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USMNT Stands Tall Against England

AL KHOR, QATAR - NOVEMBER 25: Tyler Adams of United States of America talks with Yunus Musah of United States of America during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group B match between England and USA at Al Bayt Stadium on November 25, 2022 in Al Khor, Qatar. (Photo by Juan Luis Diaz/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
Juan Luis Diaz/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Ahead of the United States' group-stage game against England, one of the tournament favorites and easily the best team the USMNT has faced in a competitive match in eight years, manager Gregg Berhalter sprung a surprise. He tweaked his trademark 4-3-3 formation by sliding Christian Pulisic back into the midfield, shifting Weston McKennie over to the right, and dedicating the team to covering the flanks in an ironically quite English 4-4-2. It worked, to nearly devastating effect, as the USMNT stood their ground and secured a point against an English team that won its last match 6-2. The Yanks kept England to a single shot on goal, and though 0-0 is a great result (both in a vacuum and in this specific context), the USMNT should feel they were the better team. The matter isn't really much of a debate, and the team played their best game in years because their all-action midfield stepped up and put forth a killer collective performance.

It starts with Tyler Adams, a player who has earned the past two Man of the Match awards yet has received neither. Adams has spent the duration of both U.S. games sprinting around, stepping to his opponents' chests, and keeping the ball moving under American control. This is, broadly speaking, what he has always done, and his physical excellence and control in testy situations are what have made him the most tactically critical player in the U.S. setup. The U.S. can afford to fling its fullbacks forth like rocks from a trebuchet because Adams is always in position to do the work of two men behind them. When the game got ragged, it was Adams who would slip back to Walker Zimmerman and Tim Ream and settle everyone down. I will put a highlight in here now, and though this one was great, so much of what Adams does can't be captured in a video clip.

Before today, the Adams-led midfield, with Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie riding into battle alongside him, has proven adept at imposing its style on the game, with the notable caveat that they'd never done so against a truly elite opponent. Could they be as effective when matched up with Jude Bellingham, Harry Kane, and Bukayo Saka as they were against the Costa Ricas and (no offense) Mexicos of the world? As it turns out, yes, they can, no problem.

England had the edge in possession. That was basically the only edge they had, as they spent their time attacking the space in between the midfield and attackers, with their two center backs creating some extra space by hanging back a bit further on the ball. It helped them create a big chance in the first 10 minutes and sustain some good pressure early on, but once the USMNT grew into the game, they were the better team. McKennie and Sergiño Dest were consistently able to move the ball up the right, combining quickly with those behind and ahead of them to move decisively through space. Yunus Musah essentially does what Tyler Adams does, but in the other direction. He helped advance the ball by either galloping past two England defenders and finding the right guy or quickly spraying it out to a flanker.

Christian Pulisic, officially named MOTM, had a much steadier performance against England than he had against Wales. He was excellent tracking back and seemed to spend most of his time further out on the flank until the attacking third, when he would tuck in and almost operate like a point guard, with Antonee Robinson ahead on his left and Musah to his right. He had the moment of the game about a half hour in, when he carved about space against Saka and Kieran Trippier (who did stuff going forward but didn't trouble Pulisic on the other end) and rocketed a screamer off the post.

There was a protracted period of pressure around the 60th minute when the USMNT ran some set plays out of the corner and engineered four straight corner kicks. Pulisic turned to the crowd and asked for their energy. The central defenders were flying at Harry Maguire and forcing him to heave his big-ass head to and fro. It felt like something historic was brewing. Though they were playing the theoretically superior team, their inability to score cost them what should have been a win. The USMNT was straight-up better, and though they can be proud of their point, they should also feel like that game was their's for the winning. Weston McKennie blew a pair of great chances, while the U.S. defense surrendered only two really strong chances that I can recall; the Harry Kane free header in the 93rd minute nearly made me faint.

Maybe, like me, you also expect the USMNT to break your heart. The end of the Portugal game in 2014 haunts me like an unconfessed crime, and as the England game wound to its death, I could not shake the feeling that the U.S. was again headed for disaster. Indeed, England cranked up the press and tried to turn the U.S. over in the final 15 minutes. Jack Grealish was dangerous on the ball when he entered. When the game ended, I felt grateful that the U.S. survived, but as it recedes from the present, I feel regret that the team didn't win. Like the Wales matchup, this one was up for grabs, though unlike the Wales game where fans expected a win, standing chest-to-chest with England feels meaningful. It truly does represent a step forward.

The trick here is, it will only matter if the U.S. advances. The performance is merely symbolic unless they carry it with them into the round of 16. Nobody cares about a brave 0-0 draw if you can't beat Iran. Team Melli's thrilling, last-second victory over Wales now sets the U.S. up for a must-win game. If they can beat Iran, they are through. If they draw, they're dead. It is that simple. Iran has everything to play for, and they just showed their quality against Wales. The U.S. is better set up to beat them than Wales was, but they have also scored one goal in 200 minutes of soccer. They will need to be better. They will need their midfielders to once again control the game. They'll have 90 more minutes to prove themselves.

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