Gregg Berhalter

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Julian Gressel’s quest for USMNT eligibility hits potential snag

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According to a report by Sam Stejskal of The Athletic, Atlanta United winger Julian Gressel has aspirations of playing for the U.S. National Team, but with two-and-a-half years to go before he’s eligible, his contract situation at the club level hangs in the balance, leaving his pathway to citizenship in serious question.

The 25-year-old German-born winger was the eighth overall pick in the 2017 MLS draft out of Providence, and having married an American he met in college, there is a path to naturalization in spring of 2022 and thus eligibility for the USMNT ahead of the 2022 World Cup, which is set to start in November. However, Gressel is in the final year of his contract at Atlanta United, with the club exercising his 2020 option last week.

The Athletic report claims that Gressel does not want to play on the contract option which pays him $133,000 for the season in guaranteed money, but the two sides have reportedly yet to begin negotiations on a longer deal. Gressel doesn’t know what will happen in terms of his long-term future at the club, but says he has absolutely thought about his potential future with the United States.

“It’s definitely crossed my mind,” Gressel told Stejskal of playing for the USMNT. “It’d be awesome, it’d be really cool to be a part of [the upcoming World Cup], but obviously that’s where it kind of all comes back together with the contract situation. You’re kind of just weighing that out and kind of seeing how it goes, because if I stay here obviously that becomes more a realistic opportunity for me, I believe. So this offseason is kind of a big thing, or until the summer maybe, who knows?”

Gressel said he feels like the United States has become “my home” and says he “loves” Atlanta United, so there’s absolutely a desire to get a deal done, but his projected 2020 salary ranks almost half the 2019 average MLS salary for non-designated players ($346,000), a paltry figure for a player who has 17 goals and 34 assists in two years with the club.

The former Providence man would absolutely be an option for the USMNT should he become eligible before the World Cup, and Stejskal reports that Gregg Berhalter has made contact with Gressel’s representatives. The USMNT is incredibly short on wide players, with Paul Arriola and Jordan Morris becoming regulars over the past year, while Tyler Boyd and Corey Baird have also been options for Berhalter of late.

Rating the USMNT’s complete 2019 season

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2019 was supposed to be the year that the USMNT put the disaster in Trinidad & Tobago officially behind them. Instead, they flopped and floundered their way to more questions than answers in a year of change and doubt.

The first game of the year was also the first game of the Gregg Berhalter era, and while there were plenty of positive signs early on, it began to fall apart midway through the summer, and by the end of yesterday’s comprehensive win over troubled Cuba, there is plenty of unknown moving forward.

Berhalter began his tenure with friendly wins over Panama and Costa Rica, outscoring those opponents 5-0 and seeing the emergence of fringe players like Djordje Mihailovic, Daniel Lovitz, and Christian Ramirez who had broken out under interim boss Dave Sarachen but were also afforded some time with the main man in charge. It quickly became clear, however, that those players were not the ones to take the U.S. forward as the regulars returned for the win over Ecuador.

Flaws began to slowly emerge in the Ecuador win and the ensuing Chile draw in March, and as Berhalter dug in for the long spring international layoff, he prepared the plan for the Gold Cup summer. Whatever the plan, it did not emerge as expected. Veterans Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore returned for the summer slog, but they were powerless to stop the train from slowly screeching to a halt. The group stage went well against inferior opponents – including a 6-0 drubbing of Trinidad & Tobago to secure some minor revenge for two years prior – but a 1-0 win over lowly Curacao in the quarterfinals saw bubbles being to rise.

The US managed to get by Jamaica in the semis thanks to Christian Pulisic‘s textbook heroics, but the finals were a different story. A 1-0 loss to Mexico that saw the U.S. thoroughly dominated was the first real coin to drop, followed by a thorough 3-0 butt-whooping by Mexico’s B-side two months later in a friendly on home soil.

It all fell apart from there. They drew 1-1 with Uruguay’s backups a few days later, and then after skating by defection-laden Cuba, the worst result of the slate saw the U.S. stunned in Canada in Nations League play. The result not only proved a humbling reminder of the team’s work to do, but also put their Nations League standing in real jeopardy far earlier than any fan deemed acceptable.

The U.S. rescued its position and secured passage to the next round of the competition, but real problems remain. Berhalter’s coaching and tactical acumen have been questioned on multiple fronts, with many wondering whether his possessional style of play is too ambitious for a country still searching for top talent.

Still, the most pressing issue seems to be the suddenly paper-thin talent pool that currently troubles the nation. Injuries to players like John Brooks, Michael Bradley, and even Pulisic have left the United States forced to deploy players far below World Cup quality in their stead. Formerly promising critical young players such as DeAndre Yedlin and Weston McKennie have seemingly regressed, but with little behind them in terms of depth, Berhalter is forced to toil on hoping they recapture their form of not long ago.

Amid a toilsome year, the capture of Sergino Dest and the true emergence of Jordan Morris are individual success stories that deserve merit. Dest heavily considered his eligibility for the Netherlands but was ultimately swayed by Berhalter’s vision. Morris has returned from a serious knee injury by reinventing himself as an inverted winger, and his style switch has been an unmitigated triumph, transforming from a questionable developmental project to a near-lock in the squad.

In addition, Christian Pulisic’s rise to international stardom must also be considered. Unlike the development of Yedlin and McKennie which have been suddenly put in peril, Pulisic has continued to excel at the club level, moving to Chelsea and bursting onto the Premier League scene after a brief period of uncertainty. He continues to carry the U.S. side as well when given a chance, but as the Gold Cup disappointment shows, he clearly can’t do it on his own.

