EAST HARTFORD, Conn. — Saturday’s match against Germany gave U.S. men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter a chance to try out what he calls his “Plan B” in the U.S. midfield. Otherwise known as: Life Without Tyler Adams.
It’s not the first time the U.S. has had to rummage around in its tactical bag to find a way to compensate for the absence of the injured AFC Bournemouth midfielder. Just last June, the U.S. won the Concacaf Nations League without Adams’ influence. The situation was similar two years prior, with Adams reduced to a late, 37-minute stint in the extra-time win over Mexico in that year’s Nations League final.
But the Americans’ 3-1 defeat to Germany on Saturday gives one pause. Neither Yunus Musah nor Weston McKennie delivered the kind of bite and ground coverage that Adams usually provides in midfield, and the center of the U.S. defense was worse for it. The U.S. was more vulnerable than usual on the counterattack, and there was general ineffectiveness in terms of putting in tackles near the top of the U.S. penalty area.
So a question that has been on the collective mind of the U.S. comes even more into focus: What is the best path forward without the Americans’ World Cup captain?
Adams has spent much of the past seven months on the sideline. A hamstring injury sustained in March of last season with Leeds United first put him out of action, only for him to require surgery in May. Following his offseason move to the Cherries, Adams made his club debut on Sept. 27 in the Carabao Cup match against Stoke City, playing the last 20 minutes. But he suffered a setback in that match, with manager Andoni Iraola telling the Bournemouth Daily Echo that Adams is “going to be out for some time.”
That assessment puts Berhalter in a bit of a bind given how Adams’ skill set is nearly impossible to replicate. It also highlights the reality that while the U.S. established a solid foundation at the last World Cup, building on that performance isn’t straightforward. The form of players fluctuates, as does their health. That said, Berhalter prefers to look at the at the situation in a more positive light.
“It gives us an opportunity to have a Plan B when — and if — Tyler isn’t available and we’ll work through this,” he said on a recent conference call with reporters prior to Saturday’s match against Germany.
Easier said than done.
Adams is one of the most important players on the U.S. men’s national team. His aforementioned range and tackling enable the U.S. to play with a single defensive midfielder, allowing the likes of Musah and McKennie to push further forward in a bid to augment the U.S. attack, and his overall prowess helps snuff out opposition counterattacks. That latter trait could have come in especially handy against Germany, as the U.S. was continually overrun in central positions during a 3-1 loss.
Adams’ stats bear this out. Among Concacaf midfielders who logged at least 500 minutes of playing time during qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, Adams ranked second in tackles per 90 minutes (including stoppage time) at 3.01, fourth in defensive interventions per 90 minutes at 13.15 and second in duels won at 60.8%. He put up similar numbers in the Premier League with Leeds last season, delivering 3.42 tackles per 90 minutes of actual playing time along with 14.12 defensive interventions and a duel-win rate of 57%.
Yes, these numbers are a function of his position, but they also reveal he did his job well. So well, in fact, that his injury is viewed in some quarters as being a primary reason Leeds were relegated to the English Championship. His play at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar drew similar praise.
Now Berhalter has to find an alternative. On Saturday, he opted to drop Musah and McKennie deeper in a double pivot. That, however, is a solution that is rife with issues.
Berhalter noted how in last week’s UEFA Champions League match between AC Milan and Borussia Dortmund, Musah was deployed deeper in midfield, but Musah’s preference to carry the ball out of trouble resulted in some hair-raising moments in which possession was lost in dangerous areas. He had some similar difficulties on Saturday, although not as often.
If Musah really is going to be positioned in a deeper-lying role, he’ll need to come up with a greater variety of solutions than just dribbling out of tough spots. He knows it, too.
“I feel like it’s an area of the field where it’s delicate, so you have to be like, try and play simple,” Musah said on a Zoom call with reporters. “So I have to simplify my game and try to play simple one-, two-touch. Obviously, you’re not in the pockets as you are when you’re playing higher.”
As for McKennie, giving him more defensive responsibility could blunt some of his better attributes, namely his ability to make late runs into the box. He’s also admitted he prefers a role that’s more expansive than playing as a No. 6.
“My favorite role for sure is to play an 8 on both sides of the ball,” he told reporters via Zoom. “I don’t really … I wouldn’t say that I don’t do well, but I am someone that just likes to be free to roam around the field, and I feel like I have a good understanding of the game, a good vision of the game, and I know where I’m needed at certain points and where I’m not.”
The problem is that Gio Reyna, who made his first appearance for the U.S. on Saturday since fracturing his right leg last June, also prefers some freedom. At some point, there needs to be a little less freedom and more positional discipline, something that McKennie has at times struggled with. Berhalter recognized this Saturday, eventually moving Reyna further back to help McKennie and Musah, but to no avail. In the second half, Berhalter subbed in Luca de la Torre for Reyna without much impact, but dropping him deeper just might be worth trying again.
One criticism of the so-called “MMA midfield” of Musa, McKennie and Adams is a general lack of creativity and precision passing. This is an area where De la Torre’s presence could benefit the U.S. team. The downside, however, is that De la Torre is light in terms of the defensive side of the ball. Over parts of two seasons with LaLiga‘s Celta Vigo, De la Torre’s win percentage in terms of tackles, duels and aerials is 27.3%, 31% and 25%, respectively, far below Adams’ numbers of 39.7%, 57% and 63.4%. In terms of defensive interventions, he averages 5.77 per 90 minutes this season, although it’s worth noting that with Celta he’s usually playing higher up the field.
Plenty of eyes will be on Heidenheim midfielder Lennard Maloney, Berhalter’s latest dual-national recruit. His defensive numbers over parts of the past two seasons (33%, 49.4% and 55.4%), which include a title-winning campaign in the 2. Bundesliga, veer closer to Adams, although his passing percentage of just 73.7% will need to improve.
The best fit of all might be Internacional midfielder Johnny Cardoso, who has been tidy on the ball in Brazil’s Serie A (86.1% pass completions in the past three seasons) as well as solid in defense (34%, 51.1% and 57%) in the same time span. However, he hasn’t really caught the eye in the few opportunities he’s had for the U.S. (eight appearances since 2020). He’s currently in camp, and might get more of a shot against Ghana on Tuesday.
There are other options. LAFC‘s Kellyn Acosta has filled in for Adams in the past, but his play has been uneven on those occasions. Other possibilities included Venezia‘s Tanner Tessmann and the Columbus Crew‘s Aidan Morris, both of whom could get some looks with the U.S. Olympic team.
Complicating matters is the question about where to deploy Reyna. Berhalter hasn’t ruled out playing the Dortmund attacker in any number of spots, be it right wing, attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 or as part of a midfield three. If Reyna is used as an attacking midfielder, that will impact the decision as to who plays behind him.
The next opportunity to test out the U.S. team’s midfield options is Tuesday against Ghana, followed by next month’s encounters in the Concacaf Nations League. Based on how the U.S. midfield currently looks, more experimentation is needed.