- U.S. men's national team camp is still missing two key elements, and Gregg Berhalter's group features a wide array of experienced and inexperienced talent, but the manager is finding a way to fit it all together entering his first official competition.
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — As practice concluded on a sunny Tuesday afternoon at the US Naval Academy, some players headed straight for the locker room while others took a detour through the Glenn Warner Soccer Facility atrium, where reporters and U.S. Soccer staffers were clustered around a tablet watching the end of the USA-France game at the U-20 World Cup.
The small crowd grew as the Americans took a late lead. Among those watching at Navy was striker Josh Sargent. He’s young enough to be in Poland with the U-20s but is here with the senior squad instead. He stood next to 21-year-old Cameron Carter-Vickers, an England-born defender. Wil Trapp, a 26-year-old MLS star now entering his prime—but whose international career consists only of friendlies—was watching. So were Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. Each is a veteran of multiple World Cups.
It was a reminder of how compelling tournament soccer can be, and how new and diverse this senior U.S. team is. It’s comprised of players green or seasoned, proven or internationally unestablished, all trying to come together under a coach with only four friendlies under his belt.
Gregg Berhalter’s effort to get the USA ready for its own summer competition, the Concacaf Gold Cup, requires a bit of unique player pool management. It’s been nothing but exhibitions and waiting for 20 months. There’s been turnover, evolution and atrophy, and a new era that took forever to get started finally begins to take shape with Wednesday’s friendly against Jamaica.
Berhalter (who was watching the U-20s, too) opened this pre-tournament camp more than a week ago, but players have come and gone as he continues to assess the talent pool while narrowing down his Gold Cup roster. Some, like Bradley and Altidore, arrived over the past couple days. Sebastian Lletget was hurt over the weekend. Christian Pulisic won’t get in until Thursday—the day the Gold Cup squad is announced—and Tyler Adams won’t join the team until June 11.
Amid that churn, Berhalter has the Jamaica game at D.C. United’s Audi Field and then Sunday’s meeting with Venezuela in Cincinnati to get his group Gold Cup-ready. The USA is the reigning champ and will be targeting a seventh continental title knowing that rival Mexico is undermanned. The Americans are a lot closer to full strength, but have a new team with a new coach trying to figure out how all the pieces fit.
“It’s a little tricky right now because of where we’re at,” Trapp said Tuesday. “Guys that played over the weekend are just rolling in. Guys that play overseas are getting fit again … So it’s an interesting time in terms of getting everyone on the same page. But for the most part the way the staff approaches it, is so professional, so organized, and every time we step on the field, no matter who’s on the field, we’ll be prepared.”
Berhalter is nothing if not thorough. He goes into considerable detail when discussing his approach and the team’s preferred style of play, and that’s with the press and public. Imagine how meticulous he is behind closed doors.
“He does a good job of being extremely open with what he wants,” said Bradley, who’s now played under five USA managers.
Consider Berhalter’s responses to questions about how he’s going to handle the absence of Pulisic and Adams, two players whose presence usually has a significant tactical and technical impact on the team. How do you prepare to play a Gold Cup with Pulisic and Adams, without Pulisic and Adams?
“It’s a system game that we play. Christian has a role in the system, and he may be able to execute his role better than others. But others can fit into the system as well,” Berhalter said.
Players are getting comfortable with that system at different rates—Pulisic has played twice for Berhalter—but they’re getting a consistent message. So Berhalter believes the team can move forward in other areas as it waits for Pulisic and Adams.
“We know in a tournament format that the games come very quick, one after another, and we know there’s a lot of travel associated with it,” Berhalter said. “So we know we need other guys to step up, and this gives other guys an opportunity to get fit, to be involved in our system, and to play.”
Each position is best filled by a player with a particular profile. Speaking of the two hybrid No. 10s he often deploys behind a striker and ahead of a defensive midfielder, Berhalter said, “Offensively, they operate pretty similarly in terms of, we want them in the pocket. We want them turning. We want them activating the winger. I think with Christian, he has the freedom to interchange with the winger. The winger can come in the pocket and [Pulisic] can be isolated wide because that’s his skill set.
“That’s offensively. Defensively, one of them we ask to step up with the striker to defend, and the other we ask to drop next to the defensive midfielder,” he said.
Lletget (if healthy) and Djordje Mihailovic fit the “Pulisic” No. 10 profile, Berhalter said, while Cristian Roldan fits the more conservative No. 10 profile. Weston McKennie or even Duane Holmes, an uncapped midfielder from Derby County, can do either. By determining the roles and positions for which players are most suited, Berhalter can keep his team on a similar footing to what he hopes to see during the Gold Cup even in the absence of a focal point like Pulisic.
And that’s why he wanted to play Jamaica, which has advanced to and then lost the past two Gold Cup finals.
“They’re a very talented team, a very physical team [that] poses a lot of threats in offensive transition and has very talented players,” Berhalter said. “It’s an experienced group. This is going to be a good test for us. We will face opponents like this in the Gold Cup, and it’s good for us to get a test.”
The USA kicks off the Gold Cup on June 18 against Guyana. Berhalter said most roster spots are filled, but that “a few positions that are up for grabs” likely will be decided by what happens at Audi Field. Then the 23 men remaining, young and old, new and experienced, will fine-tune their plans to finally play games that matter instead of just watching them.