By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Aug 29, 2019) US Soccer Players - Gregg Berhalter signaled a gradual but measurable shift towards the USMNT's longer-term future on Wednesday with the unveiling of his roster for September's friendlies vs Mexico and Uruguay. Diversity of age, experience, and location defines the group that will gather in New Jersey after this weekend's club action.
Players from six different leagues across six nations received call-ups, 17 of them based domestically in MLS, nine overseas. Fifteen of the 26 are holdovers from the Gold Cup squad. The average age is a shade over 25, while eight players are young enough to be eligible for next summer's Olympics, a predominantly under-23 tournament.
"When I look at the roster the first thing that comes to mind is continuity, continuing to build on this group, build the core of this group," Berhalter told reporters in a conference call after the roster release, explaining how and why he mixed young faces and newcomers with familiar veterans.
Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Omar Gonzalez will remain with Toronto FC during that team's imminent, and crucial, stretch of eight games in 30 days. Berhalter spoke of his dissatisfaction with the MLS games scheduled during the international window. Others like Brad Guzan, Tim Ream, and even John Brooks, Jordan Morris, and Gyasi Zardes will provide senior leadership in this group. There's a wave of fresh, mostly younger talent rolling in with more regularity in the countdown to the start of 2022 World Cup qualifying a year from now.
"Tim's as steady as they come. He's a guy that isn't fazed by the gravity of a game," said Berhalter when asked about Ream, the second-oldest player in this squad. "When you talk about Tim Ream, Michael Bradley, and Brad Guzan, those are guys that have this presence. That's important for a young team. I value that type of leadership, and we always want to try to integrate veterans when we can."
Berhalter's public opinions are normally measured. That said, his remarks to the media seemed to hint at real excitement about the influx of new faces with big upside. A prominent one is Dutch-American Ajax fullback Sergino Dest, the youngest member of this roster.
"Sergino's a guy that we've been tracking," Berhalter said of the US U-20 World Cup standout, describing as "really intriguing" the teenager's recent Eredivisie outings for the Amsterdam giants. "We're excited about the fact that he can play on both wingback positions, both fullback positions. He's got an excellent offensive skill set.... We want to see how he can interpret the profile that we have for the fullback position."
The coach expressed a similar outlook on talented 19-year-old striker Josh Sargent. That's despite the fact that first-team minutes have been modest for him at Werder Bremen in the European season's opening weeks.
"We want to try to capture some of the momentum he's had in preseason and bring it into this group. He's was a player all along who is in our plans, has been in our plans," Berhalter said of Sargent.
It sounds as if others like Paxton Pomykal and Jesse Gonzalez of FC Dallas may be a bit further back on that road. At the very least they stand to benefit from immersion in the full USMNT environment. They'll get their chance to make an impression as the squad trains at the New York Red Bulls' facility ahead of their meeting with El Tri at the hulking MetLife Stadium on September 6.
In theoretical terms, at least, a national team should also be staffed with those performing at a high level for their clubs. That applies to defensive midfielder Alfredo Morales. A strong start to Fortuna Dusseldorf's Bundesliga campaign has earned him a recall after more than three years away from the USMNT. Atlanta United's breakthrough center back Miles Robinson is another example.
"As a coach, you're able to feel really good about calling a guy in who has performed really well for his team," said Berhalter. "I've spoken to the management at Dusseldorf, and he's was one of their top players in preseason. He continued that form into the beginning of the season. And it's great to be able to call him in. He hasn't been with the team in a while. We like his mobility, we like his range, we like his physicality and his tackling. I like his attitude and his mindset on the field. He's a very positive and aggressive player.... He's a guy that has done great, and it's nice to be able to reward that."
Then there's the significant matter of best utilizing the form and skill sets of the established core contributors. Many observers took particular note of the categorization of Christian Pulisic as a forward on this roster. Is that a hint at a wider or more advanced deployment than the central attacking midfielder spot with the USMNT? Berhalter chuckled at one reporter's phrasing of the Chelsea star's "#10 experiment" and focused on maximizing end product from one of his most talented attackers.
"We want him to affect games in a number of different ways," said the coach of Pulisic. "We want to be able to isolate him 1v1 at times, but we also want him getting the ball between the lines.... I'm not hung up on winger vs. 10 – that doesn't really concern me. What concerns me is getting him to affect the game. That's what's important."
The nuances of Weston McKennie's central-midfield terrain were also a topic. Should he be a leading complement to Pulisic in the final third, a classic box-to-box presence or a deeper-lying protector for the backline? Berhalter made an interesting observation there.
"If you play him there you take away one of his greatest strengths, and that's arriving in the penalty box," he said. "He's so good at timing the runs. He has such a great capacity to get up and down the field. I would worry in some respects that the #6 position would limit his ability to do that, and then if he did do it at the #6 position we would lose balance as a team…. Right now we think of him primarily as an 8."
So the Berhalter era rumbles forward, seeking both balance and progress amid the myriad factors and data points of international soccer. In September, stiff opposition awaits in an exhibition setting. A month later, the real deal arrives with the debut of the Concacaf Nations League. The clock is ticking.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Montreal, Wilmer Cabrera, and the shrinking shelf life of MLS head coaches
- US talent aiming for spotlight in Bundesliga
- US Soccer adds another issue with Development Academy split
- Taking stock of MLS All-Star week
Photo by John Dorton - ISIPhotos.com