Monday marked a milestone anniversary for U.S. men's national team manager Gregg Berhalter. It was on Jan. 27, 2019, that he oversaw his first match for the team, a 3-0 win over Panama in Arizona and one of two games that put a cap on his first camp as coach.
As his second January camp nears its conclusion, one that involved a last-minute relocation from Qatar to Florida prior to this week's stay in California, there's reason to look back–but even more reason to look forward entering a crucial year for his player pool.
"Looking back at a year's work, one thing for sure is we have a very good understanding of the player pool, understanding the group," Berhalter said on a conference call with media on Monday. "We've looked at a lot of players over the year. We feel like the group has made strides and is more mature.
"It's been a pleasure this January getting the new players involved. Looking back on it, it seems like it's been more than a year."
Berhalter will be kicking off his second year of matches by taking a largely untested group into Saturday's friendly vs. Costa Rica at the L.A. Galaxy's Dignity Health Sports Park. After releasing the likes of Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan back to the Seattle Sounders for the reigning MLS Cup champions' Concacaf Champions League preparations, his 22-man squad has 12 uncapped players.
"Part of the benefit of the January camp is for us to be able to evaluate a completely different group of players," Berhalter said, lauding the "energy and enthusiasm" the younger additions to the squad have brought. "It's been great to work with these players. It's been a productive three weeks.
"To get this test against a physical, tough Costa Rica team will be just what this group needs after three good weeks of training."
Costa Rica, as is always the case with friendlies that fall outside of FIFA international windows, won't be bringing a full-strength team, either. That's not to say it's a complete reserve squad. Among the Ticos making the trip is Marco Ureña, who scored a World Cup qualifying double against the U.S. at Red Bull Arena in the USMNT's futile effort to make it to Russia 2018.
To that end, an encouraging showing, as much as it can in a friendly, will matter, with the match setting the tone for a year that includes Olympic qualifying for a number of the players currently in senior national team camp, the Concacaf Nations League semifinals and the start to 2022 World Cup qualifying.
"I think we have two objectives," Berhalter said. "The first thing is to continue to move our group along, the full national team. The second thing is to be able to evaluate a new group of players. We were able to do that in this camp."
Berhalter said that the "leadership council" that exists at every camp to help make decisions and communicate with staff was made up of Roldan, Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Long, Reggie Cannon and Sean Johnson.
They represent much of the "old guard" that remains. Beyond them, there's the likes of 18-year-old Mexican-American and L.A. Galaxy right back Julian Araujo, who Berhalter said fits the "profile of a very dynamic fullback" and "a student of the game" in an area where there's suddenly depth; 18-year-old Mexican-American forward Ulysses Llanez, who received the green light from Wolfsburg to remain with the team through the end of camp; and 20-year-old Christian Cappis, a central midfielder based in Denmark who could benefit from Roldan's absence.
Without getting into specifics, Berhalter said, "I'd expect there to be young players in the lineup," though the likelihood is bleak for a couple of uncapped players. Minnesota United's 24-year-old left back Chase Gasper missed 10 days of training with a minor injury but is "looking good" to "play a part" in some capacity Saturday, the manager said. Jesus Ferreira, the 19-year-old son of former MLS MVP David Ferreira, recently received his U.S. citizenship, but his FIFA paperwork that would make him eligible to actually play for the U.S. is not yet fully processed. Berhalter said it was "TBD" whether Ferreira, "a young player with a lot of potential," would be cleared in time for Saturday.
It's a big year for all involved: the coach with his first year under his belt, the players eager to carve roles out for both the Olympic qualifying and senior squads and the players whose positions could be under threat if unseated by lesser-experienced options.
Berhalter's first year featured mixed results, with some lows (losses to Venezuela, Jamaica on home soil; two defeats to Mexico including the Gold Cup final; a first loss to Canada in over three decades) and some achievements (reaching the Gold Cup final, ultimately advancing to the Nations League final four). The expectations going forward are more of the latter over a busy and important next year on multiple fronts–especially for the Olympic qualifying group, considering the men haven't reached the Olympics since 2008–all starting with an experimental team and the opportunities that are there for the taking.
"The theme of the whole camp was guys staking their claim, guys looking to improve their situation to get a full grasp of where they fit in the player pool." Berhalter said.
"By and large the group has done well. We're ready to compete now."