The USA now has four matches with Gregg Berhalter at the helm under its belt, including two with the full player pool available to him. What have we learned, and what still needs sorting out before the Gold Cup?
Four games into the U.S. men's national team's Gregg Berhalter era, we've started to get some answers.
There's a definite way Berhalter wants the USA to play, but he's not above being pragmatic and adjusting based on the opponent and available personnel, and he's shown the ability to make in-game adjustments as well, as required. The U.S. looked in control in wins over Panama, Costa Rica and Ecuador but was second-best in a draw vs. Chile. Some of that is to be expected during this building process, and while the Chile performance raised flashbacks of old causes for concern, it's worth pointing out that having full control over perceived-to-be-lesser opponents wasn't always a given for U.S. teams in recent years. Whereas there's still plenty of work to be done, there have been clear signs of progress–or at the very least signs of a team buying into the ways of its new coach.
There will be two friendlies prior to the start of the Gold Cup, leaving opportunity for a final dress rehearsal before the first competitive matches under Berhalter's watch.
For all of the questions that have been answered, though, a few more remain open-ended. As the Gold Cup approaches, here are five worth keeping in mind:
What's the preferred center back pairing?
It would appear that there are three candidates to fill two slots. John Brooks, Aaron Long and Matt Miazga are the leaders in that regard, with Omar Gonzalez and Walker Zimmerman further off the pace. Gonzalez got his chance to return to the U.S. lineup for the first time since scoring an own goal on the fateful World Cup qualifying failure night in Trinidad & Tobago, and while he was decent in his distribution (46/50), but both he and Miazga were scattered a bit too much and didn't exactly instill the same level of confidence in the back as their counterparts. The sequence on which Chile scored its goal, for example, was a mess.
It's tough to fully judge Brooks and Long given their performances came against the three weaker sides that the U.S. faced, but it would not be a surprise to see the two of them lining up in the back when the U.S. opens the Gold Cup June 18th in Minnesota. They appear to be the most calm, poised and capable candidates for the job, based on the evidence we've seen so far.
There's still a left back question
When is there not? It's the USA's most time-tested needs area.
Between January camp and the March friendlies, the U.S. has operated with Daniel Lovitz and Tim Ream at left back, but neither screams "surefire international starter," especially against top opposition. For all of Ream's positive qualities, he remains susceptible to the kind of game-changing mistakes that simply can't happen in international competition. The thought of Mexico's wingers challenging down the flanks should make Berhalter consider his options (even if the USA and Mexico haven't faced each other in a Gold Cup since the 2011 final).
The pool behind them isn't exactly overflowing with fresh blood, though. FC Cincinnati's Greg Garza hasn't been fit for either camp under Berhalter so far, but he's begun to get his match legs under him in MLS. Continued strong play with the expansion side would surely force Berhalter's hand to include him come the summer.
What if McKennie can't go?
Weston McKennie is out for "several weeks" with an ankle injury after landing awkwardly during the win over Ecuador. He clearly has Berhalter's admiration and figures to be a fixture in one of the USA's central midfield roles for the foreseeable future, but if "several weeks" turns into "two months," then he's not necessarily going to be ready or match fit to feature this summer.
Would Berhalter then move Tyler Adams, who he has touted as a chief candidate for his right back hybrid role, into the midfield, and risk either changing the tactics or going with someone else in the back? DeAndre Yedlin started in Adams's place vs. Chile, but as more of a traditional defender, not one tasked with the same responsibilities as Adams vs. Ecuador and Nick Lima in the previous camp. If Adams remains the right back of choice, would Cristian Roldan wind up with a starting role? The Seattle Sounders workhorse fared well in January camp and started in what would have been McKennie's spot next to Christian Pulisic vs. Chile.
Where does Altidore fit in?
Jozy Altidore likely would have featured in January camp and this most recent camp had he been healthy, but he's still on the mend from offseason ankle surgery, with just 22 minutes of match time for Toronto FC under his belt. Of course, in that time he's scored a game-winning goal, and if he remains heathy in the next two months, he'll go to the Gold Cup.
Would Berhalter trust him to start right away, though? The manager has a clear affinity for Gyasi Zardes, who is the only player to have started all four matches and who, despite having his wide array of detractors, has made an overall positive impact. The coach and player understand each other well from their time in MLS together, and that trust is hard to replicate. Altidore's production possibilities and vast edge in experience on the international level, though, could tilt the scales his way–and at the very least remove Zardes from "automatic starter" territory.
The U-23 vs. USMNT conundrum
Berhalter has referred to his two camps each as a "slice of time" when alluding to players who were and weren't called in. Among those who were not called in March were winger Tim Weah and forward Josh Sargent, two teenagers who aren't playing regularly with their clubs and appear to be among the leaders of the U-23 side that will try to qualify the U.S. men for their first Olympics in 12 years. There's little doubt they could help the senior team, though, given how their skill sets translate into the style Berhalter has implemented. Will the June and July slice of time alter how Berhalter views their participation? Or will he feel confident enough in winning the Gold Cup without them? That their clubs aren't required to release them for any potential U-23 camp but would have to for the Gold Cup could factor into things as well.