Ahead of Canada vs USA, we break down both team’s tactics, and look forward to some matchups to watch. After a 1st game where tactics proved to play a huge role, there’s a lot to talk about heading into this one, so we’ll look at some of those talking points in this 2 part series.
As the clock continues to tick, preparations are ramping up for Canada versus USA part 2 later next week.
With both teams now announcing their squads, all that’s left now is to play this last weekend’s slate of club games, and then it’s game time. With plenty at stake in this CONCACAF Nations League clash, it’s shaping up to be another one for the ages, with lots on the line for both teams.
After Canada put up a historic victory over their southern neighbours last month in Toronto, the US will now want to return the favour, as the return match takes place down in sunny Orlando. As seen last month, there still remains a lot for Canada to play for, as their World Cup and Nations League hopes both being very much at play depending on the result. To get where they need to be on both fronts, Canada will need at least a draw, while losing would completely open up the table, with goal difference then likely coming into play.
Before the last match, we did an in-depth tactical preview, as we tried to gain an idea of how the game might turn out. With the US having their very defined style, while Canada looked quite unsure of theirs, it was quite the tactical chess match to preview on both sides. With Canada coming out on top in the first outing, as Canada heeded our advice and dominated the midfield battle, it’ll be interesting to see how things match up now in this one.
Will the US try to counter with midfield punches of their own? Will Canada back down on their midfield superiority? Can the US overpower Canada with their wide threats? Will John Herdman set up for 3 points or for 1?
Those are the many questions, and more, that we’ll set out to answer in this two-part series.
Canada came out with a bit of a tactical surprise during the first US game, starting 4 central midfielders in a 4-2-2-2, instead of going with their usual 4-3-3. It surprised many, who were not expecting to see manager John Herdman leave out the likes of Junior Hoilett and Lucas Cavallini, instead deciding to control the middle with his midfield allotment.
It was a move that worked marvellously, as the Americans were unable to get much going in the midfield, which nullified one of their best avenues of attack. Canada made life hard for Weston McKennie and Christian Roldan, closing down the two US #8s at every opportunity, leaving Michael Bradley, the #6, to content himself with playing lateral passes out wide.
For Canada, a similar blueprint should be in order for the return leg, as the style of the game should once again suit a midfield overload, which will make things tough for the Americans. In what should be 20 plus degree Celcius weather, with rain looking to be a real possibility, Canada will be best served in shutting down the supply chain in the midfield once again.
Much like the 1st game, Canada’s success in this game will come down to their play when they don’t have the ball. With the US needing to win to stay alive, they’ll want to push forward, so Canada will have to prepare themselves for an intense American attack.
It’ll mean sticking to the successful principles that Herdman imposed last time out. When Canada didn’t have the ball, they got into a mid-to-low block depending on the transition moment, with all 4 midfielders dropping to help cut supply lines.
Take this picture, as an example. In this sequence, the US is in complete control of the ball, as they look to penetrate the Canadian defensive line. The back 4 is in a compact low block, taking away the front three, while the 4 midfielders drop, in a sort of 3-1, with the 3 taking away the 2 #8s, while the 1 sticks to Michael Bradley. Along with Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies dropping, it didn’t give the Americans much time to breathe when in controlled possession, which is supposed to be their bread and butter.
In this picture, we see much of the same, as Canada’s midfielders once again dropped to support the low block. The US tried to create an overload in the wide area, and Canada countered that by matching their numbers, electing to drop deep to ensure the US wouldn’t be able to exploit that wide area.
They made sure the front 3 and front midfield 2 were well surrounded, and even dropped all 4 midfielders back in a straight line, due to the US full backs pushing forward. To ensure Bradley wouldn’t be able to operate due to that shift, the forwards both instead dropped back, ensuring that the US wouldn’t be able to get anything done through the middle.
With the lack of mobility shown by Bradley, who still had a good game vs Canada, completing over 95% of his passes, it allows Canada to defend like this. With Tyler Adams still out, the US will have to choose between Bradley’s proficient passing along with his speed issues, or go for someone like Will Trapp, who is more athletic but doesn’t offer that same cutting edge going forward.
