Shortly before a team of mostly MLS-based players go up against Bosnia & Herzegovina, a similarly young, domestic-based team, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter took questions from the press and spoke about this group of youngsters that he feels may have a future with the national team.
When he burst onto the scene just three short months ago, scoring the game winner against Honduras, both fans and media began to dream that the USMNT has finally found a potential world class striker in young Ricardo Pepi. Since then, the pressure has been on the teenager from Texas.
“I have had conversations with him,” Berhalter said from the US camp in Carson, California, “and what I say is that I’m really impressed with how he’s handling all of this [pressure]. Eighteen years old and being the starting striker for the US National Team is a big responsibility.”
Addressing the constant murmurs about an inevitable high-profile move to Europe for the Texan, Berhalter was quick to point out that this has not distracted his focus from what he needs to do in the national team uniform.
“Also with all these rumors going around about clubs and this and that; he’s handled it really well,” the coach complimented. “He’s focused on getting better each and every day on the training pitch and using every opportunity on the field to have a good game. So again, [I’m] really impressed with the way he’s handled it and I think that bodes well for his future to handle pressure in situations like this.”
Berhalter also touched upon couple of players who players who have been around the USA setup before, though not receiving much attention from the coach in recent years for different reasons, with injuries playing a major role for both. Aaron Long had a good 2019 with 14 caps and three goals, but has only featured on five occasions since then. Jordan Morris, as well, hasn’t been called up since 2019.
“Aaron came into camp without having a full team session [since awhile], he’s worked his way into full team sessions, and he’s looked great,” the Jersey born coach stated. “I’m really impressed with his rehab and how he’s gotten himself to this point.”
“I’m not sure he’d be able to play fully in the game tomorrow but he’s certainly well on his way to be able to play in a game so that’s great news.”
“Regarding Jordan,” he continued, switching gears, “he’s looked sharp the entire time. We knew that he had a long layoff, he got back into it with Seattle and they’ve done a great job getting him back to a good point. He looks fit, he looks sharp. I’m really looking forward to him performing tomorrow.”
Most could agree on the fact that the timing of this camp is something of an unusual one, based on the timing with the MLS players having already finished their seasons while the rest of the senior team is still in the thick of it with their European clubs.
Furthermore, with this not being FIFA-sanctioned international break, putting together a proper Team USA was not going to happen as the vast majority of European teams would not release their players. Still, Berhalter sees this camp as important, especially when being able to look at new and fringe players.
“In terms of the camp, what I’d say in general the guys have been a pleasure to work with. From day one it’s been about learning and improving. I think we have eight or nine guys who have never been involved in camp before and giving them that experience, and the older guys helping the younger guys along, so that’s been really impressive from the whole group.”
With a number of teenage players in the camp who are expected to be major contributors to the U20 team as they face a critical 2022, he also sees it as a chance for these youngsters to seize this opportunity.
“It’s a nice challenge for the guys,” he explained, continuing, “you aspire to something your whole career and then you get the opportunity. It’s nice to see how the players embrace that.”
“We want to expand the player pool and that’s our [desire], but it’s up to them to show that we need to do it and to take advantage of their opportunity.”
Continuing about the experiences of the collection of teenagers and how he sees this camp as a way to slowly integrate them into the long-term vision, he sees the camp and game against the Bosnians as a win-win scenario.
“Some of the younger guys might not be exactly ready for a national team call up but they’ve been coping with it well and holding their own so all that has been really positive. So now it’s about how do we finish the year in a good way and [with] a good performance again Bosnia.”
As the coach reiterated, the reason for having the camp, any camp, is to prepare for the next cycle of qualifiers. An important part of this is keeping the MLSers fresh and game fit.
“If you work back from the end of the [MLS] regular season, some guys went into the international window, played the November window, had some time off and then are back into this camp.”
“They had about two and a half weeks off before this camp started, he continued. “The whole idea is to keep the guys moving, specifically the guys in Major League Soccer. We think that time off is good for them to recharge and relax but we still have to keep them going physically.”
“When you look at this camp, that’s the emphasis of the [Bosnia] game; keeping our core guys, guys like Walker Zimmerman. Him playing 90 minutes tomorrow is important.”
“Ricardo Pepi is another guy, so keeping these guys moving will be important for us.”
Looking ahead to the strategy of how to navigate the tricky task of keeping all of his players, both those still playing in Europe as well as the MLSers in this camp, on the same page of fitness and game-readiness, the coach gave insights about how he plans to tackle the next six weeks until the next qualifier against El Salvador.
“[After this] we have another three weeks off where they have a program to do, and then we get back into camp. So even though the window starts end of January, we’re in camp on January 6th again.”
“So we’re hitting the ground running and it will be a very similar focus. If we want to compete like we do in this window, it’s essential to have these guys fit.”
Although the entire coaching staff sees this as an important game in terms of looking at potential future national team stalwarts, keeping players fresh for the next qualifiers is of the utmost importance. And yes, a victory to close out 2021, one of the team’s most successful years of all time, would be pretty nice too.