USMNT Tactical Approaches: The Three-Man Back Line
Gregg Berhalter has now been in charge of the USMNT for more than two and a half years, and in that time we have seen multiple changes and stylistic difference (and a global pandemic). Going into the penultimate stage of the World Cup cycle, fans can still not be entirely sure what the camps, rosters, and approach will look like. Gregg Berhalter is a Dutch-influence coached through and through — he loves the 4–3–3. While the formation has been extremely consistent, the moving parts and players have been all over the place.
Gregg has revealed himself to be a fan of building flexibility by utilizing different and often contrasting roles in a similar framework. I’m not going to get into a depth chart of who is or is not “better” at each role — I certainly won’t be able to top this. Instead, I want to look at the key choices Gregg has made in terms of player roles and the impact they’ve had on the field, and what we might see in qualifying.
For any player stats in the series, I will only pull from games where the opponent’s ELO rating was above 1600. Anything below that is not really instructive for how the team wants to play as there is no real resistance. For reference, Jamaica is currently at an ELO rating of 1601, so we’ll call it the Sub Jamaica Line.
The Three Back System — A Brief History
Gregg Berhalter has used a 3 man back line to start a game exactly three times in his tenure as USMNT head coach. Every other time he has used a simple pairing of a more talented defender in possession (John Brooks the most common of these) and a more athletic defender to pair with them (until the Nations League semifinals, either Matt Miazga or Aaron Long started every game here). It’s the Dutch influence that’s hard to shake — you run a 4–3–3 and you like it.
The 3 CB debut was the 6/5/2019 game against Jamaica, which the USA lost 1–0. Here’s the pass map from that game courtesy of MLSsoccer.com:
The lineup featured Ream at LCB, Omar Gonzalez as the center CB, and Miazga on the right. Antonee Robinson and Paul Arriola were the wingbacks, but were so advanced they were part of the forward line.
This game was a complete disaster — the USA was outshot 13–5 despite holding on to the vast bulk of possession. It was obviously an experimental lineup, as Berhalter was still early in his tenure. Pairing Jackson Yueill and Wil Trapp in midfield was a massive blunder, and using them to shield Omar Gonzalez even more so. It also set Djordje Mihailovic’s USMNT career back in a significant way.
Berhalter would take another crack at the 3 CB approach against Northern Ireland on March 28th, 2021 and come out with a 2–1 victory:
This game went better, as Miazga settled in as a sweeper in the central CB position and was not relied on to distribute in the same way. Tim Ream took the role of primary distributor and the midfield of Kellyn Acosta and Yunus Musah was less possession focused than the previous iteration of Trapp and Yueill. The USA struggled to find quality shots in this game, but that was a function of Northern Ireland’s deep block.
Antonee Robinson returned as the wing back with Dest on the other side, but one of the issues in this game is that possession would often break down with the two. Robinson is a good player to stretch the field and a capable defender, but it is obvious he lacks something in possession.
The most recent match featuring a 3 CB lineup came against Martinique in the Gold Cup on July 15th, 2021. The USA won comfortably, 6–1, but Martinique was a truly terrible opponent (1401 ELO):
This match also featured the long awaited debut of James Sands as a starter. Sands was less of a sweeper than Miazga against NIR; while he dropped deeper in possession he would push up further to disrupt attacks when the ball was lost.
The key factor in this back 3 is the freedom that Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman had to push up in possession. Both are capable carrying the ball, and by provoking pressure they would open up spaces that attackers could exploit. Whether the CBs delivered the pass or found Busio who could do the same, the ball progression was much more effective in this lineup than others.
Zimmerman’s injury in this match and the general ineffectiveness of Donovan Pines as a backup meant that the 3 CB formation did not make another appearance in the tournament, but the potential has many USMNT fans excited to see it make a return.
The Advantages of the Back 3
What does the 3 back system offer that the traditional 4 player back line does not? It’s important to understand the tradeoff of adding a 3rd CB to understand the advantages. I’ll treat Sands as the archetypical center CB here as he’s the most recent player and he’s the best fit skill wise for the role.
The position that will most likely be dropped in order to facilitate a 3 man back line is the deepest lying midfielder. Berhalter has used a couple different types of players here; the distributive “Quarterback” style 6s (Trapp, Yueill) and the ground covering defensive types (Tyler Adams).
In possession, the distributive 6s have had the tendency of being marked out of the game. This was a major problem in Olympic qualifying, where Yueill was shadowed constantly and the CBs had difficulty adapting. If an opponent man marks Sands, it opens spaces for the outside CBs to drive into space which has cascading effects as the defense must choose how to pressure the ball and cover passing options.
This only works because Sands can effectively cover the spaces behind his CB partners. If the CBs drive forward while Yueill or Trapp is in the center of the field, now a turnover can mean disaster as the 6 is up against a faster, stronger forward.
If the opponent chooses not to man mark Sands, he has the ability to move the ball forward himself. He was not as reliable in possession as Robinson or Zimmerman, but it is an area where he is growing.
Out of possession, a center CB can either drop deep behind the other CBs to sweep up dangerous attacks, or function as a stopper to break up counters in opponents territory before they can gain momentum. Sands’ imposing physical play and experience as a defensive midfielder help him in this area.
The Three Man Back Line in Qualifying
Is it worthwhile to play a 3 CB formation in qualifying? I would think so. It’s a different look that offers more defensive solidity without sacrificing too much in the way of possession. It takes a special group of players — Omar Gonzalez, Wil Trapp, and Jackson Yueill aren’t it.
Sands can sit on the bench against teams that can go toe to toe with the USA and this formation can be used in the second or third qualifying game when there is more heavy rotation. When the USA is forced to play defensively, having an aggressive defender can cause teams more issues in working the ball around the top of the box. It doesn’t require a huge roster shakeup to fit the necessary players.
Sands appears to be the front runner at the CCB position, but who else could work in that role? Erik Palmer Brown has similar positional experience as both a DM and CB, and currently does not have much to do buried on the Manchester City depth chart. Matt Miazga has the flexibility to work in this role and has done it before, but as a sweeper.
For players with little NT experience who might find a way in CCB, Chris Durkin has played a variety of roles in Belgium and can play on the front foot. His shakiness in possession that most remember from the U20 World Cup has improved and would be less of an issue in a central CB role. Mauricio Pineda has experience at both CB and DM for the Chicago Fire and has the necessary athleticism to fit here. While he underwhelmed in Olympic qualifying, he also was not put in the best position to succeed.