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How the USMNT concocted its best performance yet under Gregg Berhalter

Gyasi Zardes celebrates his first of two goals in the USMNT's 6-0 rout of Trinidad and Tobago. (Getty)

CLEVELAND — This was not about October 10, 2017. Not about revenge. Not about atonement or ghosts or Couva. What has passed is past.

This – the U.S. men’s national team’s 6-0 rout of Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday – was about the future.

It was the best evidence yet that the USMNT is turning a page. Away from that World Cup qualifying disaster. Toward, in the immediate term, the 2019 Gold Cup knockout stages. But toward, more importantly, a new era unburdened by that infamous night 20 months ago.

The Yanks not only spanked Trinidad. They provided glimpses of what Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT could look like. What it should look like. What it must look like to fully detach itself from the failures of the recent past.

The U.S. tugged Trinidad this way and that

The glimpses initially appeared in the first half. But they were fleeting. The U.S. exerted control. Its tempo was good. Its end product – whether a run or a pass or a finish – wasn’t.

Trinidad defended with man-to-man principles. Fullbacks and center backs often followed forwards into midfield if they checked to the ball. Midfielders tracked their opposite numbers. Sharp movements and one-touch passing, therefore, allowed the U.S. to pull opponents out of position and unlock space. That space, though, was often left unexploited.

(Original video: Fox Sports 1 | Illustration: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

First runs were found. Perhaps a second run played off the first. But there was no coordinated, anticipatory third run. If there was, it was either ignored or a step slow.

(Original video: Fox Sports 1)

The U.S. did, however, come equipped with mechanisms to flummox Trinidad – especially down the attacking left.

Pulisic, Arriola, and interchangeability

Much has been made of Berhalter’s decision to play Pulisic centrally – nominally as a No. 10. But Pulisic’s position, in reality, is somewhere in between “central attacking midfielder” and “winger.” It’s neither/nor, but also either/or.

Pulisic and left winger Paul Arriola have the freedom to interchange in possession. It’s all part of what Berhalter calls “getting Christian in positions where he can change the game.” It is less preplanned movement, more so reacting to triggers and cues and situations. “We have to read when is the right time to do it,” Pulisic said postgame.

“I always tell Christian, it’s whatever he sees,” Arriola explained. “As soon as he goes wide, my job is to come inside. If he stays inside, I’m going out wide. It’s very interchangeable.”

The two – perhaps with the coaching staff’s help – realized this interaction could toy with Trinidad’s man-oriented scheme. “There were a few plays in the first half, I remember specifically, where we got some openings where he came inside and I spread out,” Pulisic recalled postgame. The action opened up alarmingly simple lanes into the final third.

(Original video: Fox Sports 1)

A more advanced version of it nearly got Pulisic in on goal as well.

(Original video: Fox Sports 1 | Illustration: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

Michael Bradley’s pass was a bit too heavy on that occasion. The connection didn’t quite materialize. But the U.S. kept coming, and coming, and coming ... largely because it was outstanding in defensive transition.

The U.S. pressed Trinidad into submission

The U.S. was so domineering, so constantly on the ball in midfield, because it rarely let Trinidad relax or build attacks. The hosts were particularly good immediately after losing possession. Their counterpressing forced hurried clearances. Their defending from the front – their ability to cut down on the time Trinidad had to morph from a defensive shape into an attacking shape – isolated opposing forwards. Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman and others almost invariably won those individual battles when Trinidad launched long. The U.S. won back possession, recycled it, and went back on the attack.

“We asked the guys to be aggressive pressing when we lost the ball,” Berhalter said postgame. “And I think they did that. It’s nice when you have guys at the back that can play 1-vs.-1, and you’re not so worried about it.”

Long confirmed that the press was a point of emphasis in training leading up to the game. And while Trinidad had two counterattacks of note – one in the first half when Tim Ream got too tight to his man, the other in the second half off a corner – “we were pretty comfortable,” Long said.

“The way we play, how we spread out the field, it’s gonna come with some defensive transition moments,” he added. But the vast majority of them resulted in more American control, high up the field:

(Original video: Fox Sports 1)

It wasn’t just the counterpressing, either. Berhalter’s USMNT has often been content to sit in a mid-block without the ball. On Saturday, they chased the ball higher. They cleaned up well behind that first line of confrontation. The third and fourth goals were both fruits of their labor.

