Following the announcement of the USMNT’s November Camp roster which will face Wales (Nov. 12 in Swansea) and Panama (Nov. 16 in Wiener Neustadt, Austria), head coach Gregg Berhalter discussed the roster with reporters.
Here are some of his answers:
GB: “We’re excited to get the group back together. It’s been a long time, our last time together was February 1 and since then the world has changed considerably. I want to thank our medical team, our trainers and our high-performance team for really putting together a strong effort to make this work. The players are coming to a very safe, sterile environment. They’ll be tested often, we’ll be isolated and I’m just really looking forward to getting this group together.
“As you saw from the roster, it is a young group with a tremendous amount of talent. When you think about the opportunity to be optimistic and be excited, I think this group gives you that. It gives you a lot of optimism when you see some of these players, how they’ve been performing at such a young age, it’ll be great for us to get our hands on them, be able to work with them and start forming the team. Start carrying on from where we were and start integrating these new players and getting them used to what we do.
“In Wales, we see a very robust opponent, very sound. They don’t give up many goals, they’re known for scoring goals late in the games, so we think that’s going to be a difficult task for us. Panama will give a lot of our new guys the opportunity to see a Concacaf opponent and see what that looks like up close. All in all, I think it will be beneficial for us to get back together and I’m really looking forward to the trip.”
How do Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Christian Pulisic all fit together?
GB: “When you look at the skill sets of all four of those players, they’re extremely different. I think because of that, they fit extremely well together. When you look at Tyler, you have a controlling midfielder with a lot of range, can easily play the No. 6 position, can give you that cover in transition, but also can give you the mobility to make good plays defensively and put pressure on the opponent.
“When you look at Weston, he’s a box-to-box midfielder who likes to arrive in the penalty box. He’s strong in tackling, but has that extra offensive edge to him. Then you look at Christian who is a 1v1 phenomenon. He’s a guy that can put players on their back heels very easily, and then Gio is a different type of attacking player. I think he’s more of a straight-line player, a guy who can arrive in the penalty box and give a final pass or final cross.
“I think their skillsets work really well together when you talk about those four players.”
What are the keys you’d like to see the group develop between now and the start of qualifying?
GB: “I think we want to take advantage of our athleticism. I want to see us be very aggressive on the defensive side of the ball, high pressing teams. We have enough speed in the back to be able to play a higher line and I’d like our team to be more compact when we’re pressing.
“Offensively we have a lot of skilled players. When you look at our outside backs – a tremendous amount of skill – when you think about our center midfielders and wingers… I think we should be able to be very aggressive offensively, getting behind the opponent and putting them on their heels. Those are things we need to work on, because we haven’t been with this group often. Tyler Adams has played one game for us since I’ve taken over. It’s just about getting them on the field, playing together and comfortable with each other.”
What went into the process of getting Yunus Musah to come into the program? Do you see it as a sign that he’s willing to commit to the United States?
GB: “We’ve been tracking Yunus for over a year-and-a-half now. We have a good connection with Valencia and when he arrived there, we were charting his progress and how he’s been doing. We’ve had a lot of good contact with him. I’ve spoken at length to his family.
“What we see from him is a player that’s hungry. He’s hungry to make his impact. He has a connection with the United States, he loves the direction the team is going in and the young talent that he can be alongside. We see him as having a ton of potential. For us it’s about getting him on the field with us, letting him experience how we work as a group, how we work as a staff. Letting him experience his teammates and the environment we’re able to create. Then all we can do is hope that in the end he chooses us for the long-term. He’s obviously chosen us now, but there’s still a long-term implication that is yet to be decided.”
Could you address the omissions of European-based veterans Julian Green, Aron Johannsson and Erik Palmer-Brown from the roster when there were no MLS players selected for this camp?
GB: “The important distinction is that we purposely didn’t call MLS players in because we didn’t want to jeopardize their eligibility for the playoffs. I think this is an important distinction that we need to talk about. It’s another example of the United States Soccer Federation working with MLS to benefit the clubs. I think that is important, because other countries aren’t necessarily doing that and to be honest, they’re not obligated to do that. They can call their players in and we opted not to call their players in because we didn’t want to jeopardize the playoffs. There are some core players that we’re leaving off this roster because of that, but we felt that we have enough depth in Europe right now to field a good roster and we’re looking forward to working with these guys.”
