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.