From The Bubble: Berhalter on MLS Is Back, World Cup Qualifying Schedule

The ongoing MLS Is Back tournament has made Orlando one of the current epicenters for professional soccer in the United States, and USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter has been in the bubble since early July taking in the action. 


“Being here in Orlando, watching live games is a great thing,” Berhalter told reporters during a virtual roundtable on Tuesday. “Even though we’re not working with teams, you get to see all the players, all the coaches up close and see how the games are going.”


At Disney’s Wide World of Sports alongside U-23 MNT head coach Jason Kreis, Berhalter has taken in every match, monitoring the status of the program’s large domestic player pool. And while there have been some strong individual performances from USMNT regulars and those pushing towards a call-up, Berhalter said it’s important to weigh some of the unique elements of the competition – heat, humidity and strange kickoff times --  as well as the long layoff players experienced after things shut down back in March.


“What we’re doing is observing. We obviously are noting good performances, detailing good performances.


“It would be kind of silly for us to say, ‘This player’s stock has risen X amount and this player’s stock has dropped X amount on players that haven’t played in a while, are playing in these conditions and are a little bit rusty and haven’t been with their teams for so long, considering the circumstances. We’re looking at how the players are performing and how the players are dealing with adversity.


“Look at some of the conditions they are playing in. Some teams have shorter rest, some teams are playing the nine o’clock game, some teams are playing the 10:30 game. Just seeing how players are processing that as individuals and how they’re able to work through that.”


While the playing circumstances aren’t perfect, the bubble setup is giving Berhalter and his staff the ability to catch up in person with National Team regulars as well as get to know those they may have an eye on for the future. Meanwhile, Berhalter’s staff has continued to evaluate the performances of the player pool in Europe, all the while keeping open lines of communication between the entire group in anticipation of the USMNT returning to play.


“It’s a close group. We’ve been communicating all along with the group and that’s a positive thing. To see some of our European players and their performances, and now that MLS is back to see some of the performances of those guys, they’re performing at a high level.”


Qualifying and Schedule Update


When it comes to National Team soccer, the big question on everyone’s mind is when things will continue. March friendlies at Netherlands and Wales and the Concacaf Nations League Final Round in June were canceled due to COVID-19. September was also supposed to be the start of the Final Round of 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifying in Concacaf, but that also won’t be played.


Berhalter did shed more light on what his team’s schedule could look like later this fall.


“Any day now we should be getting word as to the new qualifying format, or if the existing qualifying format staying the same. We don’t know the format. I think that’s going to dictate a lot of when qualifying starts. My guess is it will start at the end of the year or beginning of the next year. It’s already been announced that September is not being played. My guess is October is going to be played and it won’t be a qualifying round, so that would be either November or early next year.”


In terms of format preference, Berhalter made clear he hopes Concacaf will keep to what was announced last year, with the region’s top six teams according to the FIFA World Ranking going straight into the Final Round “Hexagonal”.


“Even if qualifying doesn’t start in 2020, there’s plenty of time to get a Hex done. We went through the dates, there’s plenty of dates. They’ve already moved the intercontinental playoff to after the World Cup draw. There’s plenty of dates to play the Hex. You need 10 game days, that means it’s five windows.”


Berhalter made clear no matter the format, his team will be ready to tackle whatever path is laid out to get to the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.


“We’ll deal with whatever comes. I’m confident in that. We have to. That’s the mindset of the group. We focus on what we can control, the rest we put away and don’t let it bother us.”