Ahead of Saturday afternoon’s friendly against Germany, U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter said games like this were “not about being afraid of the result (or) being afraid of competing, it’s about embracing these moments.”
His hope: that in the next three years before the 2026 World Cup, games like this would serve as opportunities to learn what it will take to compete — and beat — the very best in international soccer.
The 3-1 loss to Germany in front of a sold-out crowd of 37,743 in East Hartford, Connecticut, however, showed the U.S. still has to evolve – from the team that was eliminated by the Netherlands in the knockout round of the 2022 World Cup to one that can make a deep run on home soil.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” center back Tim Ream said bluntly when asked what the big takeaway from the game was.
The U.S. started the game well, but in the second half Germany seized control of the contest and the Americans never really found their way back into it. The U.S. was at times too stretched in defensive transition after bad turnovers, and in other moments Germany was given too much time and space near the top of the box.
“We do need to not give the ball away so quickly in bad areas,” Ream said. “You give the ball away around the 18? OK, fine. In the attacking half? I get it, that’s no problem, you’re trying things. But when you give the ball away too quickly in midfield as we’re trying to get our attacking and build-up shape then it’s going to look A) disjointed, and B) guys are going to look out of position. And when you do that against good players, they punish you.”
Some of the defensive problems highlighted the absence of captain Tyler Adams, who has been a stalwart for the U.S. at defensive midfield and helps to break up passing lanes, make key tackles and set the tone in midfield. The World Cup captain has been out with a hamstring injury since March, and after suffering a setback earlier this month is now expected to miss a significant amount of time more. Berhalter said going into this window that Adams’ absence gave the U.S. a chance to test out some “Plan B” options for playing without him. The Germany game showed that the “Plan B” still isn’t quite clear.
But it wasn’t about the absence of one player. There were disconnects that both allowed Germany to get on the ball higher up the field, and then find the small lanes around the box that their world-class players exploited.
“When you watch them and what they do and it’s one of those where you break a line and you get down to their box and all of a sudden they’re behind the ball,” Ream said. “And I think that’s kind of where we need to learn, is to get guys behind the ball, get compact, especially in and around our defensive 18. And that’s something that again, it’s a learning process, and it’s something that we need to look at and make sure we do better.”
Multiple players said the U.S. needs to find ways to put together more complete performances over the whole 90 minutes. The first half gave the team confidence that they could match Germany — they were able to get in behind Germany’s back line on multiple occasions and seemed to just lack that final action — but there was a drop-off in the second half performance.
Yunus Musah started as the deeper midfielder on Saturday, with Weston McKennie ahead of him and Gio Reyna in a No. 10 role.
Reyna, who played exclusively as a winger in the last World Cup cycle, looked dangerous and effective centrally under interim managers earlier this year. His return to the team with Berhalter on the sideline was among the headlines of this camp, and how Berhalter would utilize him was the biggest question. Reyna had a solid 45-minute outing on Saturday, and playing him in that central role showed promise. Reyna had to come out at halftime, however, as he ramps up his form and fitness.
In the first half, though, the U.S. looked dangerous in attack at times and got behind Germany on several occasions. Early in the game, Pulisic was called offside on what would have been a breakaway; Berhalter felt it should not have been whistled dead. On another attack, Reyna found Balogun to set up Pulisic in alone on Marc-André ter Stegen, but Pulisic went down after taking a touch around the goalkeeper.
“I went around him and there’s for sure contact,” Pulisic said.
The referee didn’t blow the whistle, but a few minutes later Pulisic scored a fantastic goal, beating four German defenders and blistering a ball into the upper corner.
“That’s a world-class goal,” Berhalter said.
Christian Pulisic with an absolute banger 🚀
Watch USA vs. Germany live on TNT or Max 📺 pic.twitter.com/G7t6KxLjFO
— B/R Football (@brfootball) October 14, 2023
After Pulisic gave the U.S. an early lead, however, Germany pulled back even. Leroy Sané used a clever double-touch to split Musah and Reyna in the 39th minute at the top of the box, and Ilkay Gündogan played a perfect through ball to Sané to put him through on goal. Goalkeeper Matt Turner made the initial save, but Gündogan was there to tuck home the rebound for the equalizer.
In the second half, Germany took further control.
In the 58th minute, Germany once again enjoyed too much time and space on the ball in their attacking third, and Jamal Musiala found Robin Gosens, whose stylish one-touch pass played Niclas Füllkrug in on goal. Left back Sergiño Dest was late to step, holding Füllkrug onside, and Germany had the lead. Three minutes later, Germany once again attacked the space right on the top of the box. The U.S. was a bit unfortunate in that Ream’s tackle on Musiala deflected right to Füllkrug, who found Musiala in the box to make it 3-1. But while the lucky bounce may have helped, the goal felt reflective of the spaces Germany attacked regularly.
“It’s these split seconds where you need to be well-positioned,” Berhalter said.
In the end, as Ream said, the result showed how much more the U.S. has to do to catch the world powers. But the group also felt that, like at the World Cup last year, they’re not far off.
“It’s frustrating because it’s just little moments,” Turner said. “I sort of alluded to this recently about how little moments could have made a big difference for us in the World Cup. And it’s kind of like the same story.”
(Photo: Adam Glanzman/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)