2020 has presented a very unique and difficult set of challenges for everyone, and that includes the USMNT as Gregg Berhalter and Co., prepare for the start of 2022 World Cup qualifying in a few months’ time.
Speaking ahead of Monday’s friendly against fellow CONCACAF nation Panama, Berhalter described some of the challenges he and his staff have faced to assemble a group of players that they feel can return the USMNT to the World Cup, as well as the difficulty to do so with only this month’s training camp to include the vast majority of first-team figures between now the start of qualifying.
Most notably, Berhalter indicated that further building chemistry and on-field relationship is his main priority to complete this camp. In previous situations of back-to-back friendlies, the distribution of minutes would be more freely spread out among the players called into camp, whereas this time around his focus is squarely on the USMNT players most likely to kick off qualifying at a still-to-be-determined time in 2021.
“When I first took over, we were switching guys left and right. Now, as we’re getting toward [qualifying], we’re starting to feel the urgency. This group won’t be in until March again, and then potentially Nations League [in June], and doubtfully for Gold Cup, so we’re basically going to have four more games together after this game. That’s a small number, so it is crucial that we get guys playing together and comfortable with each other.”
“We’re going to try to build on what we had last game, so it will most likely look similar but with some slightly different personnel.”
“One thing I’ve noticed, especially when you’re working with young players or a group that’s just forming, is you go through different stages of team development. With this group in particular, it is more of individuals looking for their position within the team. We clearly want to move to more of a team-oriented standpoint as we get into qualifying.
“It’s completely natural what’s happening now — a guy wants to come into camp, he wants to make a good impression on the coaching staff, he wants to play really well and focus more on himself. As he gets more comfortable, now he’s focused more on his teammates. We certainly want to get to that stage by qualifying, because that’s going to be really important.”
One of the small number of changes that Berhalter revealed is that Reggie Cannon will be inserted into the USMNT starting lineup at right back. Sergiño Dest, who started there against Wales, figures to shift to the other side of the field and play left back. While he’s certainly competent on the left, Berhalter admits that Dest does face some opponent-specific challenges on his unnatural side.
“With Sergiño [on the left], sometimes you run into the issue against compact opponents that he has a tendency to come inside, which is completely natural to come onto his strong foot. If there’s no space, it may be difficult.
“On the right, he’s used to arriving more — something we’ve been working with him on, getting really deep into the penalty box that he can create dangerous plays. On the left, he’s ball-secure, he’s good combining — if you have a winger that stays wide, it could be a really good combination.”
As for the opponent, Panama, precious few players in the camp have participated in a World Cup qualifier against CONCACAF opposition, and that’s an experience they will have to take in stride when the games take on a new meaning next year. Monday will serve as but a small glimpse into a brand new world.
“I think [facing Panama] is a great opportunity for some of the guys that aren’t as familiar with CONCACAF opponents to get that experience, so we’re really happy with this game.”
Check back on PST for full coverage of the USMNT vs. Panama, including recap, player ratings, three things we learned, and comments and quotes from Berhalter and the players after the game.