While Canada was imposing defensively once set up in that low block, the area where the US caused them the most problems was in transition, with DeAndre Yedlin, in particular, having some fun in overlap situations. Along with an in-form Christian Pulisic and Jordan Morris, and the expected competitive debut of Ajax’s Serginho Dest, this will be an area where Canada will have to be at their best.
To do that, tracking back will be a priority. In this clip, Pulisic has the ball, right in the middle of the red Canada square, as Canada had lost possession, forcing them to drop back. They immediately stole the ball, as with everyone getting back smartly, it gave little space for Pulisic to run into. While he had options on his left to play off to, Richie Laryea, Steven Vitoria and Mark Anthony Kaye would have been able to overload them with how smartly they were tracking back, making it tough for the Americans to break.
So in transition, expect Canada’s midfielders to drop back, nullifying that area of the pitch, while the full backs will push out a bit wider, limiting space made by the runs of Morris, Pulisic, Dest and Yedlin. If the US finds superiority in those areas, don’t be surprised if a Davies or David drops down from up top to help out, or if a midfielder shifts out to avoid an overload on the flanks.
Against the US, Canada was at its best in transitions, as they would try to catch the US out after losing possession. With the numbers the Americans often sent forward, it allowed Canada to capitalize on the speed of Jonathan David and Alphonso Davies up front. When that avenue wasn’t available, they were also comfortable in building up slow, with Scott Arfield, Liam Fraser and Jonathan Osorio all doing an excellent job in combining with short passes to suck in defenders and open up space for full backs Kamal Miller and Richie Laryea, as well as Davies and David, to run into.
This time around, plays like this one will have to be their bread and butter, as the US chases the goal they need. In this case, Canada caught the US in transition with their line high up the pitch, creating an opportunity to break. In this case, they capitalized wonderfully, playing 2 passes before sending Davies in behind, with 40 yards to run at goalkeeper Zack Steffen. While they were only denied by a referee who completely missed the mark on his offside call, it was a positive sign of the damage they could do on the break, and it was a sign of things to come.
With an in-form Davies, along with the consistent ‘Iceman’ David, expect Canada to feast in transition play, as the US send men forward. With Dest and Yedlin likely pushing forward to avoid the US getting outnumbered in attack, it will leave moments for Davies and David to run at the two US centre backs, which is a matchup Canada would love to have.
If not, Canada is content with building things up slow, as they like to build up from wide areas, but also showed an ability to play through the middle last time out. This attacking sequence is an example of what they like to do when in controlled possession, as the full backs are really active. With Davies and David alternating between playing off the shoulder (as David is in the case), and in the pocket, (as Davies is), it forces the US to choose between pushing back to nullify the speed, or to push up and deny the space.
With how Canada’s midfield strung the ball around last game, the space isn’t an attractive option, and with Davies, David and Laryea all running at defenders, the speed isn’t exactly fun either. If Canada can find a way to balance their attack to benefit from both, they should have plenty of fun with the US defenders, forcing them to break their defensive line thanks to their unpredictability.
Along with midfield anchor Samuel Piette staying back most of the game, hoping to replicate his Man of the Match performance from last month, Canada should be confident in taking the time to build up the play properly. While the transition game is what will likely bring Canada their success, if they can take the time to string together multiple pass build up sequences, they’ll benefit immensely.
Due to the heat, along with the fatigue of defending, it would wear down the Americans, especially Dest and Yedlin, who would be forced to play off the back foot more than they’d like. If they can capitalize on those transition moments, and find a way to be controlled in possession, they should be able to find the result needed to leave Orlando happy.
The big question: Can they dominate the midfield again?
After finding success against the Americans in their midfield play, will Canada be able to repeat the same? Their squad selection seems to point towards them going in a similar direction, but it’ll now be interesting to see how it holds against a US side that will have had prepared for it. Much like the first game, the midfield battle will likely dictate the game, so how they do in this regard may prove to be the difference between the pain of a loss and the excitement of a victory.
