By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 8, 2019) US Soccer Players - Gregg Berhalter provided another glimpse of his work and thought processes this week as he addressed media at a press conference in Houston, site of the second of the USMNT’s two matches later this month. The USMNT plays Ecuador on March 21 in Orlando and Chile at BBVA Compass Stadium five days later. It’s the first group he’ll gather from the full USMNT player pool, and as such draws particular attention.
The new coach’s measured recognition of 16-year-old playmaker Efrain Alvarez and his striking MLS debut with the LA Galaxy drew most of the headlines. The ongoing competition for the allegiance of dual nationals will remain an American soccer talking point for the foreseeable future. Alvarez’s skillset, backstory and move from the US youth national team system to Mexico’s have made him a timely flashpoint for that conversation. Should El Tri prove recent reports correct by seeking to cap-tie him with the senior team at this summer’s Gold Cup, it stands to inflame the situation further.
Always a careful speaker, Berhalter offered praise for the skillful East LA kid without giving the impression of any special treatment because he has another international option.
“Regarding a potential choice for him, we want to create an environment that players want to be in,” he said of Alvarez. “We want to create a playing style, a team spirit that players want to be a part of. If we do, we’re confident we can get players like that and keep players like that in our program.”
Berhalter’s cerebral mindset showed itself in the bigger picture, too. March marks another step on his methodical ramp-up to the Gold Cup. It’s the first full FIFA international window since his hiring, giving him full access to the worldwide US player pool.
“I think that when we started planning the year, we looked at which group we want to have in the January camp, which group in the March camp, which group in the Gold Cup camp; and for us it was trying to evaluate as many players as we can,” Berhalter said. “So I would expect some new players to come into camp, because we want to get our eyes on them.”
After working with an all-MLS squad in January camp, he’s now expected to call a primarily European-based group.
“I have said all along that this is an opportunity to get the guys from Europe some game time and to get them back in the States and working together,” he noted. “We haven’t had that opportunity so far, so we are looking forward to that.”
Berhalter was fresh off a trans-Atlantic tour of watching USMNT players, including half a dozen or so Bundesliga-based names and nearly as many in the MLS opening-weekend game between Columbus Crew SC and the New York Red Bulls in his former home city. Members of his staff caught at least three other MLS matches in person, probably more. It seems pretty clear that this data will help compile a depth chart.
“If you can imagine the January camp helping us look at a certain number of players and this next camp helping us look at another certain number of players, by the time we get to May, we should have a good idea of these two number groups,” Berhalter said. “We should have a good idea of the roster that we think can compete in the Gold Cup.”
In another sign of his educational bent, the former USMNT center back has made himself available to media in several places. That including substantial conversations with the German press about several players.
The coach has also addressed the relationship between the senior team and the U-20s, who are counting down to their World Cup in Poland across May and June. It’s both a compliment and a setback to Tab Ramos that Tyler Adams and possibly a few more of the top age-eligible players not available for that tournament by virtue of having already consolidated their places on the USMNT. The next few months will reveal just who else that applies to, with Tim Weah and Josh Sargent chief among those in view.
In this as well as the dual-national debate and other topics, Berhalter sounds committed to the concept of balance. He took care to register himself on the pragmatic zone of the spectrum when talk turned to the reliably contentious matter of where top Americans play.
“I’ve said all along that every player has their own pathway. What I want for my players – each and every one of them – is that they can maximize their own potential, so then they have different ways to do that,” he said. “For some of them it’s going to be going to an MLS academy, playing for an MLS second team and signing with an MLS first team, really developing that way. For other guys it’s going to be different pathways, and it is going to be going to Europe or it is going to be playing at a mid-level team in Europe and then making a jump from there. Every player has a different pathway.”
That will disappoint those expecting dramatic action to appeal to Alvarez or others somewhere on the fence about joining the USMNT. Past US coaches have courted dual nationals with what appeared to be a fast-track process to roster spots and roles. If the new boss is planning such tactics, he’s keeping it to himself at the moment.
“We’re not necessarily looking at these players as solely dual-national players. We’re looking at them as players,” he said. “There’s a universe of players that are eligible to play for the United States. We’re looking at all of those guys. I think that’s an important process.”
The squad announcement will give us another interesting sign of just who in that universe has garnered the most of Berhalter’s attention.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Everyone under one roof: US Soccer and the Chicago policy
- The value of Champions Leagues, both at home and abroad
- MLS teams take another shot at the Concacaf Champions League
- Wynalda: "Marrying yourself to mediocrity is not what I’m in this to do"
Photo by John Dorton - ISIPhotos.com