Dissecting the potential "DNA" of Gregg Berhalter's USMNT

“We want to see ball circulation, breaking lines, creating goal scoring opportunities. That should be the DNA of our team.”

It was the last line of Gregg Berhalter’s introductory press conference as head coach of the US Men’s National Team, and the most important one. We’ve all used plenty of words and ink on the past process, but it’s time for Berhalter to take the team forward. And when Alexi Lalas asked Berhalter how he would do it, what style he would use with the team, Berhalter knew exactly what to say.

“The idea is that we are an attacking based team that wants to create goal scoring opportunities by unbalancing the opponent,” Berhalter started. “We will do that in a number of different ways.”

Eight months ago, my editors at MLSsoccer.com asked for a piece about how Berhalter’s former team, Columbus Crew SC, function. They wanted a descriptive breakdown of Berhalter’s detail-oriented system — the “number of different ways” to create goal-scoring opportunities that Berhalter refers to in the quote. The story never got published, but I’ve continued to tweak and add to it. Over time, it became more of a general think-piece. But now seems like an appropriate time to put it out...

There are five ways to score a goal in soccer:

  1. Set pieces

  2. Individual moments of brilliance

  3. Counter attacks

  4. Incidental chances

  5. Systematic possession

In his quotes above, Berhalter is referring to Systematic Possession (he also mentioned pressure, but only elaborated on the parts with the ball).

We generally accept that possession is good and often leads to goals, but we don’t spend a ton of time talking about the specific link between the two. How does possession lead to goals? If you want to “use the ball” or prioritize “ball circulation,” how does that lead to the thing that actually matters: goals? What’s the direct, tangible connection between the two?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this question, from watching the sport growing up, to playing professionally, to now coaching an Under-16 team. The question has become front and center as it will at the core of how our national team will function for the foreseeable future under Gregg Berhalter.

How does “using the ball,” “ball circulation,” and “breaking lines” lead to “goal scoring opportunities” and, in the end, goals?

Possession creates a controlled method for putting the team into high-probability goal-scoring situations. The team uses short, high-percentage passes to move the ball toward certain zones. The high percentage actions give the team on the ball more control over the outcome of a game’s events.

Opportunities still happen in a game even if a team doesn’t value possession, or use the possession with a purpose, and I call those “Random Successes.” It’s possible to make five really nice passes in a row that lead to a goal. But could they be intentionally replicated? Is there a credible suggestion that it could lead to future success?

Possession - “using the ball” - increases either the quantity of opportunities or the quality of the opportunities, depending on a team’s approach, in a systematic way. In following a systematic approach, it allows a team to improve and refine the system, as well as trust the success can be repeated on a consistent, replicable basis.

Controlled possession allows a team to move the ball toward an area of the field that they want to be in, or to get the ball in a situation that you want, and then use that space or moment to make an action toward scoring. It generally involves a pass that “breaks the lines” to bypass defenders and find an opening. (This doesn’t account for the mental wear it does to the opposing team - from constant shuttles back and forth, up and back - and the increased likelihood of a mental or physical mistake from the opponent.)

When they get to these zones, the players change their mindset from possession-oriented to goal-dangerous focused. It’s no longer about possession, but coordinated patterns to get to goal: overlaps, underlaps, 1v1s. (We can discuss the coordinate patterns in more detail another time.) It’s the go-for-it zones. From possession to goals.

There are two key conversations that stem from that:

  1. What’s the best way to build/control possession toward those areas?

  2. What are those goal-scoring areas or situations and what you do when you get there?

I love talking about the first, but the second one is more relevant for today.

What are Berhalter’s “different ways”? What are those moments? At what points do they turn possession into goal-scoring opportunities?

I would break it into four categories.

The first zone is the area of the field around the sides of the 18-yard-box.

Man City zones.png

I call these the Man City zones. They are where Pep’s Manchester City team annihilates opponents. The player on the ball can either play the pass straight across the goal, back to the penalty spot, over top to the back post, or go for goal himself.

The second zone is at the top of the sides of the 18. In reference to Gregg Berhalter, they are the Pocket Winger Zones.

soccer-145794_1280 (1) copy.png

You would generally see an inverted, or “pocket,” winger tuck into these zones. The winger wants to find a space to the side of the defensive midfielders, and in the half-spaces between the defenders; in other words, they are in a grey area for defenders and create uncertainty on who takes responsibility for the free attacker.

