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USMNT lean into set pieces by calling upon soccer’s first set piece coach, Gianni Vio, ahead of Nations League

ARLINGTON, TEXAS — As a group that’s already booked their spot at the 2026 World Cup as one of the tournament’s hosts, the U.S. men’s national team have a lot of time on the clock as they build towards a statement-making performance two-plus years from now. The circumstances lend themselves to a detail-oriented approach, and one of the particulars they have prioritized in recent months is set pieces.

It’s undoubtedly an area of their game the USMNT can improve upon — the team has scored just three goals from set pieces in their 18 matches since the 2022 World Cup, their last scored by Bryan Reynolds in their 6-0 win over Saint Kitts and Nevis during the Concacaf Gold Cup group stage last June. Head coach Gregg Berhalter, who returned to the job last September, identified it as an area of focus as the team prepares for 2026.

The U.S. Soccer Federation also acted swiftly to hire an expert to assist Berhalter — Gianni Vio, the Italian banker who became soccer’s first set piece coach and made a name for himself as a member of Italy’s European Championship-winning coaching staff. Vio later went on to work for Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur and has been with the USMNT since October.

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“We also have a set piece coach who’s been doing it the longest in the world. Gianni Vio is his name,” Berhalter said Wednesday in a press conference ahead of the team’s Concacaf Nations League semifinal against Jamaica (7 p.m. ET, Paramount+). “He’s experienced and now it’s just pulling that all together.”

As a pioneer of the soccer sub-genre, Vio is naturally of the opinion that a lack of focus on set pieces is a missed opportunity for teams, telling The Athletic last year, “Normally, teams will spend nearly two hours per week warming up, but just 10 minutes for set pieces. Considering this is 30 percent of the goals scored, this is a mistake in my opinion.”

He has delivered big results, too. Italy scored three of their 13 goals at the Euros off of set pieces (one off a corner, two from indirect freekicks), while Tottenham led the Premier League with 5.9% of their goals scored from dead-ball situations during the 2022-23 season, the lone season in which Vio was on their books. The intent is clearly to give the USMNT a boost in the category in similar fashion, and Vio’s hiring is only part of Berhalter’s big emphasis on set pieces.

“I don’t think it’s only the work we’re doing in camp,” Berhalter added. “We’re doing work out of camp. We formed a group that was working outside of camp with the players and going over offensive set pieces, getting their ideas working, giving them a lot of responsibility of how do we get better.”

Vio’s work with the USMNT has so far been a slow build — while Italy and Spurs had early success with the set piece specialist, the Americans have yet to enjoy the same. The Italian chalked those results to beginner’s luck in the interview last year, but Berhalter admitted that patience will be a virtue for his side.

“It’s a process, that things aren’t gonna necessarily happen from one game to the next, not that you just flip a switch and you’re a great set piece team,” he said, “but we’re putting in the work and we want to get better and I see the guys. We saw in training today, they were really aggressive on set pieces.”

Full roster available

Berhalter had to make some tinkers to his initial roster because of injuries, calling in Brenden Aaronson and Haji Wright for the injured Luca de la Torre and Josh Sargent, but he has since received good news on the status of the rest of his squad.

Midfielder Tyler Adams is technically available for Thursday’s match, though he only just returned from a long-term hamstring injury last week and may not play a big role as a result. The USMNT have yet to strike a balance in the year the World Cup captain has been away from the team, but there’s a promising up-and-comer in the team’s ranks — Johnny Cardoso. He has taken well to life in Spain since joining La Liga’s Real Betis in the winter and will be eligible for selection after passing a fitness test on Wednesday.

“Johnny arrived last night,” Berhalter said. “We had to get him an MRI in Spain. He had to pass a fitness test today and he will be on the final roster and we’ll just have to see how he continues to progress.”

Otherwise, Berhalter boasts as close to a full-strength squad as he’s had since the 2022 World Cup and is expected to put out a team that performs accordingly with a spot in Sunday’s Nations League final — and the need to prove that the team is progressing under his leadership — on the line.

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