On Sunday, Seattle Sounders FC midfielder Cristian Roldan made his first start for the U.S. men’s national team under new Head Coach Gregg Berhalter. Operating in a No. 10/8 hybrid role, Roldan completed 92 percent of his 61 pass attempts, tallied two interceptions and recovered possession eight times.
Roldan's chalkboard from the match, including successful passes (green lines), interceptions (blue), possession recoveries (orange) and key passes (yellow)
When Berhalter was announced as the new USMNT coach, there was plenty of speculation about how his possession-oriented system with Columbus Crew SC would translate to the international level. Would the No. 6 split the center backs, allowing the outside backs to push high and provide width? Would he overload possession on one flank before switching the point of attack? Would there be a No. 10, tasked with the creative impetus?
While he was hesitant to divulge too much information in his media appearances, Berhalter made one thing clear: the formation and specific tactics may differ based on the opponent, but the core principles would remain the same. That was on full display on Sunday as the USMNT trounced Panama 3-0 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
The USMNT's typical buildout shape in the 3-0 win over Panama
Berhalter achieved one of those principles, creating numerical advantages in the buildout phase, by tucking left back Daniel Lovitz inside as a third center back and shifting right back Nick Lima to a central midfield spot, alongside the dedicated No. 6, Michael Bradley. With the pair sitting at the base of midfield, it created several passing lanes for the U.S. to break the lines, enabling Djordje Mihailovic and Roldan to occupy advanced pockets of space, where they could receive the ball on the half-turn and drive at Panama’s back line.
While Mihailovic and Roldan ostensibly lined up as dual No. 10s, the team employed the strategy of creating numerical overloads on one flank after the first phase of buildup. When one of the two attacking midfielders floated to one side, the other camped out in Zone 14, the central area just outside the 18-year-box. In the above example, Roldan drifted to the right side before driving a perfect ball for his midfield counterpart to strike in stride.
As you can see in the clip above, Roldan once again stationed himself on the right, receiving the ball between the lines twice before splitting two defenders with a long switch to Jeremy Ebobisse, whose cross to Gyasi Zardes led to one of the best chances of the half.
In the clip above, Roldan’s understanding of the game cues in Berhalter’s system led to several chances where he facilitated the unbalancing of Panama’s defensive shape before whipping in excellent service. While Mihailovic and Lima got in each other’s way in this instance, the play eventually led to another close-range chance for Zardes.
The above GIF perfectly depicts Roldan’s understanding of spacing and game cues in the buildout phase. After winning possession, he checks both shoulders and backpedals into a dangerous pocket of space, where he receives the ball on the half-turn.
The downside of playing a rigid possession system is that the carefully orchestrated patterns can become predictable. But Roldan’s relentless defensive pressure and technical acumen led to the midfielder launching several transition plays. As you can see in the clip above, he won possession for his team before releasing Corey Baird into space.
While the level of the opponent must be taken into consideration, Roldan’s all-action display in his first start under Berhalter portends a bright future for both club and country.