Gregg Berhalter officially has his title. For the last year, it seemed like everyone in the U.S. Soccer community knew it would be the former Columbus Crew SC manager taking over the U.S. Men’s National Team (USMNT) head coaching slot. However, it was made official in December 2018, and Berhalter immediately set out to visit players, scout young prospects and build a January camp roster.
Berhalter is taking over a program that is in a massive state of rebuilding. Long gone are the days of Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey and even Jozy Altidore. Now, younger players are rising through the ranks and joining the national team – whether they come from MLS or overseas.
However, Berhalter has found players he can trust, keeping familiar faces around. The 45-year-old head coach has made it prominent and clear that Zack Steffen is the face of the future in goal for the United States. Additionally, Berhalter has continued with Dave Sarachan’s trend of giving Wil Trapp the captain’s armband, making him a leader outside of the club level. Both were Berhalter’s players in Columbus.
However, Berhalter is a practical coach.
He hasn’t cast aside players like Michael Bradley, Brad Guzan, and Gyasi Zardes. Instead, he has found roles for them in leadership positions. While Guzan and Bradley are hardly going to get first-hand looks at a starting role, their job is to help prime younger players. A camp full of fresh, young faces might be exciting for some fans but is too drastic of a change.
The days to chase World Cup glory for Bradley and Guzan are long gone. They had their last opportunity during World Cup qualifying in 2017 but failed to carry that team to Russia.
Now, it’s time to pass the torch to the younger players — which is what Sarachan began to do and now Berhalter is continuing. Here are three important things to watch for in Berhalter’s early months as USMNT head coach.
This is a time to experiment
Despite winning a World Cup title, Berhalter should avoid following in the “off-season” footsteps of U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis.
During 2016 and 2017, Ellis stuck with the same old, same old for her rosters, despite having almost the entire National Women’s Soccer League to work with. Meanwhile, Berhalter has a giant pot of players to pick from across MLS and overseas. He has already called up new faces in Corey Baird, Jeremy Ebobisse, Daniel Lovitz, Mark McKenzie, Djordje Mihailovic, Tyler Miller, and Auston Trusty, who are all getting their first chance to appear in a USMNT camp.
In addition to those seven players, five more who have never made an official appearance and are in the January camp include Russell Canouse, Justen Glad, Nick Lima, Christian Ramirez a, d Keegan Rosenberry.
That’s only a handful of what Berhalter can do – and who he can bring to the table. For the next year, Berhalter has a lot of time to experiment. However, that experimentation shouldn’t go into 2020, which is when World Cup 2022 qualifying begins.
Bringing in youth will be a key objective for Berhalter during the start of his USMNT reign.
The time to take risks is now, but he needs to make sure they get minutes and not just camp appearances. The practice is absolutely beneficial, but there is nothing more important than on-the-field product.
Berhalter knows Pulisic’s importance but should be cautious
During Jürgen Klinsmann’s last two matches in charge of the USMNT, against Mexico and Costa Rica, there was a lot of pressure on Christian Pulisic.
At the time, Pulisic was just 18-years-old and Klinsmann had created an entire formation around him. He was dubbed the newest hit of U.S. Soccer, with many comparing him to the likes of Landon Donovan and stating he could be more than Donovan ever was. However, the pressure of the new formation and the quickness of Mexico and Costa Rica ruined the plan.
Instead, Pulisic barely touched the ball.
When players like Bradley, Altidore, and Fabian Johnson expressed concerns during the match to Klinsmann, the plan was changed. All of a sudden, there was more flow in the movements of the U.S. players. However, it didn’t help the cause, because, as we know, the United States lost both matches. Then, Klinsmann lost his job.
Berhalter is inheriting a highly-skilled Pulisic. He recently broke the U.S. player transfer fee record with a $73 million move to Chelsea, although he will finish the season out at Borussia Dortmund. However, this year, Pulisic has been on a slump. He isn’t a regular starter for Dortmund — which probably ignited the move to Chelsea.
A big test for Berhalter is to not pile on the pressure on Pulisic. There’s no doubt that he’s one of the most talented players on the roster, but he’s not a stand-alone star. Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Timothy Weah are extremely promising players. Josh Sargent has taken the reins over at Werder Bremen and has thrived with every opportunity he’s been given.
Pulisic is going into one of the more hostile environments in the Premier League at Chelsea. There’s enough pressure there for him. Berhalter needs to remember that Pulisic is just one person and that the game cannot be formed around just one player. It didn’t work well in World Cup qualifying the first time and it won’t work that way again. It rarely does regardless the level of the individual.
Who is the real captain of this team?
Right now, Berhalter has a choice to make.
Who is the real captain of the USMNT? Is it really Wil Trapp? Will the captain’s armband be given back to Michael Bradley to prove some point?
Looking at numbers, in terms of appearances, Trapp really isn’t that high on the list. He’s only made 11 appearances with the national team. Meanwhile, Gyasi Zardes is well ahead, with 40 appearances, and played for the coach at Columbus as well. Bradley, of course, has the most on this roster at 142 appearances but has the baggage of the last cycle.
The captain’s armband shouldn’t be given to a player based on appearances. Instead, that privilege should be given to the player that demonstrates that they are truly ready to lead this team. Not all leaders showcase their leadership through big hype speeches. Bradley was never a guy like that and neither was Dempsey.
Throughout the first few camps, Berhalter needs to decide who is going to be the leader of this team. There is nothing wrong with having a goalkeeper have that title and Steffen is extremely capable of doing so.
What do you think needs to be on Berhalter’s USMNT agenda for 2019? Let us know in the comments below.