For Gregg Berhalter and the US men’s national team, the schedule for 2021 begins with a friendly against Trinidad and Tobago on January 31. After that it is at full speed on several fronts. Indeed, the next 12 months look like a case of “so many competitions, so little time”.
In March, Olympic qualification for a U23 squad begins in Guadalajara, Mexico. In June, the first choice squad will play the final round of the CONCACAF Nations League. In July the Gold Cup and, if qualified, the Olympic Games take place. World Cup qualifying begins in September.
As such, Berhalter has a juggling act as he tries to spread the playing time across all competitions while maintaining the balance between the responsibility of the national team and the club. There are line-up questions too, though the rise of multiple players has alleviated his concerns to some extent.
The US executive sat down with ESPN earlier this month to resolve these and other issues. (This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
– Berhalter calls on young cadres for T&T friendly
– How the USMNT perspectives adapt to life in Europe
– Connelly: The US can make waves in the 2022 World Cup
To a busy year:
ESPN: There are many competitions this year. What are your goals other than to participate in order to win them?
GB: It’s pretty simple when you think of the Nations League and the Gold Cup: we want to be in two finals and hopefully win two finals. We haven’t won a trophy since I trained [the U.S.]. It will be an important step. I think that’s certainly one of our goals. And I think no matter which group is on the field, we still want to fight for a championship and I think that’s the important message. And with qualifying for the World Cup, we want to put ourselves in a good position after these first eight games. We would be more than halfway through and it will be important to us to have a good start and a good World Cup qualification. That is something that is important to this group.
ESPN: In relation to some of these other competitions like the Olympics, Jason Kreis obviously leads that group. How important is it at the Gold Cup to gain international experience for some of the younger elements of the player pool?
GB: It could be important. I think international experience is always important. We just have to see how it works out. When you say younger players, I can imagine that part of that pool of younger players will be in the Olympics, right? And then I can imagine that part of the younger pool is part of the Nations League. I just don’t know who will be available for the Gold Cup. And that’s just something we’re in the planning phase right now, but we don’t know exactly who is going to be involved and that could change for us. But it was also something where we had 45 players in camps or on game day, so we have a wide pool of players to choose from.
ESPN: Obviously, the start of the MLS season is a bit in the air. How much would a delay affect your planning, and how?
GB: I am not so sure. I think the most important thing is that we have a whole group fit by June, at the beginning of summer. We will have friendly matches in March, which will most likely be important in Europe. And we know that we have a large contingent in Europe that we must continue to work with. So it’s not the end of the world. We’ll get along with it. But it will be important that everyone is fit by early June.
When building a team:
ESPN: How do you create depth and hierarchy within the team, beyond people like Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie? Is it really just a matter of impressing in camp?
GB: I think this list is bigger than what you just mentioned. You mentioned two players, I think it’s seven or eight players long. And then it’s all about performance – your weekly performance in their clubs and then your performance with the national team. And then, more precisely, in what form they play. If we have to play a World Cup qualifier and you should choose between two players who are pretty much the same in their qualities, we will certainly look at the club form they are in. I think that’s reasonable to expect.
ESPN: Which parts of the team will we take a closer look at this year? Is there a part of this field where you really want to support yourself?
GB: We always think about, ‘What are the best? [fringe] Guys and who’s back in shape? And we’d love to have this guy, but he’s got a little injury. ‘There are always circumstances, right? So it’s really difficult to plan that far in advance and say, “OK, this is the group we 100% trust” because until you’re on the plane you don’t know. There’s a weekend game and then they go flying and you have no idea what’s going to happen in this game. We feel that the team has adequate depth. I would say the team’s shortcoming in most areas is experience. But that is caught up with talent. And now it’s about gaining this talent experience.
ESPN: How do you see the fight for the central defender? It seems like John Brooks is stuck on one of the points, and then it seems like the other point is wide open.
GB: We need central defenders who can do our game model and play with space behind the backline, who can win duels that can come out of the back. There are many expectations of our center-backs and what we do. I think of the guys who have done a great job so far. And when you talk about Aaron Long or John Brooks or Tim Ream or Chris Richards or Walker Zimmerman or Matt Miazga, I think there is some depth. We have younger people like Mark McKenzie who did well. So I think the final decision again depends somewhat on the form they are in with the clubs and how they develop in some cases. And then based on the opponent and what type of opponent we are playing.
ESPN: The other position that seems pretty wide open is the striker slot. Gyasi Zardes gives you a solid game, but other young people are coming. Jozy Altidore is currently in the warehouse. How did you see the development?
