Towards the end of 2020, one would think that the manager of the US men’s national team, Gregg Berhalter, could take a rest.
In the last game of the team of the year, his US team scored a 6-0 win over El Salvador. That was a 6-2 win over Panama last month. On Wednesday night he was able to debut another five players, which meant a total of 34 debuts in his first 22 responsible games.
One of those debutants, Chris Mueller, was the second US player in two weeks to score twice on his debut and he also had two assists. Ayo Akinola was another player who made his international debut and scored a goal in the process. Veteran Paul Arriola continued his comeback after a torn ACL by opening the standings, and Brenden Aaronson and Sebastian Lletget also scored.
And yet Berhalter did not want to be carried away.
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“I’m always nervous,” said Berhalter after the game. “It’s part of the job, isn’t it? I believe in the process.
“I believe that if we train the way we do we will be able to perform in the game and the guys showed that tonight. But you don’t want to outdo yourself. It’s an everyday job you do have to do the job every day and hope to get better every day and there we are as a team.
“We now know that none of these results will help us in 2021. [Next year] is a different game. I think the team is confident, but we still have to go out and play the game and every game is different. We will prepare as best we can to put the team in the right position to win these games. “
Berhalter is right to put this game in the right context. This was a team from El Salvador who were playing their first game since January and looked like a group of players who didn’t know their way around. The game was never in doubt after taking a 5-0 lead in the first 28 minutes. About the only time the US goal was threatened was in the 73rd minute when Julian Araujo played an unpredictable pass to El Salvador’s Duston Correa, only to have him shoot straight at US goalkeeper Bill Hamid.
But if there’s any reason for Berhalter to relax over the holidays, it has to do with the depth of his team. The international calendar for the US in 2021 – COVID-19 allowed – is jam-packed. There is a qualification for the late Olympic Games in Tokyo in March, followed by the final of the CONCACAF Nations League in June. The Gold Cup is scheduled to take place in July. If the US can qualify for Tokyo, the Olympics will begin in late July. Then there is the greatest competition of all. World Cup qualifying, which includes some three-game windows, begins in September.
As ESPN TV analyst Taylor Twellman pointed out during the match broadcast, the US will likely need enough players to fill three teams to keep them fresh and not alienate their clubs. And with all the talk of emerging quality at the top of the player pool, if the US is to fight successfully on multiple fronts, that talent has to go deeper than ever. Because of this, it was an encouraging sign that this young US team took control and gave up the game early.
Nobody has done more for the cause of the US team than Müller. At the age of 24, the Orlando City attacker is something of a late bloomer who has advanced through the college ranks of the University of Wisconsin, despite the fact that the US has made use of such players in the past. Mueller set the start for Arriola, adding two goals of his own – the second from a header from Araujo – and could have scored a hat trick just to shove a pass into the center of the box that Akinola was able to finish.
There is a lot of competition given the speed with which young players impress. But for Müller it is a first test that was passed a year ago and should be filled with them.
“I think we still have to be a little careful and careful,” said Berhalter of Müller. “You know, a game that I think won’t get a guy in or out. But it’s a step for Chris, and it was an important step. And I’m really proud of the work he’s done, to get to that point. “
One player taking a step back into the national team is Arriola, who only played one game with D.C. this season due to his aforementioned injury. United played. And as gratifying as his goal was, he has a bigger prize in mind. Arriola is the rare player who has been there for the failed attempt to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and is poised to make a more successful chapter in US football history.
“I’m very excited. I think we’re in a great position,” he said. “I think there is a lot of tough competition. It’s hard to repeat how you go to Azteca in a World Cup qualifier or in Costa Rica or all those other countries. So I still think the killer instinct today [we showed] is a big step for us. “
It has to be one of many.