The ball can get here from either controlled possession - often a center midfielder making a pass that breaks the lines - or from a winger dribbling into the zone. Dribbling from wide areas toward central zones is particularly dangerous because it crosses defensive lateral zones. If you think of a zonal defensive scheme, each defender has his sliver of the field. If a player crosses multiple slivers on a dribble run, who tracks the run? If the dribbler gets passed on to the next defender, then there’s often a moment of freedom when one defender drops and the next defender steps to the ball. Or should the defender leave his zone, in which case he leaves a gap for the dribbler to release a pass toward?

And then once the player gets into the zone, he or she has multiple options. He could slip a through pass toward goal, play a ball wide toward the Man City Zone, or attack the goal himself.

The third scenario involves both an area and a moment. The area occurs in the wide channel farther back from the Man City Zones, in what I call the Harry Zones (after Columbus Crew SC right back Harrison Afful, and also how it makes defenders feel).

Afful crosses.png

I (and statistics) really dislike crosses, and most of the time when the ball reaches the blue areas above the team should continue the possession phase in an attempt to hit the Man City Zones or Pocker Winger Zones. But when there’s space behind the defenders and the defenders are running back toward their own goal, there’s a chance to go for it.

A whipped ball behind the defense as the defenders run toward their own goal is one of the toughest balls to deal with. And it isn’t just a dangerous ball on the first pass as the forward attacks the ball, but also creates a possibility for dangerous second balls. Where can a defender running back toward his own goal adequately clear a ball? As the attacker and defender challenge for the ball, a mess often ensues. If the attacking team can adequately squeeze forward to win second balls, it can create opportunities around the box.

The fourth opportunistic zone comes right in the middle of the field (open to names on this…).

Vela zone.png

Notice that it’s not the typical zone at the top of the box, often known as Zone 14. It’s a little deeper. It’s where a deep-lying playmaker - Wil Trapp for Columbus - or dropping #10 - Carlos Vela for LAFC - would wreak his havoc.

Over the years, teams have prioritized crowding Zone 14 defensively - it’s one of the main reasons (or consequences?) for the adoption of the 4-2-3-1. It’s often tough to find space directly in front of the center backs now. In response, there’s space deeper on the field.

You move the ball as a team and wait for the right player to get a pocket of space. If the player can pick up his head in the middle of the field, he has the green light to look for a through ball to a runner.

The key here is getting the right player on the ball in the right situation. For the first two options, any player on the ball who sees the cues should go for it. Here, it needs to be a player with the right vision and passing ability.

As soon as the teammates recognize the specific player is in a pocket, they need to switch from possession-mode to goal-dangerous mode. The team should have patterns, most likely angled runs from areas toward goal, prepared for when this happens.

If you watch Berhalter’s teams often enough - or most top teams in the world - you will see them move the ball to these spots and create goal-scoring opportunities from these areas over and over. It’s the core of what they do.

Is there anything you disagree with in this article? Did I get something wrong? I’m open to suggestions. I wrote this more to spark conversation than to provide a definitive set of answers (though that’s what I hope to get to). Feel free to leave any input in the comments section, and I’ll consider it for future iterations.

Analyzing Red Bulls' decision to hold off on the press against Atlanta in Leg 1 of the Conference Championship

I just spent 30 minutes in a group chat with Matt Doyle, Ben Baer, Andrew Wiebe, and David Gass this morning fighting over the Red Bulls’ tactical approach on Sunday. It was a fun conversation, so I want to expand on my thoughts in a column.

The exchange went a lot like this…


Me: Logic!

Let’s look at how a manager would have played the game out in his head beforehand.

Envision Atlanta center back Michael Parkhurst with the ball at his feet 25 yards from his own goal.

Move 1: Red Bulls step to pressure the ball. Bradley Wright-Phillips splits the center backs, Kaku steps to the ball, Daniel Royer/Alex Muyl/Tyler Adams step forward to the closest opponent. Aaron Long and Tim Parker remain at midfield 1v1 with the opposing strikers.  It’s the trademark defensive action in MLS.

Move 2: In response, Michael Parkhurst kicks the ball 70 yards in behind Red Bulls center back Aaron Long.

Atlanta was never going to try to build from the back on Sunday. Between the beating they took doing so on September 30th at Red Bull Arena (2-0 Red Bulls) and the get-this-out-of-our-half approach they used against NYCFC in the Conference Semis, it was clear that Atlanta wasn’t going to pass their way forward.

The odds of Red Bulls using the press to force turnovers in the final third were near zero entering the game.

But don’t other teams try to bypass Red Bulls’ press as well? Yes, but Sunday’s game created particular problems.

First, Atlanta didn’t just want to bypass the initial wave of the press, they wanted to bypass Red Bulls altogether. Most teams try to play a controlled long ball into a forward or into a forward’s path, with the ball landing somewhere in the middle third. Atlanta wanted to launch the ball deep into Red Bulls half. This would have made the game a contest of individual duels, 1st and 2nd balls, 30 yards from Red Bulls goal. More so, it would have made it a contest of individual duels against Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Julian Gressel, Eric Remedi, and Darlington Nagbe.

I suspect Red Bulls would take those duels in midfield, as they usually get, but aren’t as easy to stomach in your defensive third.

Instead of pressing, extending themselves, and making the game about those types of interactions, Red Bulls decided to drop off. They drew their line of confrontation near midfield and waited for Atlanta to come to them.

In doing so, Red Bulls accomplished two goals.

One, they avoided the previously mentioned 50/50 balls near their own goal. Instead of individual duels in open field, the area would now be more crowded, giving less advantage to Atlanta’s star attackers.

Two, they coaxed Atlanta out of their own end.

Let’s finish playing out the “pressing” game scenario. Red Bulls press, Atlanta plays long, but what happens even if Red Bulls win the 2nd ball. How do they score? They would have to travel 70 yards and break down 10 Atlanta players. Can Red Bulls do that? NYCFC certainly couldn’t. Entering the game, the big question for Red Bulls was whether they could improve what they failed to do against Chivas, Montreal, and Columbus (in two of the three matchups this year…) break down a deep defense.

In sitting and waiting for Atlanta, they were inviting Atlanta to spread themselves out, so that when Red Bulls won the ball, they wouldn’t have to break down a set defense. Boom, second problem solved. The idea of sitting rather than pressing conceptually solved both the defensive and attacking worries for Red Bulls. (Some have suggested that Red Bulls manager Chris Armas played more conservatively due to the absence of star outside back Kemar Lawrence, but I would guess that Red Bulls were going to defend deeper regardless. Missing Lawrence made the decision easier, but it was still the logical choice with Lawrence in the lineup.)

When you break down the logic, Armas’ decision not to press made sense.

But it didn’t work out, so what went wrong?

  1. To sit deep and counter takes certain skills from players. The most basic would be pace, but also just a general feel for counter attacking. Red Bulls had neither speed in attack nor counter-attacking specialists. So when they won the ball, and they did win the ball in decent spots for counters a few times, they failed to capitalized. They either didn’t attack the open channels or didn’t have numbers in the box.

  2. They didn’t get set pieces in the attacking end. Red Bulls goals usually come from one of three avenues: high pressing, quick transitions, or set pieces. ATL certainly weren’t going to give them chances to win the ball high enough to create easy chances; ATL weren’t going to give them opportunities to win loose balls near midfield to trigger quick transitions; so it pretty much came down to set pieces. And this might have been the biggest miscue of Armas’s calculation. If everything else failed, at least the ball would have pinged around Atlanta’s half more. With the ball bouncing around, there would have been opportunities for fouls and set pieces. Red Bulls, as we saw on the disallowed goal, have the advantage on their attacking set pieces.

  3. The players didn’t play with the same intensity out of the middle and deep blocks as they do while pressing. This is one of the things I think coaches remember the least from their playing days: It’s boring and energy sapping to stand and wait. In a middle block with the line of confrontation near midfield, you’re supposed to chill until the opposition crosses your designated invisible line, and then you lay the wrath of 1,000 men on them. But it’s tough to go from “wait” to “kill” in a matter of seconds. Two of Atlanta’s three goals came from beating Red Bulls on loose balls. The whole point of what Red Bulls do is that they win those loose balls. But Red Bulls got bullied by Atlanta all over the field on Sunday and it’s related to the choice to sit in a middle block.

  4. It’s difficult to change muscle memory, even if the change is logical. This is the biggest point about going away from your identity for a big game. It’s tough to learn something new in a short amount of time. The Red Bulls didn’t look as decisive in their play. The Red Bulls have been working on this setup since Armas took over, so it’s not as if the manager tossed it on them at the last second -- this isn’t a Jurgen Klinsmann vs. Mexico scenario. But it’s still not something they’ve perfected, and it’s always a risk to use something you haven’t clearly tested in big moments. I broke down in the postgame show at the 24:00 mark why that mattered in Atlanta’s first goal:

Remember, Armas was playing a phenomenal team on the road. There wasn’t a perfect answer. What puts his players in the better position? The system that doesn’t suit them as well, or the system that’s clearly at a disadvantage given the likely flow of the game?

I’m 90% sure if he had lost this series using the high press, everyone would have called him naive (you’ve already lost in the playoffs four times using that, how could you not have learned!).

This wasn’t about going against their identity or playing defensive. Armas set his team up the way the situation dictated. It didn’t work out for Red Bulls, but Armas’ didn’t make a bad decision. He used sound logic. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. That’s the misery - and the beauty - of this game.

Earth Day!

It's Earth Day, so I want to share a thought. The environment is fucked and the future will look different than the present because of it. Weather patterns will be different, coastlines will be gone, and food supplies will be skewed. We all contributed, knowingly or not, and I decided a few years ago that I wanted to do something to make up for it. In lieu of forfeiting everything, I decided four years ago to stop eating land animals. There are other reasons to stop eating meat, but I made mine to decrease my negative impact on the environment. 

The food production process of making food from cows, pigs, and chickens has negative consequences on the Earth. The methane from the poop, the fertilizers used to produce the feed, and the tree clearing to create grazing space all take a toll. I'm not here to convince you of those things; at this point you either know it and believe it or you don't. Rather, I want to mention how easy it's been to stop eating meat. 

When I mention it, everyone says "I really like that I idea but I could never do it." I don't correct them - to each his own. But for what it's worth, in case you are reading this, giving up meat was the easier major life decision I've ever made. 

It goes like this: you just stop doing it. You'll never be at a loss for what to eat or cook. Every restaurant has an option that doesn't include land animals. There are gazillions of incredibly good recipes that don't involve meat. You eat just as many things and just as many delicious meals as before you made the change. Yes, you miss out on some things you used to love. I loved cheeseburgers and miss them. But I've learned dozens of incredible new meals that I never would have. And it turns out that there are some pretty good non-meat burger options. 

Quite simply, you go from being a person who eats meat to a person who doesn't, and you feel a little better about who you are as a person and your contribution to society. Just as long as you aren't a tool about it and bring it up in every conversation (only the occasional blog post).

Anyway, if you've been wanting to do something for the environment, or wanting to do something with your diet, it's not that hard. I promise. I'm weak at almost everything in life but this has been simple. Just make the decision and do it. 

Reframing the Pay-to-Play conversation

American soccer has a lot of decisions to make in the coming years. Perhaps it will decide to stay the course, an act that has become a decision in itself amidst mounting pressure to change. I’m not sure what the right answers will be, but I worry we aren’t approaching them properly. Before we can make intelligent decisions, we need to frame the questions the right way. When we truly grasp the depth of the questions, then we can start to find good answers. One topic that’s on everyone’s mind and that just doesn't feel right to me right is “pay-to-play.”

The present system has clearly failed a large chunk of potential players. The current model that often requires thousands of dollars to play competitive soccer obviously omits a big swath of the American population. We skip over kids who cannot afford the costs. American soccer fans can only wonder how good all of those players could have become.

But we need to remember: those players we missed aren’t commodities, they are kids. We haven’t failed the American soccer system, we have failed the children. We keep talking about how much these kids could help our national team. What about how much we could help these kids? It’s not a missed opportunity to improve American soccer, it’s a missed opportunity to provide a human being with an opportunity to chase a dream.

It's a problem pervasive throughout American society. We don't have an issue unique to soccer. We have an American issue that finally hits many of us in our home because it relates to soccer.

I realize some people only think of change in terms of revenue. Perhaps it's productive to discuss human equality and the American dream in terms of the bottom line and the potential returns on investment. I'd like to think our American soccer society is bigger than those people.

Return of investment is the wrong way to discuss soccer or kids. We shouldn't find a way to change the pay-for-play system in American soccer because it helps US Soccer qualify for a World Cup. We should find a way to change the pay-for-play system because it's at the core of the ethos our country.

When we talk about pay-for-play, let's frame the question to make sure it's about the kids, creating opportunity, and living in a society we believe in, not what the kids can do for us.

I don't have an answer on how to fix the current system. But the way we are approaching it right now feels wrong. We shouldn't talk about the system in relation to our path toward a World Cup victory; we have more at stake than that. 

I'm a sucker for the idea of creating a larger purpose to ideas, but it seems that when we start to think about the questions with a deeper set of intentions we will start to find the true soul of American soccer that we have been searching for. Maybe then the answers will start to become more clear.

Backyard play

A lot will be said in the upcoming days, weeks, and years about how American soccer can improve. It's all a very important conversation, but at the same time, it also all deters from the most important point. The best thing our country can do to develop better players is to create a culture of playing soccer in the backyard. A player can only develop so much on the training field. The truest, deepest forms of connection with a soccer ball come in the moments of random play at recess, on the street, and in the backyard.