(Original video: Fox Sports 1)

The constant pressure also wore on Trinidad. “The first half set up the second half pretty nicely,” Berhalter said. “We wanted to have a high tempo, we wanted to keep them moving. We thought our fitness could have an effect on them.”

And it did. Mental gaffes and switches flipped off were as significant as any other reasons for the fourth-quarter goal rush. But credit the U.S. as well for being ruthless.

Berhalter’s halftime tweak

The U.S. also made a slight tactical adjustment at halftime. Throughout the first 45 minutes, both “dual 10s,” Pulisic and Weston McKennie, pushed high. So did the wingers. So, on occasion, did right back Nick Lima.

(Screenshot: Fox Sports 1)

But that wasn’t conducive to chiseling out space against the man-to-man. It was actually making Trinidad more compact, and constricting meaningful space.

So Berhalter instructed McKennie to drop closer to Bradley, and advised right winger Tyler Boyd to operate in the space McKennie vacated. (Lima still provided both width and verticality up the right.) They pulled opponents with them, and therefore stretched Trinidad’s lines.

(Original video: Yahoo Sports)

The tweak didn’t lead directly to any goals. But it further affirmed the USMNT’s dominance. The second goal deflated Trinidad. The third and the fourth buried the Soca Warriors. And the U.S. had no interest in being merciful.

Other notes and quotes

  • Gyasi Zardes’ first goal – the USMNT’s second – looked an awful lot like an effortless tap-in. And sure, in the end, it was. Sure, Lima’s run and Bradley’s MLS assist were primarily responsible for it. But Zardes’ movement was superb. Watch him start his dart toward the six right when Bradley’s foot clips the ball – before Zardes even knows Lima will be on the end of it, and of course well before he knows Lima will nod it across the face of goal:

  • Here’s Michael Bradley, speaking truth on the U.S. mentality as it rebounded from losses to Jamaica and Venezuela: “We weren’t ready to kill ourselves after the results in the two friendlies, and we’re not ready to anoint ourselves champions of the world just yet either. We understand that there’s still – it’s all relative. This is still a work in progress. We feel good about the work going into it. We feel like we’re on the right path. We feel like we’re building something that can continue to get better and better. But we understand that these are all steps along the way. There’s gonna be good moments. There’s gonna be difficult moments. You take them all in stride, and you continue to grow.”

  • Zack Steffen was Saturday’s captain. (Bradley wore the armband against Guyana on Tuesday.) But Bradley was and is still very much the team’s leader.

  • McKennie didn’t instigate, but did escalate, a second-half scuffle involving multiple players from both teams. He and Daneil Cyrus, who’d provoked a few American players, received yellow cards for it. The USMNT scoring spree began eight minutes later.

  • Here’s Pulisic, when asked about McKennie’s unceasing enthusiasm and zeal: “Except at 8 in the morning, every other time of the day, he has more energy than anyone I’ve ever known. In the morning, don’t talk to him. But after that ...”

  • Pulisic was on corner and free kick duties after Boyd handled most of them on Tuesday.

  • After the opening goal, Long shouted to Pulisic: “That’s you baby! That’s you! F*** yeah!”

  • Long confirmed postgame that he’d never scored with his chest before – at least not as a pro.

  • Pulisic did his best Tobin Heath impression late in the game:

  • Berhalter greeted and enjoyed catching up with a few Columbus-based journalists who’d covered him during his six years with the Crew.

  • The attendance at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland was 23,921 – a little over one-third of the capacity.

USMNT lineup

Back to front, right to left, 4-3-3, with subs in parentheses:

Zack Steffen; Nick Lima (Reggie Cannon), Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Long, Tim Ream; Michael Bradley, Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic; Tyler Boyd (Jordan Morris), Gyasi Zardes (Jozy Altidore), Paul Arriola.

With Altidore still working his way back up to full fitness, the U.S. was unchanged from a 4-0 tournament-opening win over Guyana.

Up next

The U.S. heads to Kansas City to take on Panama on Wednesday. Both teams are on six points, and already through. Both teams will head to Philadelphia after that game for quarterfinals on Sunday, June 30.

The U.S., thanks to its plus-10 goal difference, can win Group D with a draw or a victory. And if Jamaica wins Group C – its tied in pole position on four points – first place would be preferable for the Yanks. (The U.S. will know the final Group C standings when it kicks off on Wednesday.)

But Berhalter hasn’t yet decided how he’ll handle squad rotation. “To be honest, I don’t have experience in that,” he admitted postgame. “This is the first time we’re going through it. So we’re gonna have to figure it out.”

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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