Tactical Player to Watch: Alphonso Davies
The easy honourable mention will go to the midfield, but it’s hard to single one player out, so we’ll go for Davies as our TP to watch. After playing a big role in the last game, expect big things in this one, as he comes in having played a lot more minutes than he did before the last camp. Putting up a regular shift at left back for Bayern Munich, he’s shown an improved defensive mentality, and he can still run the lights out. If he plays in a similar free attacking role as he did last game, watch out.
He will be counted on to drop and use some of that defensive acumen, but when Canada transitions, he’ll be causing nightmares for American defenders. Along with his improved ability to slow the game down and play with the ball at his feet, he should be devastating when alternating between playing off the shoulder of US defenders and dropping into the pockets in between the lines.
*Note, 3 or 4 MLS Players will be dropped, with Jordan Morris, Michael Bradley and Christian Roldan likely to be called in after the conclusion of the MLS Cup, while Jozy Altidore still remains a possibility.
As was expected, the US came out in a 4-3-3, the preferred formation for manager Gregg Berhalter. Offensively, it was a sort of 2-1-4-3, as Bradley sat in the hole, the full backs pushed forward, and the two other midfielders operated in between the forwards and Bradley. Defensively, they went with a 4-4-2, but they didn’t press as fervently as they usually do, operating in a more passive mid-block.
They had good moments within their setups, as they found some joy in the transition game offensively, and had good periods of defensive play on the other end. While the two goals they conceded weren’t exactly banner moments, as they were unable to recover in key transition moments, they still had an overall solid outing on that front.
Where things went south was offensively, as they were unable to break Canada down in possession, only really getting things done when the Canadians pushed up the field. In Orlando, they’ll have to figure out how to do more of the former, as Canada will sit back, making for less of the latter.
The US defended relatively well in the last game, so they’ll have some good principles to look back on in that regard. They did well at keeping the game where they wanted it to go, with their biggest troubles coming in transition, or when Canada got the ball in midfield. When Canada had to build up from the back, they did have some moments where they found a way to get the ball through to the middle, but often the US found a way to block it off.
The US defends in a 4-4-2, with this example being just about a perfect description of how they want to defend. They use their forwards to press and make it hard to play through the middle, while their midfield two sit and anchor the middle.
Along with the wingers, who alternate between tucking in and pushing wide, they try to force teams into areas before pouncing. In this case, they wanted to push the ball towards Laryea, who was in space, as they were in position to quickly close him down. Had Vitoria not played the smart ball across to Cornelius, as he did, the US would have trapped Canada in an ideal defensive position.
When they get a chance to set up, those two blocks of 4 interact well, as the centre backs enjoy sitting in that middle block. They defend well with the ball in front of them, and having the front 2 press and the 4 sit across the middle allows them to do that.
The only instance where the US looked off, and they’ll likely be expected to change that to succeed, was in how their front 2 pressed. In this photo here, they passively pressed once Osorio moved the ball to Vitoria, surprising considering how aggressively they pressed teams like Uruguay and Mexico in September. When they put Derek Cornelius, Steven Vitoria and goalkeeper Milan Borjan under pressure, they were able to force long balls, which played to their advantage with the lack of height they had up front.
So expect the US to press harder, force Canada to play in front of them and try to limit the transition chances. If they can do that, they will be able to give their attackers a chance to go and score the goal they need.
If they don’t, don’t be surprised if Canada feasts, especially if the US gets caught playing a high line to try and create numerical superiority in the attack.
In this game, the US should come out in full force, given a big boost by the form of wingers Pulisic and Morris, while Dest and Yedlin provide danger at full back. Along with Josh Sargent, and the likely midfield of Bradley, Weston McKennie and Christian Roldan, they’ll have the pieces to get things done offensively.
While Canada’s set-up will make life difficult in the midfield, they can still get things done in that area of the pitch, but they’ll need to be creative in order to do so.
Often in the first game, their best chances came from these moments, with Canada pressed high up the pitch. While they were deadly with space, with Michael Bradley doing well to play creator to find his streaking wide players, they shouldn’t count on Canada leaving this space open that often. What they can do, however, is use Bradley’s gravity more. Canada often shadowed him last match, so if the US can find a way to get Bradley in possession, suck in a few players before pitching the ball out wide, they might be able to break down Canada on the flanks.
