How to Measure Growth: 3 Stats to Judge if the USMNT Has Improved Since July 2019
by Bart Keeler
The United States and Mexico will forever be compared as the two biggest teams in Concacaf. Despite Mexico needing a playoff win to make the 2014 World Cup and the U.S. missing the 2018 World Cup altogether, these two nations are indisputably the most successful in the region.
Because of that, the U.S. men’s national team will be judged on their performance against El Tri. Head coach Gregg Berhalter lost his first matchup against Mexico 1-0 in the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup Final. An embarrassing 3-0 loss followed in September 2019.
Berhalter spun the 3-0 loss as nothing more than a training exercise; a platform for his team on which to test and apply his new positional play system. So, following that logic, we’ll throw out that match in a true evaluation of the team. However, we can look at the 2019 Gold Cup Final as a benchmark for his current team to surpass.
While winning is the most important thing, it’s not the only way to judge if the team performed well or has improved. Can the USMT show that they’ve progressed in the Concacaf Nations League Final on Sunday, June 6?
Here are three stats that the Yanks can use to evaluate their improvement (or regression) as a team and against Mexico.
Total Shots Against
Mexico created attacking chances against the U.S. fairly easily in that 2019 final. El Tri posted 20 total shots, seven on goal. Truly, the Yanks only conceding one goal was quite an accomplishment, but relying on some scrappy defense and stellar goalkeeping is not the vision for Berhalter’s new style of play.
Generally, the U.S. needs to hold Mexico to fewer shots to expect success in this Concacaf Nations League Final. Since that match, the U.S. has not allowed more than 15 total shots in a match (a wile 1-1 draw against Uruguay on September 10, 2019). The Yanks average 7.85 shots against per game, albeit against some very weak opposition. To show improvement, the USMNT should hold Mexico closer to 7.85 shots conceded than 20.
Total Passes Attempted
Against Honduras, the USMNT attempted 470 passes with 87 percent accuracy. In the 2019 Gold Cup final, the Yanks attempted a dismal 294 passes. That is a shockingly low number for a team that wants to not only possess the ball but disrupt the opponent through passing.
A higher passing number would likely yield better defensive numbers (like total shots against) and a higher possession percentage. Both will allow the U.S. to be in control of themselves and the game. Mexico can play at an insanely fast tempo and the U.S. stringing together more passes can combat that. The U.S. should aim for 400 passes attempted against Mexico to feel like the team has progressed.
Takeaways From Mexico
If the Yanks want to see more of the ball, they’re going to have to win it back from Mexico, who thrive in possession. One of the new developments Berhalter has implemented since the 2019 Gold Cup Final is a much more aggressive pressing scheme. The goal is that this front-line pressure will cause more turnovers higher up the field, leading to transition attacks for the U.S. and more chances in the final third.
Against Mexico in the 2019 Gold Cup Final, the USMNT managed just two seals, both by Michael Bradley. That allowed Mexico to comfortably build possession and create attacking moments.
The USMNT stole the ball from Honduras only seven times against Honduras. That’s somewhat low because Honduras attempted so few passes and little progressive possession. The U.S. will have more opportunities to nip a ball from a Mexican attacker on Sunday. Close to 10 steals against Mexico would indicate the USMNT is pressing El Tri effectively, thus showing development on the defensive side of the ball.
This Concacaf Nations League FInal was always going to be the first real test of Berhalter’s system. He is 0-2 against his rival to the south since taking over as head coach of the USMNT. A third loss in a row would be a historic mark for Berhalter — and it won’t be a positive mark.
Because there are many ways to define success, winning isn’t always the best metric. Make no mistake, winning is what counts in tournaments, but we can look for growth in many aspects of the game. Ultimately, the team should show improvement in passing and pressing, which can result in fewer shots for Mexico and more chances for the U.S.
(photo credit: @USMNT)