“When we talk about guys left off the roster – I don’t know if you named DeAndre Yedlin as well – he’s an important guy that we left off. Aron Johannsson is a guy that has been scoring in Sweden. I had a long conversation with him – a great conversation. He’s been working so hard to get back on the field and when you see him performing like that for Hammarby, it’s great. When you have to choose, it’s difficult. Part of our thinking was we have Josh Sargent and Sebastian Soto – both eligible for the Olympic team – Jason Kreis will be joining the group and it’ll be nice to see them and see how they adapt to this environment with hopes of looking somewhat towards the Olympics.
“When you talk about Erik Palmer-Brown, he’s in a highly competitive position. He is playing in Austria for his team every week, but we also have John Brooks, Tim Ream, Matt Miazga and Chris Richards at Bayern Munich. That’s just a tough one. These are the difficult things as coaches – you have to leave guys who are deserving out.
“We’ve been following Julian at Fürth, he scored on the weekend and he’s been doing a good job. We’re just looking at his skillset compared to some other guys in the position, and how we need that role to perform, and the profile we need, and we didn’t include him on that. It’s not to say he has no future with the National Team, but again we have to make difficult decisions, sometimes guys get left out that are deserving of a call up as well.”
What is your philosophy for recruiting dual national players?
GB: “It comes down to the type of environment we want to create. I think that will sell itself. The other thing is that the players we have are attracting a lot of attention worldwide. When you speak to Yunus or Sebastian Soto or other players, these guys that are doing these things across the world in soccer are known and they’re very familiar with these guys. Everyone can see what Christian Pulisic is doing. They can see, ‘Wow this guy is a star on the world stage, and I can use that platform of the U.S. National Team to also be a star.’
“When you look at Sergiño and what he’s doing at Barcelona and what he did at Ajax last year, that’s another example of a young player who is really using this platform to give exposure not only to himself, but the U.S. Men’s National Team program. These players are all aware of what’s happening with our player pool.
“As far as the strategy, I think it’s our obligation as a Federation to know what they’re doing, what level they’re performing at, if they can help the program. I think it’s also our obligation to be actively engaged with these players. That’s something where we do divide up the work. It’s not only myself and (MNT General Manager) Brian McBride, it can be (Sporting Director) Earnie Stewart at times, our coaching staff at times. (Assistant coach) Nico Estevez, who worked at Valencia, was instrumental in speaking to the club and to Yunus and his family before I did. We divide and conquer.
“One thing I would tell you is that Mexico is doing the same thing. They’re actively recruiting every single one of our players [that are eligible for them]. When you hear about conversations, when we talk to our guys, Mexico has spoken to all of those guys. I think it’s part of international soccer. One thing I’m always careful about: I want to know the player’s connection to the United States, in terms of do they feel it in their heart? Do they feel a connection to this team? That’s really important. We also want to create a team that has a deep passion for representing our country and is into what we’re doing as a team.”
What do you see as Gio Reyna’s best role and position with the USMNT?
GB: “I don’t think we need to necessarily define where he’s going to be playing. What we want him to do is impact the game offensively. We want him to score goals and make assists. I think that’s important. We’re going to put him on the field to do that. I don’t think it’s really important to get specific about where, I think it’s what he’s doing on the field. We want him making goals and assists.”
What qualities do you see in Konrad de la Fuente?
GB: “We have a connection with the Barcelona first team coaching staff and one thing they’re amazed at is what he gives them on the field – his verticality – he’s able to stretch the opponent and always make them move backwards. When you can do that now, you can create space between the lines. He’s relentless with his running behind the backline and it’s something he’s really worked on. When you look at his progression from the Under-20s at the World Cup, he wanted the ball at his feet all the time. I think he’s had this evolution in his game where he realizes to be successful, he’s going to have to use the timing of his runs and his movement behind the back line and that’s what he’s doing non-stop. He’s done it with the second team and he’s done it with the first team now, and it’s been a real pleasure to watch. He’s a guy that we’re really excited to work with, excited to get in camp and add that element to our game as well.”
There’s a lot of excitement about all of these players at big European clubs, but 10 guys are first-time call-ups. Are you a little worried that the expectations might be too much at this time? You haven't played in a year and now people expect you to win the World Cup this month.
