What should we make of the back-to-back wins that opened Gregg
Berhalter's tenure as U.S. men's national team coach?
January camp in one form or another -- there was a strike in 2005 complete with 22 replacement players brought in -- has been a fixture on the national team calendar since StubHub Center opened in Carson, California, in 2003. This year, there was a wrinkle: Berhalter moved the camp down I-5 to Chula Vista, near the Mexican border.
Through the years, the camp has been poo-pooed as a waste of time, Camp Cupcake to cynics, and the results of the accompanying friendlies dismissed as meaningless.
You shouldn't read too much into the 3-0 win over Panama and 2-0 win over Costa Rica on their own. The Concacaf rivals whom the USA could next face as soon as this summer at the Gold Cup won't ever be as weak as they were in the opening games of the year, both fielding experimental sides and fading badly in the second half.
But Berhalter's first four weeks in charge checked a lot of boxes on his must-do list.
-- Everything about the camp was drawn up with the idea there would be progression, a critical step for a program that was in limbo for almost 14 months after the loss to Trinidad & Tobago knocked the USA out of the 2018 World Cup. Berhalter drew up a plan, and it was executed to a T. For a program listing from doubt, to have things go right -- perfect wasn't necessary -- is a huge boost.
USA-Costa Rica: Report Card
-- Berhalter learned what worked and didn't work at his first camp in charge. He said after the Costa Rica game the coaching staff had already begun evaluating the training sessions and how well players were able to learn what he was trying to introduce. "We'll evaluate all that," he said, "and when we hit the ground running in March, hopefully it will be much tighter, much more concise, and hopefully we'll see some improvement in that group of players." (It will have to be much tighter -- he'll have his players together for three days before they play their next match: March 21 -- a Thursday night -- against Ecuador in Orlando.)
-- Berhalter had talked a lot about introducing a new style of play and it actually worked. His talk of balance and spacing and disorganizing the opponent sounded like -- well -- talk, but it worked. He introduced new formations for the USA -- a 4-4-2 on defense transitioning to a 3-2-4-1 on attack with one of the outside backs -- in both games, Nick Lima -- sliding centrally to offer midfield support. Berhalter broke down aspects of the game to focus on -- things like attacking in transition and build-up from the goalkeeper, both of which led to the late U.S. goals against Costa Rica.
Those formations are different from what Berhalter used at the Columbus Crew, but the USA stuck to one of his key attacking principles: wide play. It helped that Costa Rica -- by far, the better of the two opponents -- was gassed in the second half, but the USA broke the game open when Berhalter moved the left winger -- first Paul Arriola and then Jonathan Lewis -- higher up the field and they got open for balls served from Wil Trapp.
-- Berhalter added depth to the program -- to both the senior team and under-23 team. The closest thing to an automatic starter the USA had in camp was Zack Steffen, and he'll be tested for the starting spot in goal from Brad Guzan and Ethan Horvath. Several other players improved their stock in camp:
√ Aaron Long, who served as captain in both games;
√ Trapp, whose second half against Costa Rica was his best performance ever on the national team;
√ Sebastian Lletget and Arriola, who had their best games on the national team since Couva;
√ Finally, Lima, who was a revelation in the role of the right back/central midfielder.
Off the bench, Lewis was very dangerous in both games, assisting on third goal against Panama and Lletget's winner against Costa Rica. He might not ready to play when the full national team is available, but he will certainly help the USA in Olympic qualifying. The same goes for Djordje Mihailovic and Corey Baird, who combined for the winning goal against Panama though both struggled against Costa Rica. (No coaching appointment on the U-23 front has been made. Then again, Concacaf hasn't announced when or where Olympic men's qualifying will be held. It could be as soon as this fall.)
-- Berhalter has brought new excitement to the team. That applies for both players and fans. Atlanta United captain Michael Parkhurst, a former national team player, said after Berhalter's appointment in December that the tough part for any coach will be to restore pride in playing for the national team and make players eager to get a call-up. Let's put it this way, "ugh," as Parkhurst described the feeling of being called up, is not what Berhalter will hear on the other end when he calls up players across Europe in mid-March.
Nothing is going to appease some U.S. fans until the USA is headed back to the World Cup. Berhalter probably doesn't spent many hours worrying about the peanut gallery, but he certainly earned a lot of points in the last week with his attack-oriented approach. The USA only put two goals past Costa Rica in the second half on Saturday but it could have easily scored five or six goals.
Photo: Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire