After yet another classic Dos a Cero against rivals Mexico, USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter provided some insight on the eternal question of “Zack vs. Matt” and laid out his thinking as the team transitions to the second half of qualifying for Qatar.
“It was a difficult decision,” Berhalter bluntly states. “It wasn’t something that was easy based on how we thought Matt [Turner] was playing. He played really well in the Gold Cup, only let in one goal, and in qualifying let in two goals in these five games. It was more that we were looking at the games, how they were unfolding, and we’re seeing that there’s a number of possessions that we can be keeping in these games that we’re not. “
“We think Zach is stronger with his feet,” the coach continued, “and we made that decision based on that. They’re two very high-level goalkeepers and there’s not much separating them, but in this particular area where we think it was an area of need, we thought Zach (Steffen) was ahead, so we made that decision.”
Regarding the permanent pecking order of the two keepers, the coach was clear about who is the current – although not invincible – starter going forward through the rest of qualifying.
“When you look at the choice of Zack to play in the Mexico game, you can infer that he’s ahead of Matt,” he stated. “It’s up to Zack to keep his form. We’re not hesitant to change goalkeepers, that’s not something we’re averse to. The competition is really tight and they’re pushing each other. I think that’s a good thing.”
Gregg also touched upon the USMNT having to confront two key strikers on Tuesday, who weren’t on the Reggae Boys squad last time around. Yet he noted that the USMNT must bring the game to them by staying assertive and aggressive on the pitch.
In addition, he pointed out the commonality between our past rival and our upcoming encounter in their attacking mindset.
“We expect [Michail] Antonio to be in and also Leon Bailey, and they didn’t play against us last time. They didn’t play against us in the Gold Cup either.”
“It’s just [about] preparing for them. Just like Mexico had really high-level attacking quality, so does Jamaica, and we have to be prepared for that. The rest of the team we’re projecting to be pretty similar to what we’ve been facing.”
He continued, “Then it’s also a matter of what we can do, how we can pull them apart, and how we can get behind them. That was a focus of last game, and we have to see how we’re able to do that,” adding “we want to be aggressive in this game, we want to pull them out of position, and be able to take advantage of some of the spaces that open up.”
Berhalter also had plenty to say about the current mindset; the psyche of the players, which is something that has definitely clicked for the better. He sees a valuable evolution of not only the results in the last few games, but also how the team is visualizing and approaching the goal before them.
“Absolutely, something’s changed with the team,” he bluntly expressed. “I talked all the time about how inexperienced, we are, how young we are, and how we need to gain that experience. What I’ve seen is just the understanding increasing of what this is about, what these games entail, and the level of competition.”
His evaluation of the team’s reaction is positive. “I think we dealt with it in a decent way. I think we’re going like that [signaling upwards], and we’re understanding what these games are like.”
Not one seeking complacency, as far as the most recent result against Mexico, Berhalter recognizes that the time is already passed to transition from celebration to really focusing on the task at hand. In his view, the battle is not yet over; rather, the most important match is always the next one as the team strives to qualify for the next World Cup.
“Something I said to the team before the Mexico game was [that] we want to beat Mexico, it’s important, but we have bigger things to focus on.”
“It’s a game that’s going to get us to our destination, just like Jamaica is a game that’s going to get us to the destination. You have to put just as much energy into both of these games. For us, our big picture is qualifying for this World Cup, and all Mexico does is put us closer. But the Jamaica game can put us even closer to qualifying.”
With two critical players – Weston McKennie and Miles Robinson both suspended, Berhalter also elaborated on the depth of the team as the aforementioned pair are two important elements that he won’t be able to count on in Jamaica.
“Obviously Miles [Robinson] and Weston [McKennie] are important players for our team. But when we made this roster, the message to the team is that everyone’s here to contribute and it’s a next-man-up mentality.”
“Either Mark McKenzie or Chris Richards will play it center back, where both of them have qualifying experience, and either Kellyn [Acosta], Gianluca [Busio] or Sebastian [Lletget] will play in midfield so, we have options there with guys that have World Cup [qualifying] experience.”
Nonetheless, this team is just about to blossom in the coach’s view. The expectation is high. Last time around some of his arsenals were still in their teens, so he sees this as their moment.
“If you think about the process since 2017, we did have veterans around, and we knew that we appreciated veterans. We value what they do, we value the experience that they can give to the group, and it was a matter of time before we can phase in some of these other players.”
“If you think about Gio Reyna at that time or if you think of Sergiño [Dest], these guys were 17 years old. For us, it was just a matter of time until we could start bringing these younger players along. I think the program in terms of this group, and the longevity of this group is in a good spot but, our job now is to keep performing.”
The coach also addressed the question of his best 11 players, and whether that concept even applies in the current world of international play.
“I think it’s theory versus reality,” he clarified. “What it comes down to in theory is that we say, okay this is our best 11. [However] you know how often these players are unavailable.”
Reflecting on when he first took the job, he described a moment with his predecessor. “I remember something that Bruce [Arena] told me when I was taking the job, “Gregg, you’re not going to have these players available all the time, something always comes up.””
“I think it’s better than we can accept that, then build the team based on that, and have the collective buy-in. The guys know that they can contribute, they should contribute, and that their job isn’t to be a passenger. Their job is to help this group be successful. It’s not about [who is] captain or not captain, [who is] number one goalie or number two goalie.”
“It’s not about that. It’s about the team being successful. That’s what we’re focused on, and that’s what every guy is focused on. There’s not a big ego in this team, there’s not guys that command a ton of attention. The guys just do their jobs.”
Regarding his presumed star, Christian Pulisic, who has missed significant time in recent months with injury, the Nats’ head coach spoke about how he feels that the Chelsea man can be used and be useful to the team.
“It comes down to a judgment call it and comes down to how we feel he can best affect the opponent. We could have started him against Mexico, but we didn’t want to start him against Mexico because we knew that he couldn’t go the full 90.”
“It’s going to be a similar type of question that we have to ask for this game; if we do start him, how much time can he play, what does that look like for the game and getting the result. For us, it’s still up in the air. What I’d say is that he’s come along really well after the game. He trained yesterday (and) he’ll be full in training today, so we’ll see.”
The former defender from New Jersey is simultaneously in both the hot seat and the driver’s seat. Although the USMNT is in a good position, now is the time to keep things in perspective and focus on the most important match. For this young team, it’s a match that can bring them closer to qualifying for a trip to Qatar next year.