GB: “It's absolutely a worry that you have to get this group together. If you can imagine, we're not going to have the full group training together until Tuesday, the game is on Thursday and you have 10 new guys. There's a lot of question marks, but you have to start sometime. And for us, although the expectations from you guys may be to win the World Cup in this November window, we know that's not realistic and we know it's about building. Our first objective is to qualify for the World Cup, and then the next objective is to play well at the World Cup and then we go from there. But we realize we do have some bit of time, qualifying doesn't start until next September. There is a window that we have, but we have to start somewhere and we're excited to get this group together and start working with them.”
Has voting been a topic of conversation between you and your players? Are the guys abroad participating in this process?
GB: “They're definitely interested in this process and what I could say is when you look at the activation of our guys, even the guys in Europe, I'm nothing but proud of them. When we talk about not being happy with the status quo, there's one thing, but the next thing is to actually do something about it. And when you see some of the activation by guys like Weston McKennie and Zack Steffen, it's been great to see. I know they're Americans and it means a lot to them and I know that they've been very active and a lot of them have voted.”
With so many Americans playing in the Champions League now, how much satisfaction do you get from seeing so many players playing at that high of an elite level?
GB: “It's great, it's exciting. When you think about having five guys on a matchday that you can watch and track, and now you have to flip back and forth. It's not just, you watch one game every couple of weeks, now it's coming fast and furious. I’m really proud of the guys for what they've been doing.
“With young players, there's ups and downs, and there's still this window where you need to keep progressing and keep improving, to keep getting better, that you become established and it becomes second nature that you're playing these competitions year in a year out. There's also the rhythm, you guys have been tracking this, but our Champions League guys have been playing every Saturday, Tuesday, Saturday and Tuesday for the last weeks and it weighs on you.
“It's been fun, I think it's a great step for American soccer. I'm a firm believer in the measure of talent in any given country is based on how many players they have playing in the Champions League, so I think it's really important that we get those numbers up. And I think the two things that lead to success is having a strong domestic league and then having players playing in the Champions League and it's good to see that we have that.”
Considering the recent moves of some players to top teams in Europe, is this the most talented and promising group of U.S. players in many years?
GB: I don't even get involved in those conversations, especially not in the early, early stages. I think that the measure of the most successful team is how well they do at the World Cup, so I think we need to qualify first and then we need to perform well and then you can start having those conversations.
Could you further explain the process with dual national players? What is that communication like? Also, you’re not calling up MLS players, but other national teams will be calling up their players this window. Why do you feel that obligations towards MLS given it’s been so long since you’ve had this group together?
GB: “There is a certain amount of sacrifice that we're doing, right? Because I would like nothing more than to have our whole group there and continue to build. So definitely, we are sacrificing by not having some of those guys in camp. Part of the way I looked at it is I was an MLS coach before, I understand that the end of the year is the time that you invest all the in the season to get to this end of the year and it's such a special time when you have the playoffs. I know that from the owner's standpoint, it's been a tough year for everyone and to have your team going into the playoffs, potentially shorthanded, isn't a great feeling.
“We considered all those things and considering all those things, we made this decision and we made this decision to benefit the MLS clubs, knowing that next year will be a difficult year and hopefully some of the clubs will remember that. Hopefully some of the clubs say, okay, now, when you need the guys a little bit early for the Nations League, we'll let them come a little bit early because it is a give and take. What I feel now is that we've given a lot this fall, we really have and I don't regret it, I think it was intentional. But there's going to be times where we can't be as flexible. When you talk about World Cup qualifiers, it's your squad, it's your best 23 players that you want in camp and that's going to be non-negotiable. Again, it was a difficult decision, but we thought it was in the best interest of the clubs and we were happy to accommodate it this time.
“Regarding the dual nationals -- what I'd say is that every player wants a clear role and clear expectations for their place in the program, and that's all we lay out to the guy. When I have these conversations, I'm very clear with how I see this player fitting into what we're doing. I think that puts them at ease, I think it gives them a clear understanding of what's expected from them and how we see them, how we see them performing. And we try to sell the program, we try to sell the guys, the strength of the squad, we try to sell how we work as a federation. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't work, but sometimes you come out on the right end of it.
