U.S. men’s national team breaks out a three-man back line, extends unbeaten streak
Gregg Berhalter has spent most of his 28 months as coach of the U.S. men’s national team perfecting a complex pressing, attacking style of play. On Sunday he added a new wrinkle, starting Sunday’s friendly against Northern Ireland by introducing a three-man back line.
But the U.S. didn’t miss a beat, extending its unbeaten streak to nine games with a 2-1 win on a wet and windy night in Belfast. The victory was the Americans’ first over a European team in Europe since 2015 and first ever in the United Kingdom and Ireland. And it came at the end of the team’s final training camp before Nations League semifinals in June, which will kick off a busy summer that will include the CONCACAF Gold Cup and the start of the final round of World Cup qualifying.
For Northern Ireland, the loss left it winless in 12 straight games.
“We think it’s important for us to continue to challenge this group,” Berhalter said of the formation change. “It was a good opportunity to do so tonight.
“There were good parts. But we still have a lot of work to go in the spacing to really hurt the opponent. Overall, I’m proud of the guys, the way they took in that information. I’m also happy the way they executed on it.”
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Playing on a wet and difficult field, Gio Reyna put the U.S. in front to stay in the 30th minute, taking a feed from Tim Ream, dribbling to his right and unleashing a low right-footed shot that struck the foot of defender Ciaron Brown and ricocheted over goalkeeper Conor Hazard and into the net.
It was Reyna’s second goal in four international matches.
Christian Pulisic doubled the lead in the 59th minute, drawing a penalty when he was tripped by defender Danny Ballard in the box, then calming converting the chance for his 15th U.S. goal and first since October 2019. That score also came on a penalty kick.
“He just competed today,” Berhalter said of his captain. “And when he’s in that type of mode, he is just an unbelievable player. It was relentless pressing. He just kept going and going and going. And then he’s so good on the ball. He had an overall really strong performance.
“That’s the next level for Christian. That type of performance all the time. When he does that, the rest speaks for itself.”
The U.S. has outscored its last five opponents 25-4, though none of those teams is in the top 44 in the most recent FIFA world rankings. And the Americans could have had more Sunday. Second-half substitute Daryl Dike, making his second appearance for the national team, had three excellent chances late in the game but failed to convert any of them while a wicked left-footed shot from Sebastian Lletget was swallowed up by Hazard.
That made for a nervy final few minutes after Niall McGinn cut the U.S. lead in half in the 88th minute, rocketing a right-footed shot from a tight angle on the right wing over U.S. keeper Zack Steffen and into the side netting at the far post.
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“I am definitely proud of the guys,” said Pulisic, who found some additional freedom in Berhalter’s formation change. “I think the system looked all right.
“I want to help lead this team in whatever way that is, whether that’s with the captain’s [arm]band or not. I hope I can always lead by example and be one of the hardest workers out there. That’s always going to be my aim. If I do that, I think the guys will see that and do the same.”