The U.S. men's national team has now gone more
than five months without a game -- its longest lull in more than 30 years -- and that could extend for more many months.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter has had his first chance to attend live games since March at the MLS is Back Tournament in Florida. A "soccer island" is how describes the MLS bubble.
"There's these two hotels connected to each other by a bridge," he says of the setup at the Swan and Dolphin Resort, "but there's all kinds of activities. There's soccer tennis. There's ping pong. There's cornhole. It's amazing."
Much of Berhalter's time in Florida has been spent watching games -- as many as three in a day -- from the corner of the field, a viewpoint he isn't used to. He's even got to see his son, Sebastian, make his pro debut with the Columbus Crew. In the meantime, he waits for the resumption of international play. It won't be before October and will all depend, he says, on whether leagues are playing.
In a Zoom call with media on Tuesday, Berhalter addressed a wide range of issues. Here's his thinking on some key topics ...
1. The preference would to play the Hexagonal as it was originally set up.
Concacaf has yet to announce the changes to World Cup 2022 qualifying, which won't begin until October 2020 at the earliest.
"We'll deal with with whatever comes," he said. "We have to. That's the mindset of the group. We can focus on what we can control, the rest we put away, we don't think about, we don't let it bother us."
But having said that ...
"Even if qualifying doesn't start in 2020, there's plenty of times to get a Hex done," he added. "We went through the dates, there's plenty of dates. They've already moved the intercontinental playoff to after the draw of the World Cup, so there's plenty of dates to play the Hex. You need 10 dates, or 10 game days. And that means it's five windows."
So the traditional Hexagonal?
"That's what was advertised, right?"
2. The pandemic hasn't put the USA in a worse situation.
"The way I look at is," Berhalter said, "it's a bad situation for everyone for every country. We're not more disadvantaged than other countries. I think we've actually had one benefit of having a really full 2019. We played, I think, the second most games in the world in 2019 for a national team. So that's going to help. The other thing that's going to help is it's a close group. We've been communicating all along with the group and that's a positive thing."
3. Playing without fans would change the dynamics of qualifying.
"Some, for the positive and some, for the worse," Berhalter said. "If you think about us traditionally going down to Central America and playing in very hostile environments and that's completely taken away, that could give us an advantage. What players get easily motivated? What players don't need external motivation to perform? These are all things to consider."
4. It hasn't been a completely lost year for U.S. players in Europe.
Berhalter's last media availability was in February, at MLS's 25th season launch in New York. He noted the progress of European-based players or their successful return from injuries since then: Christian Pulisic at Chelsea, Tyler Adams in a number of roles at RB Leipzig, Antonee Robinson at Wigan Athletic, Tyler Boyd at Besiktas.
"The last time we spoke," he said, "we were talking about Gio Reyna. Can he break into the first team [at Borussia Dortmund]? Since then, he has broken in, so a lot of strides have been made from our guys."
Berhalter on Gio Reyna's rise at Borussia Dortmund ...
"Dortmund did a great job of integrating him into the group in a calculated way, to help him perform at high levels, and it shows you how much confidence they have in him. They actually played him as in central midfield, defending in a 5-3-2. He's typically an attacking player. They moved into that position and he did well. So for us, it's the same thing. How do we challenge him? How do we put him in difficult environments to help him grow as a player? Because he's one of those players that will keep rising to the challenges and we need to provide them with that."
5. Christian Pulisic simply needed time to adapt.
"We have to be careful because we have the tendency -- myself as well -- to get ahead of ourselves," Berhalter. "I think if we would have make final judgment on Christian in the fall, we would've said -- well, he's not performing well. And now all of a sudden, seven months later, we're saying it was the best signing ever."
Berhalter said players often have difficult times adapting to new countries, and all that was needed was time for Pulisic to get over the adjustment and learn how to use his skill sets -- and for Pulisic's Chelsea teammates learn how to use him.
"He has a ton of skill sets to be most effective," he said. "It's picking the ball up in space, in pockets and just being really aggressive, going at defenders, dribbling defenders. It's not just only on the side. Now he's getting towards the middle of the field and he's had some really positive effects, taking on players. And then getting used to his teammates and his teammates gaining trust in him and having full trust. If you watch the games, you can see the dramatic shift in how his teammates relate to him. Now they actually look to him whereas at times in the beginning you're thinking, wait, why aren't they passing him this ball? Now they get the ball, their first glances to him. He's really grown to be an important part of this group, important part of that team. And it's been fun to watch."
Berhalter on Zack Steffen's return to Manchester City ...
"Man City is a super high level. To gain that experience for a year, to be in that training environment and have the opportunity to potentially break into that team is exciting. And I think it would be worth it. You always have to weigh if you're going to be sitting on the bench and not playing enough games. But to me that opportunity alone is something special. Not too many players in the world get a chance to play for a club like that."
6. Tyler Adams' national team future is in central midfield.
Berhalter used Adams in a hybrid role for the 1-0 win over Ecuador in March 2019, the first and only game he played for the USA since Berhalter took charge. Adams was playing in central midfield at the time for RB Leipzig. Now Berhalter's thinking on Adams has changed.
"Against Costa Rica in January," he said, "we started with a 4-3-3 defensively. I liked the idea of having this really mobile midfield and then this midfield that can press teams and, and cover ground and the attacking group that can be higher up the field and create high pressure on the opponent. And I think he fits that mold really well as a midfielder that can cover a lot of ground. When you think about him and Weston [McKennie] together in that midfield, you start thinking, OK, now we have a lot of ground covered. We'll have a lot of speed. We have guys that can win balls and play forward. So I think that's an interesting position for him.