There are obviously different paths to the National Team, but former USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann was very outspoken about players getting to Europe early. When you look at the development of your players in Europe over the last two years, would you say that’s the best route for a young player to reach the National Team?
GB: “I love this conversation and the reason why I love it, it's because it's nuanced, right? There's no real one answer to it and I know that's what you want me to say, but it honestly isn't and I want to give you some examples.
So, Brenden Aaronson. When you look at him as an example, and we'd all say he's in a great position now, he's performing really well, if you look at his progression, he needed to be in the environment he was in to develop in the way he has. Because he was a guy that potentially was a late developer, he needed a club to believe in him, he needed a staff that believed in him. I remember Earnie Stewart talking about him years ago saying he's going to be a talented player. What they did is they put him in a position to succeed. And that's not the only case. The stories that you mentioned in Europe, those are the successful ones, but let's talk about all the unsuccessful ones, because there's a lot of them. There's a lot of guys that go there and you never hear of him again.
“What I think is for each player, it's an individual pathway and I know I always say that, I know you get tired of me saying that, but I honestly believe that there is no one right answer. What you want the player to do is you want him to be challenged at the level that he's at and that's your determination of when you can move levels. For example, Tyler Adams, when you watched him in his last year at Red Bull, he was outgrowing Red Bull, right? He started dominating games and you could see this guy needs another challenge and then he gets this other challenge and that happened when he was 18 years old. Every person there's a different time for doing that, but what I'm proud of is that you see a lot of guys that you mentioned that participated in our Development Academy and it shows that the work we're doing the work, the work we've done is paying off and we need to continue along that pathway.
“The owners, the way they supported youth soccer has been amazing, the amount of money they put into the infrastructure has been great, coaching (as well). We're on the right path and we just need to keep going.”
Have you had any talks with Chelsea about these injuries that keep cropping up for Christian Pulisic? Also, is this the most exciting time for U.S. Soccer with all of these players scattered around Europe with huge teams?
GB: “I think it's a great time, I think it's an exciting time. I don't know how to quantify the most exciting. I remember when we qualified for the World Cup in 1990, Paul Caligiuri's goal, I was watching that and it was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can't believe we're going to play in a World Cup." So that was really exciting, but I don't get caught up on labeling that stuff.
“In regards to Christian, I've been there myself, I've been in a spot where you have an injury and you're trying to shake it and then you come back and that period when you're coming back, you are a little bit vulnerable. I know Chelsea is doing every single thing they can, I know he's doing every single thing he can, I know he's really focused and dedicated on staying fit and I believe that he will get to this level of resistance where he stays fit, but building that up sometimes is challenging. I think that could be a phase that he's in right now. I know that they could use him, I know he's a fantastic player, it's been great to see what he's been doing, but he's in good hands. He's in good hands with the club and they're doing everything they can get him on the field.
Christian is still very young, but obviously he now seems like a real leader on this team, right?
GB: “Absolutely, he's one of the leaders on our team and we'll rely on him to help guide this team. At such a young age, he's already played a ton of Champions League games, already played World Cup qualifiers, you name it, he's done it. He certainly is a leader on this team.”
What's your opinion on Matt Miazga’s move to Anderlecht and the chance to work under Vincent Kompany?
GB: “I love it, already watching their games, they have a clear idea, a clear structure of how they want to build up from the back, he's asked to do that. A guy in Kompany, who's played at a really high level, has been able to sustain his high level for a long period of time, has worked under top coaches, I think it's a good move.
“I spoke to Matt before he went to Anderlecht and he told me the vision that the club had for him and it was an exciting move for him. The key to Matt is to just keep playing games, keep playing at a high level. He's a very talented player.”
What's your expectation for what Christian Pulisic is going to be able to do in camp? Do you anticipate him on the field much or will he be more observatory and there to be part of the group?
GB: “I think this week will determine that. They have a Champions League game and then they have a league game and his participation this week with Chelsea will largely determine what he'll be able to do with us.”
Sebastian Soto has been courted by Chile, have you gotten a commitment from him that he’s in it for the long haul?
GB: “He's a guy that's been in our program, has played at the Under-20 World Cup for us. He's been a youth international, now he has an opportunity to get his first international cap with us. My expectation is that he is a guy that's committed and is in it for the long run.”