Gregg Berhalter has one last chance to lead a Europe-based team in 2020 and that opportunity takes on additional significance given the 2021 schedule
Gregg Berhalter and the United States men’s national team feel the urgency.
Unable to play for most of 2020, the United States is now setting up an absolutely vital 2021 campaign that includes qualifiers for the World Cup, Gold Cup, Olympics, Nations League and U20 World Cup.
It will be a busy year.
And this USMNT is anything but a finished product. For various reasons, Berhalter hasn’t really had his full “A-Team” for over a year, and he may not have that chance before World Cup qualifiers begin.
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This current group is without Christian Pulisic, still the best player on the team, as well as a slew of MLS stars. Most of the A-listers are here, like Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Sergino Dest and, now, Gio Reyna, but there’s still a lot of work to be done and little time to do it.
When the United States kicks off World Cup qualifiers next June, it will likely be the first time Berhalter will see anything like a full squad with players from both MLS and overseas.
And, with so many vital pieces still new to international play, there’s a sense of urgency to develop chemistry and confidence quickly.
This process continues on Monday, when the United States faces a familiar enemy in Panama.
The game will not only serve as a potential World Cup qualifier preview for a team laden with players unfamiliar with CONCACAF’s challenges, but also a last chance for the team’s non-MLS stars to play together before returning. in their clubs for several months.
Berhalter says the US is still aiming to play a game in December, and would likely feature a national team with potentially some European additions, but Monday’s game added significance for a team that is still looking to join.
“When you look at it, when I took over, we’re switching guys left and right,” Berhalter told reporters. “As you approach this moment, you begin to feel the urgency.
“When you think about it, this group won’t [be together] until March again. And then potentially Nations League, dubiously Gold Cup. So basically we’re going to have four more games together after this game. It’s a small number.
“For us it is essential that the boys play together, we put the boys at ease with each other, so this is definitely part of it.”
USMNT’s performance against Wales sparked applause, with Berhalter’s side showing a lot of progress stylistically. The US held the ball and, in the moments when they lost it, they pressed effectively. It was a performance with most of the hallmarks of a team coached by Berhalter.
Apart from one aspect: the objectives.
Despite all these positive aspects, it is difficult to leave 0-0 feeling truly satisfied. There were good times, sure, but good times don’t win games; goals do.
It was a match that only further highlighted a key weakness for the United States: the lack of a number 9.
Most of the positions in the player pool are fairly accounted for, with perhaps a handful of players competing for one or two seats. But the striker’s spot is still very open, with veterans like Jozy Altidore and Gyasi Zardes, as well as young Josh Sargent, watching closely from the outside of this current squad.
After seeing Berhalter choose to play Sebastian Lletget as a false nine against Wales, Sebastian Soto or Nicholas Gioacchini may have a chance to bet on Monday.
But regardless of who is up there, Berhalter says he expects more from everyone in the last third after a fairly tepid offensive effort last time.
“I think there is definitely room for improvement,” Berhalter said. “On the defensive side, I think he was really strong, but when we have a shot on goal in a match, it’s not enough. So, for me, there is a lot of room to improve on the offensive end.
“I talked before the game about stretching the defense and I didn’t think I did it enough. If we play with a false nine, it is imperative that the wings are behind the line and I am not. I think we have enough.
“I just think we can improve, we are focused on the competition to win the game and we want to score goals.”
While Berhalter did not disclose his early forwards, he revealed that Reggie Cannon would start as a right-back. Defender Boavista is a player who is also in the middle of a position battle, with Cannon and Monday’s starter Antonee Robinson competing to start opposite Dest.
Dest is the USMNT’s Swiss Army Knife, capable of starting from both full-back positions, with Cannon competing to start on the right and Robinson on the left.
With these changes come the adjustments, and Berhalter believes that Dest is still adapting to the differences that come with playing on both sides, while he is not the only one who is still learning what is asked of him.
Berhalter’s system is still fairly new for most of these players, who have had a handful, at most, of games under the former head of the Columbus Crew. This means there will be growing problems, especially when it comes to this specific team opening the field with 10 players with no limits.
But, come June, those growing pains won’t be an excuse. Berhalter and the United States only have a few months to iron them out, and with so few games scheduled to do so, Monday’s clash becomes an even more important moment in the evolution of this team.
“One thing I’ve noticed, especially when you’re working with young players or a group that’s just forming, is that you go through different stages of team development,” said Berhalter. “With this group in particular, it’s more of individuals looking for their position within the team. We clearly want to move to a more team-oriented point of view as we move into qualifying.
“It is quite natural what is happening now: a boy wants to enter the field, he wants to make a good impression on the coaching staff, he wants to play really well and focus more on himself. As he gets more comfortable, he now focuses more on teammates. We definitely want to get to that stage by qualifying, because it will be really important. “
He added: “[Monday] it will surely be the last time this group meets this year. And every time we are together, what we emphasize is that we want to compete to win games. “