"Right back? It depends on how you set your team up. It could always be an option for him just for his skillset. I like him better in the middle. I think that even when we played them at right back, we moved him into the middle offensively to get him back to a position to affect the game from that way. I think he's doing a good job. At Leipzig, I like how he had to fight and get his way back into the team, but he ended up doing it towards the end of the year. He ended up playing central more. His versatility gives the coach options. You always love players like that."
7. Time will be the judge of young players impressing at the MLS is Back Tournament.
Two of the young players who have starred in group play are Toronto FC's Ayo Akinola (five goals) and Orlando City's Chris Mueller (three goals).
"We're talking about two games or three games each," Berhalter said, "and we're saying this is a senior national team player? We just have to be careful. We have to give these guys time to grow. We have to let them enjoy this period. I spoke to Ayo and I said, 'Man, this is a fantastic thing you're going through. I'm so happy for you. You're performing, you scoring all these goals. Go enjoy it. Don't think about anything else, just enjoy the form you're in. Not many players get that."
"And for Chris the same. 'Enjoy what your team is doing now. You guys have won two games, you tied one. It looks like a completely different team. I know you've been in Orlando since the beginning. Hasn't always looked like that. Enjoy this period.' All the rest is going to come because as these guys maintain their level and continue to perform at a high level it's going to give the coaching staff confidence that they can do it at international level, but also give them confidence that they can realize their goals as players. And they're starting to realize they can have a long career and a successful career in soccer."
Berhalter on Canada- and Nigeria-eligible Ayo Akinola's senior national team future ...
"This is a guy -- and it's similar to [Sergino Dest] when we were talking about him -- that was raised in our youth national program. He was an under-17 player, under-20 player. He's meant a lot to our program. He was going to be on the  Under-20 World Cup team if he didn't get injured before that. He was big part of that team and what they were doing. We consider him part of our program. And that means most likely the next stage for him could be the U-23s, the Olympics, and then potentially the senior national team, things that hopefully he'll be part of as he continues to perform at a high level."
8. Youth movement will likely continue.
Just because 2020 has been a lost year -- at least two FIFA windows and the Concacaf Nations League finals lost -- in terms of playing international matches and working with his young team, that doesn't mean Berhalter will switch gears for qualifying.
"I don't see us all of a sudden reaching out to players that haven't been part of the pool or haven't been involved with us just because they have experience," he said. "I think we're comfortable with our young guys. We're comfortable with the fact that they gained experience at the club level and we're going to prepare them to perform."
On the other hand, a few older players remain in the mix.
"The role that they play depends on them being fit," Berhalter added, "and performing at a high level for their clubs. We value the experience they can bring to this group. We think that with a young group, you do need experienced players as well to help supplement that inexperience. When you think about Tim Ream, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, those are great examples of guys that know what it's about. The doors open for these guys when they're playing well, when they're fit because we know they can make an impact on the international level as well."
9. Must left back be left-footed -- remains big question mark.
Berhalter said he is happy with the pool of players he has to work with at most positions. The one area of concern: not having a natural left-footed player at left back. The other issue: does he go with an attacking player at left back to complement Pulisic on the left wing or does he go with a stay-at-home left back who can relieve Pulisic of defensive responsibilities?
"That's what I'm up at night, every night in Orlando thinking about," said Berhalter.
The likely option right now is Sergino Dest, who has the ability to go wide while Pulisic goes inside or vice versa, but Dest is right-footed. "You can set it up in a way that can work," Berhalter said, "but all those issues would be solved if you had a really attacking left-footed left back."
(Other options Berhalter mentioned at left back are Sam Vines, Chris Gloster and Chase Gasper, but he said they all remain unproven.)
10. Darlington Nagbe will be welcomed back if he wants to make commitment.
One of the standouts at the MLS is Back Tournament has been Columbus Crew midfielder Darlington Nagbe, who hasn't played for the USA since the 1-0 friendly win over Paraguay in March 2018. Berhalter said he hasn't talked with Nagbe specifically about returning to the national team, but he said there's an open door for him.
"There's elements of his game that we could even take to the next level," he said. "But it's also something where you're playing in these games and these are tough games."
Berhalter said he understands Nagbe's point of view -- not wanting to be away from his family -- but a commitment is needed.
"We can push him," he said, "but it needs to be something he says, 'OK, this is what I really want. My goal is to play in a World Cup. I've won MLS Cups with multiple teams and I've been an [MLS] all-star. And I want to play in a World Cup. I missed out on the opportunity in 2018 and this is something I want to do.' It's a great accomplishment to play in a World Cup. Not too many players get to do that. It's going to be partly up to him and his family, deciding that that's what they really want to commit to."
Berhalter on Josh Sargent's future at Werder Bremen ...
"For Josh -- and I put this on the club -- they need to find a way to be able to create chances in an efficient way. And right now, they've been really poor in that. And that's been affecting Josh. They don't play to get the forward goal-scoring opportunities, and it's tough. I'm watching the games and he doesn't get many opportunities. Hopefully, they're looking at that and they're addressing that and they're bringing in personnel that can help them create and they can get forward more and play for the forward to score goals more, whether that's giving them through passes or whether that's giving them crosses balls into the penalty box. He needs to get more service."