Tyler Adams at right-back is a luxury this USMNT can’t afford

The USMNT played Ecuador in what was Gregg Berhalter’s first full dress rehearsal. What did we learn from the lackluster 1-0 win?

Despite the USMNT’s 1-0 victory over Ecuador — thanks to a fortunate deflection on an 81st-minute Gyasi Zardes shot — there wasn’t a whole lot to get excited about in Gregg Berhalter’s first game with a full roster at his disposal.

Perhaps the most concerning takeaway was the failure to involve Tyler Adams, one of the brightest young stars of this new generation, in the run of play. In the few instances Adams got involved in the buildup, there was a clear sense his speed with the ball at his feet, his crisp distribution and clean, tidy touches were attributes the U.S. sorely needed a lot more of. The fact Adams also acquitted himself so well of his defensive duties was a testament to his versatility, not an argument this experiment should continue.

A lot of pre-game analysis was centered around the comparison between the role Adams would be assigned and the play of Philippe Lahm in the latter stage of his career, particularly during Pep Guardiola’s reign at Bayern Munich and Germany’s World Cup run.

However, it’s one thing to tweak the role of an experienced right-back such as Lahm, and quite another to play one of the most talented young midfielders the USMNT have produced out of position, especially when his game and confidence playing for the national team are both very much a work in progress.

Lahm was a 30-year-old surrounded by the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Toni Kroos and Thomas Muller, whose resume as playmakers needed no introduction. More to the point, he was one of the most accomplished full-backs in the history of the game, and his influence on the team was being expanded not contracted.

Adams, in contrast, is a promising 20-year-old whose pace, ball distribution and work rate seem wasted as a traditional right-back, a position he doesn’t feature in for RB Leipzig, his Bundesliga club. The initial hope was that Berhalter’s system would allow Adams to flourish in a hybrid center-mid/right-back role. In reality, Adams was right-back who very occasionally (too occasionally), drifted into defensive midfield.

Berhalter’s formation and tactical system failed to open up the Ecuadorian defense, despite the insistence on drawing opposing defenders out wide and dropping balls into space over the top of the back four. When your most threatening weapon is Will Trapp’s long ball over the top to the incoming runs of Jordan Morris and Paul Arriola — this while some of your best young talents are played out of position — it’s time to stop overthinking your approach.

The other two USMNT stars plying their trade in the Bundesliga — Cristian Pulisic and Weston McKennie — didn’t exactly shine either, possibly because neither was playing the position they play at their club. We’ve seen time and again that Pulisic thrives playing out wide as opposed to being sucked in centrally (as he was on Wednesday night), where his pace with and without the ball at his feet is rendered useless by the limited space at his disposal.

McKennie seemed a bit out of sorts as well, which may or may not be related to the fact he, too, was played out of position.

It’s too early to draw definitive conclusions regarding the long-term success of Berhalter’s system. What’s worrying is how committed he seems to this formation, and the role of certain players in it. The international game doesn’t typically give a manager the time necessary time to successfully transform a player’s role. Berhalter shouldn’t be criticized for having a clear playing philosophy — that’s a positive development from his predecessors — but it’s worth noting the international game, with a few exceptions, lends itself to pragmatism in a way the club game does not.

We should also note that there were a number of individual bright spots, particularly the play of Aaron Long at center-back and solid performances by Morris and  Trapp. However, the end product on a night that saw Adams, Pulisic and McKennie starting together for the first time left more questions than answers with regard to how this new generation of players could maximize their potential.