Berhalter last played with three in the back in a June 2019 friendly against Jamaica, a 1-0 defeat during which the Americans created almost nothing going forward. Since then, he’s been focused on the 4-3-3 and on getting his young team more comfortable with a single, consistent approach. The best teams can vary their approach, however, and with talented players like Pulisic (Chelsea) and Sergiño Dest (Barcelona) playing in different spots with their clubs, the manager decided it was time to expand his side’s repertoire while giving future opponents more to think about.
Berhalter said the formation change was prompted in part by Northern Ireland and in part by his team's evolution.
"We knew it was going to be difficult dealing with their first balls. We know they play with two strikers and the one player's tall, really difficult to win the first ball from. So we wanted some protection for second balls," the U.S. coach said following the game. "The second thing is, looking at their shape, we felt like we could exploit some spaces with our midfield configuration the way we had it, with basically four guys in midfield. The other thing is that we think it's important to continue to challenge this group, and it was a good opportunity to do so tonight."
The starting U.S. side was anchored by Aaron Long, Matt Miazga and Tim Ream in a back three, with Dest (on the right) and Antonee Robinson (left) as flank players. Dest had impressed as a left back in Wednesday’s 4-1 win over Jamaica in Austria, but he plays as a right wingback for Barcelona and said this week that he’s happy either way.
“For me personally, it’s not that hard. I can play on both sides,” Dest said after scoring a gorgeous goal against Jamaica. “Right back is good for me. Left back is good for me. I don’t prefer any to be honest. I just like to play the game, and it doesn’t matter for me which position I play.”
With Dest and Robinson supposedly offering more width in the attack, Pulisic and Reyna, normally wingers in the 4-3-3, might have more opportunity to play inside and get closer to goal. Striker Jordan Siebatcheu, who plays in the Swiss league with Young Boys, made his first start. In the seventh minute, the new formation showed its promise. Siebatcheu laid the ball off for a nearby Pulisic, who split the opposing center back and right back with a smart pass toward the end line. Robinson was there to run on to it. His cross was just a bit too far in front of Siebatcheu, but the Fulham back’s ability to get behind the Northern Irish back line would’ve been exactly the sort of play Berhalter was searching for.
Unfortunately for the USA, however, those plays were few and far between. More frequently, the unfamiliar runs and positions, some congestion in the offensive half and Northern Ireland’s ability to put pressure on the ball disrupted the visitors and led to slow, sluggish or broken play. Not surprisingly, the crispness and immediate fluidity just weren't there. On two occasions in the first half, awkward midfield turnovers resulted in quick counters and scoring chances for the hosts. In the 16th minute, veteran Northern Ireland striker Kyle Lafferty was played through but rolled his shot wide. And in the 38th, Shayne Lavery was set up with a similar chance but saw his goal-bound shot well saved by a diving Steffen.
"We trained about eight minutes," Berhalter said of the new 3-4-3. "When you see the game you can see that there were good parts, but we still have a lot of work to go in the spacing, to really hurt the opponent. We got into some really good positions but weren't able to hurt the opponent enough, I thought. But overall I'm proud of the guys the way they took in that information."
Where Northern Ireland failed to take advantage of its chances, the USA had the quality and good fortune required. In the 30th, Reyna enjoyed the sort of bounce he was looking for during a more frustrating outing three days earlier against Jamaica. Ream had some time and space in the left channel and fed Reyna inside, where the Borussia Dortmund youngster had an opportunity to take a couple touches and set up a right-footed shot. His blast deflected wildly off Northern Ireland defender Ciaron Brown and over the helpless goalkeeper.
The match remained close as substitutes started to change the game’s complexion. But Pulisic, who played only 45 minutes against the Reggae Boyz, remained on the field and finally was rewarded for the confidence he demonstrated this week to use his dribbling skills and take on defenders. Pulisic was tripped up in the penalty area in the 59th minute and took the penalty himself, rolling it a few inches to the goalkeeper’s left for his 15th international goal.
Berhalter lauded Pulisic's skill, effort and work rate after the Chelsea forward's man-of-the-match performance.
"Forget about all the great stuff he does on the ball," Berhalter said. "He just competed today, and when he's in that type of mode he's just an unbelievable player. That's what I was most happy with today. It was relentless pressing. He just kept going and going and going, and he's so good on the ball he can unbalance the [other] team. To me he had an overall really strong performance."
Said Pulisic when reflecting on both games this week, "I was happy with my performances and the team's. It's really good. It helps our confidence going out and getting two good results. It's really nice to come in and get minutes again, get 90 today, and I'm definitely proud of the guys."
Regarding his role in the 3-4-3, Pulisic said, "I was definitely playing my game. Obviously positionally things changed a bit and from a formation standpoint, but when I get the ball I still have the same objectives in mind. I'm still going right at the goal and trying to create things, and I was able to do that today."
The U.S. had more of its way during the game’s latter stages as both teams made changes. Substitute forward Daryl Dike came close on a couple of occasions to scoring his first international goal, and Sebastian Lletget hit a one-timer reminiscent of his two goals against Jamaica. This time, however, his shot was saved. Northern Ireland halved the American advantage in the 88th minute as Aberdeen’s Niall McGinn beat Steffen with a beautifully struck, dipping half-volley from an acute angle.
Northern Ireland will look to rebound quickly as it faces Bulgaria in a World Cup qualifier on March 31, while the Americans will return to their respective clubs. The next time Berhalter gathers his team, the stakes will be much higher. After a friendly at Switzerland on May 30, a first-choice USA will face Honduras in the Concacaf Nations League semifinals at a U.S. site to be announced. A third-place game or final against either Mexico or Costa Rica will follow. Although the Nations League title isn’t a major one, that international window is expected to be the final time Berhalter calls up his top European-based players before World Cup qualifying begins in September.