As a kid, my brother Andy and I would play a game called one-touch in our backyard. We would put two 5x4 (or something like that) goals about 20 yards apart. We would go to the local supermarket and buy a rubber ball you get in the big container in the paper towel aisle. Each player gets one touch of the ball in a row at all times. If the other player shoots it off you, that's your touch, and the other person gets to kick again. I LOVED playing one-touch with Andy. They are some of the happiest memories of my life, and helped develop my love for the game (and helped hone my technical skills, but I'll save that story for another day).

So I ask, what games did you play as a kid in the backyard? What games do you play with your children? Get in the Comments section and let everyone know.

Share, so other people can then take them into their own lives. The more we get people playing in the yard, the better our soccer culture will become.


Mike Foss: "We play a lot of 'Sweep the Leg.' My dad let me foul my brother on the backyard 1:1 all the time. He's so much more composed on the ball than I was."

@PhilSoc8: "Wall ball. Very fortunate to have had long side of garage abutting our yard."

Brian Straus: Growing up with a long flat driveway + garage doors with big square windows = years of forfeited allowance."

Andrew Wiebe: "I paid for replacement parts on the grill I used as a crossing/shooting target."

R.P. Kirtland: "I lived out in the country, no real friends around to play with. Used a field to practice hitting long balls in shin high grass."

Alex Rendon: "RIP light fixture above garage door"

John Tzanis: "some fast, one time passing games, you lose a point if your pass is off or can't return with one timer.. and this"

Erichir Por Larryson: "We played Muff. Muff is like HORSE...juggle as a group error = letter. Loser who gets to HORSE first bends over in goal while everyone takes shots from top of box or arc. If you hit or touch loser in goal...move up 5 yards and go again. Goal box was limit thou. Crafty players started with simple pass. Save the blast of a shot when you get to the 6. Letters assigned by vote...no letting ball fall when you could have saved another."

@MaxLegroom: "An incredible concrete retaining wall."

Phil Anaya: "We played a lot on the tennis courts (one side of the court)...made a goal and called it “the cage.” Allowed us to play after dark"

Cosas Buenas: "Wall pass any and everything available. Chimney, Horseshoe backstop, curbs. Having a hyper, ball obsessed dog helped dribbling, speed, megs"

Jordan Rickard: "I do soccer Monday’s with my kids (4 & 7). We play 1v1v1 with one goal you can score on from either side. 1 pt for a goal, 1 pt for a save."

Jason Anderson: "Spent a lot of time on target practice on the basketball court behind my house. Aiming at spots on backboard, trying to lob thru hoop, etc"

David Sansun: "Cuppies. Large group, one in goal, rest pair up, all vs all knockout tournament with last to score dropping out each round."

James: "Play all the time in our living room (call it the cage). 1v1 (w 3rd kid as goalie) using couch as goal. Also play a meg game. Pts for megs."

@FMLogos_rocheyb: "Keep-me-ups - 819 was my record (still is!)"

@Meiji_Q: "Soccer tennis"

Ethan Zombek: "my driveway was steep so it was a lot of kick it up and watch it roll back down"

Braxton King: "We played (still do) a ton of "soccer volleyball." At home it was with a net, but camping we'd use ropes and towels/shirts. Could play everywhere."

Liz: "Spray painted targets on both sides of the inside of the garage to practice passing, receiving, and turning on rainy days. (Sorry Mom and Dad!)

Joel Petterson: "Trampball: one goalie on the trampoline trying to stop everyone else from heading/volleying the ball onto the trampoline mat." editor's note... Joel, this sounds like a horrible idea. Kids, do not try this at home! 

Mike: "Soccer tennis and 2v2 with shirts as goal markers.

Timmy: "2 touch. 1 GK, 1 shooter. GK kicks ball to shooter who has 1 touch to settle and 1 to shoot. Best out of 10. Then switch positions."

Kristan Heneage: "A game called 14-12. One person goes in goal, and the rest of the players go into the field. So everyone who starts the game outfield gets 12 points, and the goalkeeper gets 14. If you miss with a header/volley or its caught, you become the goalkeeper. Every time you are in the goal as goalie and you concede a volley you lose one point from your total, a header you lose two points. Once you lose all of your points, you are eliminated. Whoever is left at the end wins."

Ted Mechtenberg: "1986 - me and my two brothers played “world cup.” Converted old swing set into a goal. It was 1v1 with a goalie so all 3 of us could play."

@bdsmokey: "Barefoot backyard 1v1 with my little bro with a small beach ball. Crazy swerve, but we mastered it. Chain link posts for goals"

Rob Lepley: "We used to play a soccer version of hand ball against the the garage door."

Dan Hales: "No keeper 3v3, circular, flattened pop can as the ball, shopping basket as a net. Headers, vollies n speahies 1pt for head, 2 for volley, 3 for a special GK judges whether spesh or not."