The Gregg Berhalter era for the U.S. men's national team officially kicked off on Dec. 2, but his first act of managing begins Monday.
Berhalter and 28 players he has summoned have congregated in Chula Vista, Calif., for the annual January camp, which will end with friendlies against Panama and Costa Rica. The camp is certainly not the most important event on the U.S. men's national team calendar, but given the circumstances around this one, there's a bit more intrigue involved.
It's a chance for Berhalter and his staff–which will include former U.S. forward and Berhalter's Columbus assistant Josh Wolff and another former Columbus colleague in Nico Estevez, according to Yahoo! Sports–to assert their methods from the start and to lay the foundation for the 2022 World Cup cycle. As always, with the camp limited to domestic-based players given where it falls outside of the FIFA fixture dates, the group in uniform is a far cry from the top-tier players Berhalter has at his disposal. There's only so much to glean from a camp and friendlies with players who won't necessarily fit into the big picture. But given that the U.S. is starting with a fresh slate, there's perhaps a bit more at stake for the players looking to make an impression and convince the new coach that they do belong despite their inexperience or past performances.
Here's a closer look at the U.S. team assembled as camp kicks off:
It all starts with the system
Berhalter, in his first comments after the unveiling of the squad, made it clear that players will fit into what he and his staff want to do, and those that don't may find it hard to find themselves in the picture.
"I think the whole roster was built around that," Berhalter said. "We have very clear profiles for what we are looking for in each position and we just filled in players based on our profile. This isn’t a random group of guys assembled. We looked at what we’re going to need to be successful and picked those guys."
Berhalter's tactical approach was a sound one in Columbus, but that doesn't mean it's an apples-to-apples comparison with the players he had there and the players he has now. There's no Federico Higuain in this group–and there really isn't a true likeness in the entirety of the player pool to be honest–and it will take some time for those unaccustomed to the system to figure things out. Berhalter obviously believes in what he is preaching, meaning it's the players who will have to adapt, not the coach.
The center back competition
It's no wonder that Berhalter, a former center back standout in his playing days, stressed the level of competition in central defense. Beyond the players that are not in camp, such as European-based players like John Brooks, Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers, there's an up-and-coming crop of U-20- and MLS-tested defenders eager for their chance. Five center backs–more than 1/6th of the roster–will feature in camp, so Berhalter will get a good look at who can hold his own going forward.
"The issue at center back is that we’re deep if you look across the board. In this particular case, we decided to go with some younger athletes. ... When I look at the center back pool–I mentioned the depth we have and the age they’re at–we start with Tim Ream and go all the way down to (Mark) McKenzie, you’re talking about 31 to 19, so you have a good scope of players there. In this particular case, we chose the younger players to see how they can develop and see how they can get to the level when they’re around more experienced players.”
The relative unknowns
The biggest surprises on the squad are Djordje Mihailovic and Daniel Lovitz, two uncapped players with low profiles. Lovitz, at 27, doesn't particularly have a really long-term future at this level, while Mihailovic, a former U.S. youth player, is 20, though his career has been beset by injuries. When fit, the potential is clearly there:
Their inclusions show that Berhalter is willing to turn over some previously untouched stones, and that, in a vacuum, is a breath of fresh air. Whether those stones will skip or sink is something to monitor over the next few weeks.
Zack Steffen, Wil Trapp and Gyasi Zardes have a leg up on the competition in some respects given that they've played under Berhalter before. All three starred in Columbus under the manager, and they'll undoubtedly be more accustomed to his methods and process.
"I think they’ll help facilitate the learning, but we’re all going to be in this together," Berhalter said, specifically of Trapp and Zardes. "We all have the responsibility of putting the group together. I firmly believe that the more we can work together as a group, obviously the more successful we can be. The teaching and the implementation is going to be everyone’s responsibility. Those guys being familiar with the system will be able to help out.”
Plenty can happen between now and Jan. 27, the three weeks leading into the first match of the Berhalter era. Based on reputation, past performance, positional fit, experience and potential, who figures to have the inside track at starting in Arizona? Presuming Berhalter opts for a 4-2-3-1 that he found success with in Columbus, the leaders before a single ball is kicked look like:
GK: Zack Steffen; LB: Greg Garza; CB: Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman; RB: Reggie Cannon; DM: Wil Trapp, Michael Bradley; AM: Paul Arriola, Sebastian Lletget; Corey Baird; F: Gyasi Zardes
Of course, plenty can–and will–change between now and then. Perhaps Bradley, who has five more caps than the rest of the inexperienced roster does combined, shows he's not worthy of a starting place and cedes to someone like Kellyn Acosta, Cristian Roldan or Russell Canouse. Perhaps Nick Lima or the more seasoned Keegan Rosenberry unseats Cannon, who just recently earned his first senior national team recognition. As Berhalter alluded, there's depth at center back, and neither Long nor Zimmerman is a lock. The uncapped Baird, the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year, benefits from a lack of depth in the wide positions, but maybe NYCFC's Jonathan Lewis, the last addition to the squad, states his case.
The beauty of a blank slate is that preconceived notions and past perceptions mean little with a new leader at the helm.
“I think we can use this opportunity to start the process and set the tone for what this group is going to be like,” Berhalter said. “We’re talking about three things: building a culture within this team, instilling a style of play and competing in everything we do.”
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FULL USMNT JANUARY CAMP SQUAD (Senior National Team Career Caps/Goals)
GOALKEEPERS: Alex Bono (Toronto FC; 1/0), Sean Johnson (New York City FC; 5/0), Tyler Miller (LAFC; 0/0), Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew SC; 6/0)
DEFENDERS: Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas; 2/0), Greg Garza (FC Cincinnati; 10/0), Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake; 0/0), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes; 0/0), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls; 2/0), Daniel Lovitz (Montreal Impact; 0/0), Mark McKenzie (Philadelphia Union; 0/0), Keegan Rosenberry (Colorado Rapids; 0/0), Auston Trusty (Philadelphia Union; 0/0), Walker Zimmerman (LAFC; 4/1)
MIDFIELDERS: Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids; 23/2), Paul Arriola (D.C. United; 17/2), Corey Baird (Real Salt Lake; 0/0), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC; 142/17), Russell Canouse (D.C. United; 0/0), Marky Delgado (Toronto FC; 6/0), Jonathan Lewis (New York City FC; 0/0), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy; 5/1), Djordje Mihailovic (Chicago Fire; 0/0), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders FC; 5/0), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC; 11/0)
FORWARDS: Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers, 0/0), Christian Ramirez (LAFC; 0/0), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew SC; 40/6)