3 Lessons the USMNT (Hopefully) Learned in 2021
by Bart Keeler
It’s been a pretty good year for the USMNT. Winning 17 games and sitting in a qualifying spot are positives as the calendar turns to 2022. The trap of success is that you often think everything you did is working, and don’t self-evaluate to get better. And, other times, you don’t take the time to appreciate the success you’re experiencing in the moment.
Now that we have some time to look back at the year, let’s take some lessons we learned from this campaign as a whole.
1. The Kids Are Alright
We’ve heard how important “experience” is in World Cup Qualifying; especially to winning points on the road. However, the USMNT has a plethora of young players that have proven they can get the job done.
At least three times in this cycle, Berhalter has trotted out the youngest starting XI at that point. We’ve seen how youngsters like Ricardo Pepi (18), Yunus Musah (19), and Tim Weah (21) perform better than their older compatriots. As much as Berhalter tries to inject “experience” into his lineups, the reality is that the best players and performers are mostly under 25.
(This also applies to the USWNT but I don’t have time to write about that.).
2. Lineups > Tactics
This is probably not a lesson we just happened to learn this year. It’s usually the case with national teams. But Gregg Berhalter believes so strongly in his tactics and his system, that it can be frustrating when he trots out a starting 11 of players who aren’t up to the level of the match, just because he thinks his system will do the job for them.
Berhalter doesn’t necessarily over-think his game plans. In fact, they’re pretty consistent from match to match, but he does tend to think that just being familiar with his system is enough to perform well on the field. The fact of the matter is, he sometimes struggles to put players in positions that can make the system work. Hopefully, he’s learned that he needs to put the best players available on the field in positions that both highlight their strengths and help them execute to the best of their abilities.
Looking back at the big wins in 2021, they mainly came with the best 11 players on the field. Even the Gold Cup Final featured a strong starting lineup, compared to the level of competition. The old saying “It’s not X’s and O’s but Jimmies and Joes” really applies to the USMNT.
3. Beating Mexico Is Always Fun
The USMNT beat Mexico three times in 2021. I’m going to write that again because it’s fun to type: The USMNT beat Mexico thrice in 2021. Each win carried unique significance, but each win mattered greatly. Together, the three victories signal a new top dog in the region and, perhaps, a new reality in the rivalry.
Beating Mexico in the Nations League Final was cathartic. After two years of losing to El Tri and two years of anticipation, the USMNT bested their rivals in one of the most dramatic matches ever. The win in the Gold Cup Final was amusing, given how few first-choice players comprised the tournament squad.
Winning two trophies over Mexico this summer was a great feeling. But, for me, personally, the 2-0 win over Mexico in World Cup Qualifying felt the best. It not only confirmed that we’re a better team right now, but it was also the only win that really mattered. It was a wholly dominant performance and put us three points closer to qualifying for a World Cup.