It’s a new year, but not much has changed. The coronavirus shows no signs of abating despite the advent of a vaccine. There’s scandal and chaos at the highest levels of government. And the U.S. men's national team, still incomplete and unable to gather in full, trains under the shadow of it all, saddled with both the honor and complexity of representing the USA in 2020 and now 2021.
In November, when coach Gregg Berhalter convened a camp of players based in European leagues, it marked the national team’s first time together since the pandemic pause and the social justice reckoning sparked by George Floyd’s death. There had been long discussions about what it meant to represent a country in upheaval, especially on a squad that’s so diverse.
Together, they came up with a message and a commitment: “Be The Change.” It was emblazoned on anthem jackets for the friendlies against Wales and Panama, and it was adopted as a sort of team credo. It was not only a call to action. It was a reminder that as an extension of their country, national team players could take it upon themselves to set the example. That credo didn’t expire once they returned to their clubs, Berhalter said Monday, and it remains relevant as the annual January camp kicks off in Bradenton, Fla.
This is a different group of players, just like the December camp in South Florida was a different group players. It’s been 14 months since Berhalter had access to his entire player pool at once, and that pool now looks quite different. This time, he’s invited 12 senior-squad players based at MLS clubs along with 27 candidates for the U.S. U-23 national team that’ll contest the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament in March. In the meantime, they’ll all keep one eye on the friendly that’ll conclude the camp at the end of the month. An announcement—the opponent is likely to be Serbia—is expected in the coming days.
It’s a complex setup for a complex time, both on the soccer calendar and in real life. Berhalter and his players are thinking about representing the USA at the Olympics, the Concacaf Nations League finals, the Gold Cup and in World Cup qualifying, and they’re also thinking about representing a country that’s just experienced a contested presidential election and the shocking assault and riot at the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
When addressing the issue Monday, Berhalter stressed the importance of continuing the conversations and commitment that started last fall.
“I think there is a conversation to be had. We haven’t had it yet. But I think [like] with anything, our efforts don’t stop when the year ticks over. The efforts need to be consistent and they need to keep going, and the way I see this is, this is a low point for us. There’s a lot of room to improve as a country,” he said.
“It’s something where we can all be better examples,” he continued. “We can all be better citizens, and when you’re watching that, it doesn’t jive at all with what we know America to be. It’s not who we are as a country, and it’s disappointing to see, but all we can do is be good examples and continue our efforts in trying to be change and trying to make change. I think that’s the important message to the team, is that our work isn’t done just because the year changed. We need to keep going and persevere with all of our efforts."
It remains to be seen whether the team will make a statement on game day. There are still two and a half weeks of training to go. But veteran forward Jordan Morris said Monday that the team is already talking about the bigger picture.
“Obviously we all realize how horrific those events were, and we all understand that there’s a need for change in this country in a lot of ways. And I think the big thing for us, and I’ve talked to the guys about it a little bit, is hopefully our goal as a national team is to be a positive representation of what that change can be and how we need to move forward,” Morris said.
"I think it’s also, in these hard times, we hope to be as a team, hopefully a positive light. Because I know that these times are super challenging and there’s so much going on, so much stress with those events—like I said, just absolutely horrific. So we’re hoping that as a group this year we can be a positive light.”
One way to be a positive light is to be successful on the field. Such is the nature of sports. Negotiating the 2021 schedule will require cohesion on multiple levels, as Berhalter and his staff seek to make up for lost time while building multiple squads—a U-23 team for the Olympics, senior sides for the Nations League and Gold Cup and then, ultimately, the first-choice team that’ll set out on the road to Qatar in September. The first big month on the calendar is March, when the senior team will play friendlies inside a FIFA international window while the U-23s head to Mexico (most likely) for the Olympic qualifiers.
After failing to qualify for the previous two Olympics, U.S. Soccer is doing what it can to give this current crop of U-23s every opportunity. They’ll get a couple of weeks with coach Jason Kreis in Bradenton, and then a handful will join the 12 senior players for the Serbia friendly.
“We do have two groups in camp, and we’re split for most of the camp,” Berhalter explained. “Meals are split. Team building activities are split. But at training is one time where we can actually compete together, and that’s where we are working together to make numbers and we’re able to focus a little bit more on our 12 [senior] players. But the whole group is there. The whole group is working together, and it’s great for both coaching staffs to be able to assess the players and see some of the comparisons in camp.”
Morris, 26, said setting an example also could happen in small ways, as the veterans look to help steer the younger players toward the Olympic spotlight.
“It’s super exciting to see all the young talent,” he said. “A big goal of this camp for us as senior players is helping the Olympic team get ready as well, because it’s a big competition for them coming up. I know when I was coming up as a younger player, having the veteran guys in camp and being able to learn from them was super important. So we’re hopeful we can kind of do the same for the younger group that’s here.”
When it’s over, Berhalter will have seen his European-based stars for a camp, most of the best in MLS for a camp, and then his Olympic hopefuls (with some senior seasoning) for a camp. That’s a tough way to build chemistry, but the scheduling is out of U.S. Soccer’s control. The bonus is that after a 10-month break in 2020, Berhalter should have a sense of the talent at his disposal. He can start thinking about what the Olympic, Nations League, Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying rosters might look like. When connections among players can be forged, all the better.
“The idea is to keep everyone engaged, everyone on the same page and everyone up to speed with what we do and how we want to play,” Berhalter said. “Because we’ve seen these two groups. … I think we’re able to tie that together nicely and really have a good idea of the player pool. I think that’s what it comes down to, just having a real good understanding of what the player pool looks like so when we need to make the difficult decisions when it comes to [World Cup] qualifying, we get it right.
“But in terms of Nations League, Gold Cup, those are two events where there’s trophies awarded and we want to compete to win them,” he added. “There’s no question about it. That will give us one final opportunity before qualifying to test guys and put them under pressure to perform.”
Be successful and “Be The Change.” It’s no easy task. Morris said that for the players, it begins with small things, the day-to-day work during and after training, when skills are enhanced and bonds are strengthened.
“Every camp is an opportunity to learn and continue to get better and I think also, building a brotherhood here,” he said. “I think that’s a big thing we talk about, is building a brotherhood. We know going into an important year, it’s important that we’re all together, all on the same page. So every opportunity that you have, especially in a longer camp like this, just to be around the guys, it’s awesome.”