The surprising strength that makes the USMNT a legit World Cup semifinal threat

DOHA, Qatar — Tyler Adams sank to his knees, and Yunus Musah collapsed onto his butt, then rolled onto his back. Tim Ream roared with every last ounce of energy he had, then keeled over. They and a dozen teammates had all just "suffered," as Adams and Musah said, for 107 minutes at the Al Thumama Stadium on Tuesday night. Some had run more than 21 miles over three World Cup games. They crumbled to Qatari grass because the final whistle on their 1-0 win over Iran had been "such a relief," Musah said. Whereas they'd energized a nation and impressed the world in their first two games, this had been excruciating.

But it also showed once again why this USMNT is a legitimate semifinal threat at the 2022 World Cup: Because, over 300 minutes of soccer here, they’ve been nearly impenetrable.

Their nine most valuable players, per Transfermarkt, are midfielders or attackers. Their biggest weakness heading to Qatar, on paper, was their center backs. And yet, while they struggled to score throughout the group phase, they conceded zero goals from open play. They've kept multiple clean sheets at a World Cup for the first time since the inaugural tournament in 1930.

Their solidity has been built around two man-bun-wearing center backs and a goalkeeper who didn’t earnestly pick up the sport until age 16. But its story is broader. “Defending is a collective entity,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “It takes 11 players.” It takes a ferocious midfield and a tireless front three that, as England manager Gareth Southgate said, “make it so difficult to play through and get at their defense.”

It’s an entire unit brimming with vigor and commitment, and with spare parts in reserve, that will make the U.S. menacing in a World Cup phase where victories no longer require goals. Shutouts and penalties can do the trick.

“We've defended so well throughout the entire World Cup so far,” midfielder Brenden Aaronson said.

And now that they’ve reached the elimination rounds, “from here,” Berhalter said, “anything can happen.”

USMNT continuously puts on the pressure

The eyes of global soccer have scrutinized the USMNT like never before this month, and what trained tacticians have seen and appreciated is how well the U.S. has defended out of multiple formations and in multiple game states.

The Americans have played 4-4-2, 4-3-3 and 5-4-1. They’ve pressed high, dropped low, and sat in between. They’ve devised and executed specific plans for specific opponents, and only Wales scored — on a penalty.

They’ve stifled world-class teams and counter-attacking ones, with and without the ball. In many sports, defending is confined to defenders, or to one end of a field or court; in soccer, it is everybody, all the time, and everywhere.

In first halves against Wales and Iran, for example, the U.S. did much of its defensive work in possession, with over 60% of those games in its control. The Americans circulated the ball, and often “counterpressed” when they lost it — meaning that rather than retreat into a defensive shape, they pounced on the opponent before it could transition into an attacking shape, and therefore stayed on the front foot.

On Tuesday in particular, the USMNT got fullbacks high and pinned back the Iranian wingers. For semi-extended stretches of the first half, Iran had no counterattacking outlet. A defender would win the ball, then immediately lose it, and the U.S. would come again. Pressure accumulated.

The U.S. also emphasizes "rest defense," the positioning of players while in possession to be able to cope with counters when possession is lost. "It's making sure the whole team's organized when we're attacking," center back Cameron Carter-Vickers said Tuesday — so that when Iran tried to break, the U.S. was comfortable.

Adams spoke about it before the Wales game as well. “When we have the ball, we're already thinking about which attackers are a threat, and what poses the biggest threat, the spaces that we need to defend in behind,” he explained. As the defensive midfielder, while teammates are attacking, his head is constantly twitching left and right, glancing over his shoulders, keeping tabs on opponents.

And he is perhaps the single biggest reason for the USMNT’s unyielding defense. He has played every minute of every match, and run 23.5 miles in total, according to FIFA tracking data. He has covered every blade of grass, sprinting at high speeds more than any other player.

“He makes everyone's job a little bit easier, with the amount of ground he covers,” Tim Ream raved. “His energy, his tenacity, his work rate. It's just incredible what he does on a football pitch.”

But Adams, the captain, would be the first to say that this is not about him. It's about him and Turner, Carter-Vickers, Ream, Musah, Weston McKennie, Tim Weah, Josh Sargent, Christian Pulisic, Walker Zimmerman, Sergiño Dest, Antonee Robinson and everybody else who's seen the field.

“I mean, I don't want to give credit to just the defense,” DeAndre Yedlin said when asked specifically about the defenders. “It's the whole team.”

Determined U.S. squad 'looking to go all the way'

Berhalter has said many times that, even for his forwards, defending is an integral part of the job description. It’s why Jesús Ferreira, a “pressing monster,” seemed for a while to be his preferred striker. The striker and wingers trigger the USMNT’s press, and they were critical against England, walling off passing lanes into the English midfielders.

The U.S. midfield, whose athleticism stacks up with any in the world, then bolsters the press. All three of Musah, McKennie and Adams are superb second-ball winners. Musah has covered almost as much ground as Adams, 21.5 miles, despite exiting midway through the second half of the opener.

“They help me get through games,” the 35-year-old Ream said of everybody around him. “And they help me feel young, and feel like I can keep going.”

Ream, in turn, has helped them survive onslaughts after more than a year away from the team. The “grandpa of the group,” as Adams dubbed Ream, “didn't expect to be here, involved in a World Cup,” he admitted. As training camps passed throughout 2022 and call-ups never came, “you kinda start to make peace and accept where things are headed,” he said.

But his form with Fulham in the English Premier League earned him a recall. He arrived just in time to shore up a back line decimated by injuries. He has played every minute in Qatar, and been borderline flawless.

He, like the rest of the USMNT, spent the final 15 minutes of the Iran game under siege. But when he looked around, at what had been the youngest starting lineup of any at this World Cup, “there was a calmness about the team,” Ream said. “There was almost an ease with which we were able to deal with a lot of the situations. Obviously there's gonna be moments where things get a little bit squeaky. But I looked around, and everybody had calm faces on. No one was breathing heavy, with panic in their eyes. Guys came on and did their job brilliantly.”

Berhalter cited “determination, and an extreme amount of effort and resiliency” as other factors.

“That was one of those games,” Adams said, “where you can look to the left, and look to the right, and you got someone that's battling for you.”

Saturday’s match, in the Round of 16 against a Netherlands team similarly strong in defense but faulty in attack, will surely be another one. And if the defensive line continues to hold, there’s no telling how many more there might be.

“We're a team,” Musah said, “that are looking to go all the way.”