Gregg Berhalter was victorious in his first coaching experience as head of the U.S. Men’s National Team, but he was all about passing the praise on to his players after beating Panama 3-0.
The 45-year-old had nothing but positive things to say about his squad, mainly the debutants, of which there were five in the starting lineup, and two more who came off the bench.
“I think when you look at [Corey] Baird and [Djordje] Mihailovic, two first-cap guys and scoring points, and when you look at [Jonathan] Lewis and [Christian] Ramirez, same thing,” Berhalter said in his post-match press conference. “So it’s just nice, it’s nice to put in the work for an extended period of time and then get a reward like that. The guys should be proud of themselves, they really worked hard in San Diego, and it’s nice when you can see that paying off.”
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Mihailovic scored the opening goal, and while that was the highlight moment for the debutants until Ramirez bagged his own at the death, there were plenty of other things Berhalter was impressed with, things he can use going forward to build the squad’s tactical depth.
“When I addressed the group after the game, I said it was a good base line, it gave us enough content to work with,” Berhalter said. “Some of the movements we were working with on the wings were very complicated movements that involve three players interchanging with the intention of disorganizing the defense and getting behind their lines. Sometimes we were a bit tentative with that, and other times they came off and was very nice.”
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Nick Lima won the Man of the Match award after the game, but Berhalter said he gave out his own award, and awarded it to Lima as well. The San Jose right-back was in a fascinating role throughout the match, deployed at his natural position but often flowing into the midfield to run the possessional distribution alongside Michael Bradley. His highlight moment came towards the end when he scythed down a Panama counter-attack and turned it directly into a United States goal, a moment which Berhalter pointed to unprompted.
“He got the coach’s Man of the Match because of the complication of what we asked him to do and how he dealt with it,” Berhalter said after the match. “It’s not easy to ask your right-back to get the ball with his back to goal, it’s not easy to ask him to pivot in midfield, to create space for other people, but he did a good job with that. He competed on every play…the second goal is a great example of his competing in transition and winning the ball and serving the ball in. So we were really happy with him and I think it showed that he has a good understanding of the game.”
He also spoke about the first goalscorer Mihailovic, who was impressive in his own right in the midfield. Berhalter had singled him out at the media opportunities earlier in camp, and the 20-year-old made his coach look good by doing the dirty work alongside his crowning moment.
“When we talked in San Diego, I was telling you all how impressed I was with Djordje all camp,” Berhalter said of the Chicago Fire academy product. “He’s been one of the players that’s been…his line has just kept going upwards, he’s been developing really well. He’s a smart soccer player. If you slow it down and look at some of the small things he does, you can understand how intelligent of a soccer player he is. I think the proud moment for a coach becomes when you select him to be played but then he performs, and I can just imagine how proud he is right now and how proud his family is right now and that’s a really gratifying feeling.”
Finally, Berhalter was asked to explain his decision to give the captain’s armband to defender Aaron Long, on his national team debut, instead of 142-cap owner Michael Bradley, who has worn the armband since earning the role in 2015.
“Working with Aaron for the last two and a half weeks, you see his leadership qualities,” Berhalter said. “Every exercise we do he’s competitive, he’s driving guys, he’s pushing guys, and we liked that, we liked his demeanor. I don’t think it was a knock against anyone else that they weren’t captain, I think I would look at it as more of a positive that he was captain because of what he’s been doing these last couple of weeks.”
Berhalter said he spoke to Michael Bradley about the decision to make Long captain, citing his own experience in a similar situation when nobody spoke to him as a player.