GB: For us, it’s about continuing to watch them, watch them score goals. And when the timing comes, you can choose the right people who can do what we ask. To see a man like Matthew Hoppe score goals for Schalke; It’s nice to see Josh Sargent play all the time. Gyasi had a good season with Columbus who won the championship. Sebastian Soto and Nicholas Gioacchini, Jozy is obviously a real talent; It’s just about staying healthy, being healthy, and then everyone knows what they can do when they are healthy and appear for their club.
ESPN: How far do you see veterans like Michael Bradley, Brad Guzan, Tim Ream, and DeAndre Yedlin? What role do they have to play in the future?
GB: You know, I think I’ve been consistent with my messages since my first takeover. We value veterans very much. We appreciate what they bring. We value your experience. We appreciate how you can help the group. And all of these guys are just about playing and being in shape. And then there can absolutely be a role for them and that is what we are looking for. And I think that’s the benchmark for these guys: do they play and are they in good shape?
About Americans who excel in Europe:
ESPN: What do you think of Matthew Hoppe’s game with Schalke? And what does he give you that may be a little different from some of the other strikers by the pool?
GB: So I have to keep watching him, but it was just an amazing feat [against Hoffenheim]to be a teenager and score a hat trick in the Bundesliga. And for him it’s just the beginning. Now it’s about just continuing to perform. It’s not about one performance, it’s about the next performance and the next performance and the next performance. And I think he has a good attitude and is ready for it. And above all, you help the team. They are in a difficult situation and they know they have to leave the relegation zone.
ESPN: And only in terms of his abilities?
GB: What I saw is really good movement behind the line. I think that’s what interested me in this movement behind your back line. His transition movement was excellent. The timing of it, the awareness of it. At the third goal he had to adapt and use the space there. It was really of a high standard.
ESPN: Much has been written about the moves of Weston McKennie and Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson to Juventus, Barcelona and Fulham. How impressed were you with your ability to step into a new situation and become an important part of the team very quickly?
GB: I think they were prepared for that. They knew it was going to be difficult. It is always difficult and you have to perform. But Weston in particular has just grown to become an integral part of that team, which is great. And Sergiño, he played well and got chances and was able to hold on to that. That was great. And Christian is a top performer for his club. Gio Reyna is doing really well. Tyler Adams is doing well. So it’s really good to see. Our goal is to get players to play and play at the highest possible level every week. When we have that combination, it’s good for the team.
ESPN: In your opinion, what is different about this group that has achieved this than about players in the past?
GB: I think every group is different. I think this group has a lot of talent. To me, this group is a pinnacle of the development system in America, and I think it reflects the investment that comes from it [MLS] Personal responsibility was put into youth development, just as other academies have put into development. The development academy had a lot to do with it. And now one begins to realize that it is a systematic development of the players. This is important for promoting talent.
ESPN: Do you see Christian Pulisic more central, depending on how the team is positioned, or do you see that he has the wing he plays for Chelsea and still has a lot in it?
GB: I think Christian’s best role is when he has the freedom to be flexible because we know he can beat players far, but we also know he can get final passes in the middle. What I can tell you is that it is highly unlikely that we will put him in a position where he only has to do one thing because that is not what his skills are. It’s a game changer that you need to position in order to be able to change the game in a number of areas. I think the areas in which he will be effective will change from game to game depending on your opponent.
ESPN: Regarding Tyler Adams, after the Wales game, he said he was really happy to be the guy sitting in front of the back line. Do you see him play there or could he move a little more?
GB: I think that’s a really good position for him and it is a position where we need to develop him. And keep having conversations with him and talking to him about how to perform that role. But he definitely has a really good profile for the role. He has a number of skills in other areas of the field as well: Really good working speed, really good engine for going up and down the field. So you can see him play in other positions too. But he’s in a good club (RB Leipzig) and it’s nice to see.
About new talent:
ESPN: To what extent does Andrés Perea fit into this role? Do you see him maybe provide some cover for Tyler in this part of the field, or do you see him stand out in another role?
GB: I think this is a good place for him. And another player I should really mention who did really well is Jackson Yueill; [he] has a really good understanding of the position. And I think these guys are all young and powerful players. I think it’s great about Andrés that he’s committed to the United States. He’s a very good player with a lot of potential. He learns very quickly. He’s got a good competitive streak and I think that role will be a good one for him.
ESPN: Who are other dual nationals you would like to bring in?
GB: We would take a close look at any player with an American passport. I mean this is our job. We want talent. And I don’t necessarily bring players with me. It is the program that sells itself. The players want to play with talented players. And I think it’s more a reflection of the talent we have and what our players do attracts a lot of players. I think it’s a great thing. We have a good team. We have good people on the team. And that’s why it is so important for me that you see our environment, because I think that there you see the quality of the people we have, you see the team spirit and you want to be part of it.
ESPN: Is Yunus Musa closer to a decision in this sense?
GB: We were in close contact with Yunus and he is having a good season in Valencia. He’s the guy we hope to have in our program.