With Canada likely going midfield heavy once again, it’ll go a long way to find a way to unlock more space in wide areas, which will first mean sucking bodies into the middle. If the US could get their wide players on one side to tuck in and support, giving them numerical superiority to force Canada to send in more players defensively, they could, in turn, open up a switch to the wide players that didn’t tuck in to help on the other side.
Part of what should aid them will be the introduction of Dest, who will give the US a new look over Daniel Lovitz. Lovitz was good enough defensively, only really getting burned in transition, but he did not offer the same dynamism going forward as Dest does. As seen above, Yedlin was pressed all the way up (top of the screen, circled), while Lovitz stayed back, making it easier for Canada to defend. Dest will occupy that space, which will force Canada to either stretch out, or send another man back, which would be to the US’s advantage.
Against a deep-sitting Canada side, having the overlap capacities of Dest and Yedlin should create chances to cross in the box, something they didn’t do much of in the 1st game. If they can find a way to push Canada back and get more low crosses across the box, they’ll find more success than they did with the aerial balls, which were often mopped up by the Canadian defenders.
As seen here, the US will either need to capitalize in transition, or find a way to be better with the ball at their feet. They don’t need to change much from their style of play, but need to instead be more aggressive and combine their use of the midfield and wide areas, shifting Canada into uncomfortable positions. In the last game, they didn’t impose themselves, and it allowed Canada to control the game. Canada wanted the midfield to be shut down, and they got that. It forced the US into wide areas on Canadian terms, making it harder for the US to have success.
So to find joy, the US will need to do what they have shown to do, and that is to control the game. If they want to play diagonals, play through the middle, or have an emphasis on wide play, they need to find a way to force Canada into playing whatever way they desire.
The big question: Will they create enough?
With them needing a win to stay alive, the US will need to score. After getting shut out by the Canadians last outing, that’ll be easier said than done, and it’ll require adjustments from last time out. To beat out Canada’s overload, they’ll have to decide if they’ll strategically decide where to push players forward, or go for more of an everything forward mentality, which both have their positives and negatives. While holding off Canada’s attack won’t be easy, the US will have to do both that and find a way to generate more scoring chances, so it’ll be interesting to see how they cope with that challenge.
Tactical Player to Watch: Christian Pulisic
The easy answer here would be to go with Bradley, the creative hub, but Pulisic may prove to make or break the game. After fizzling out last game, in a performance that was supposedly attributed to an illness as per Gregg Berhalter, Pulisic will need to come up big. After coming into the last camp with a lack of minutes, as he had yet to adjust to Chelsea, he has been in scorching form as of late. With his first EPL hat trick under his belt, as well as good overall paly in both that competition and in the Champions League, he’ll be relied on for a big performance.
He’s dangerous in wide areas, as shown by his ability to beat players 1v1, and he, along with Dest on that left side, will need to break down Canada on the flanks. When not in possession, he’ll also need to tuck in and create havoc, opening up space for Dest on the overlap, and causing defensive matchup havoc for Canada. In the last game, he was too static down that wing, and his predictability led to a quiet performance from him. In Orlando, the US will need him to bring his Chelsea form over, because if not, it could be another frustrating offensive night for him and his team.
The game kicks off in less than a week now, as preparations will rocket up from both sides. With the short turnaround from the start of the international break to the game, it’ll be interesting to see which coach best assimilates their tactical approach in a short amount of time. In Canada’s case, they’ll probably go for a couple of tweaks, but the US may need a bit of a revamped setup, as their predictability proved to be a big part of what killed them up in Canada.
As they do that, we’ll be bringing more content leading up to the game. From more tactical previews, hearing from both sides and looking at what both teams will have to offer, there’ll be a lot to go over ahead of a big matchup between continental rivals.
And with plenty on the line, they’ll be no shortage of things to talk about, so stay tuned.
Part 2 of the tactical preview will be released in the next couple of days.
Cover Photo by: Canada Soccer/Martin Bayzl