Still, in a year with few competitive matches against teams of the quality the United States aspires to equal, Berhalter failed the test. The overall body of work was simply not acceptable. He has the full support of U.S. Soccer for now – at least publicly – but there is much to be done as the U.S. moves further into the World Cup cycle and towards a potential return to the big dance. Berhalter must continue to establish his identity, but more importantly he must develop a talent pool that both excels at developing its most important players and finds those who can contribute in positions of its greatest need.

While the small success stories deserve to factor in, the simple fact is Berhalter does not deserve a passing grade, as questions of where the United States fit into the larger world picture suddenly loom large.

OVERALL GRADE: D+

Full 2019 USMNT results

Jan 28 – W 3-0 vs. Panama (friendly)
Feb 2 – W 2-0 vs. Costa Rica (friendly)
Mar 22 – W 1-0 vs. Ecuador (friendly)
Mar 27 – D 1-1 vs. Chile (friendly)
June 6 – L 1-0 vs. Jamaica (friendly)
June 9 – L 3-0 vs. Venezuela (friendly)
June 19 – W 4-0 vs. Guyana (Gold Cup)
June 23 – W 6-0 vs. Trinidad & Tobago (Gold Cup)
July 1 – W 1-0 vs. Curacao (Gold Cup QF)
July 4 – W 3-1 vs. Jamaica (Gold Cup SF)
July 8 – L 1-0 vs. Mexico (Gold Cup Finals)
Sept 7 – L 3-0 vs. Mexico (friendly)
Sept 11 – D 1-1 vs. Uruguay (friendly)
Oct 12 – W 7-0 vs. Cuba (CONCACAF Nations League)
Oct 16 – L 2-0 @ Canada (CONCACAF Nations League)
Nov 16 – W 4-1 vs. Canada (CONCACAF Nations League)
Nov 19 – W 4-0 @ Cuba (CONCACAF Nations League)

What did we learn about USMNT during Nations League?

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The inaugural Nations League group stage is complete, and the U.S. men’s national team managed to finish top of Group A (on the final day of play) and secure its place in the semifinals next June.

[ MORE: USMNT cruises past Cuba to reach Nations League semis ]

So, what did we learn from the final four (semi-competitive) games of 2019?

No matter the competition, the chance creation isn’t there

Inevitably, eventually, the USMNT ends up attacking its opponents in one of two ways: with long, direct balls up to the forward line, or exclusively through wide attackers and constant crosses into the box. In beating Canada and Cuba by a combined score of 8-1 during this international window, Gregg Berhalter’s team relied almost exclusively on these “tactics.” Predictably, it’s also the default setting when facing tougher competition, such as Mexico and Uruguay earlier in 2019.

Neither of those plans are bad plans, per se, only neither of those plans are what the federation has pursued as its stated goal for the last decade: possession-based soccer featuring ample chance creation from midfield.

Five coaches have taken charge of the USMNT this decade, all with varying levels of promising the above stylistic improvements. Upon completing the USMNT’s final game of the decade, it’s fair to say that all five failed.

The worst part of all is that the presence of Christian Pulisic hardly cures anything. Sure, he’s the craftiest attacking player the U.S. has ever produced, but even a primary playmaker like Pulisic requires a stable midfield behind him to filter the ball upfield and give him a stage on which to perform. Weston McKennie was stellar against Canada on Friday, but he’s proven that, at just 21 years old, he can’t be counted on to that degree game in and game out.

The good news: they’re both 21 years old and have north of 50 caps between them. One day — and it could come soon — everything should click for each of them, at which point we could see them move to operate at a totally different level.


The full backs are suddenly a bright spot

Perhaps it’s a tad hasty to claim the full backs are trending positively, but the current crop of right backs sure looks deeper and more talented than ever before. Sergiño Dest chose to play for the USMNT and is now cap-tied, Reggie Cannon is coming along nicely, and DeAndre Yedlin has proven himself, at the very least, a non-problem plenty of times.

That’s three more reliable full backs than the USMNT has had since Steve Cherundolo retired in 2012. Unfortunately, they all play on the same side of the field.

Tim Ream and Daniel Lovitz, who started at left back  don’t inspire the most confidence or excitement at left back, but perhaps a defense-first option is the way to go given the attacking instincts of all three players on the opposite side.

If Berhalter has truly settled on John Brooks and one of Aaron Long or Matt Mizaga as his starting center backs, then the USMNT heads into 2020 with a relatively stable, non-fluid situation along the backline since… maybe the 2010 World Cup.

Small victories, but victories nonetheless.

Preview: USMNT’s must-win Nations League finale v. Cuba

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The scenario is simple for the U.S. men’s national team ahead of Tuesday’s clash with Cuba (7:30 p.m.ET): Gregg Berhalter’s side will finish top of Group A with a victory, and only a victory. Period. It’s as simple as that.

[ MORE: Brazil beat Mexico to win U-17 World Cup (video) ]

Friday’s victory over Canada righted the wrongs of last month’s defeat north of the border and laid the foundation for the Americans to reach the semifinals in the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League, provided they take care of business in George Town, Cayman Islands, in what is set to be the final game of Berhalter’s first calendar year in charge. Despite trailing Canada (+6 goal differential)  by three points heading into Friday, the Yanks (+8) already have the tiebreaker in their favor.

Jordan Morris, Gyasi Zardes (twice) and Aaron Long scored to give the USMNT its 4-1 triumph over their northern neighbors. More importantly, it was a largely dominant display after going 1-0 up inside two minutes and carrying a 3-0 led into halftime.

[ MORE: Premier League Team of the Season so far ]

The USMNT will once again be without Christian Pulisic (hip injury), leaving the attacking options on the roster quite thin. Morris, who got a goal and an assist against Canada, will likely start on the left again, with Sebastian Lletget and Paul Arriola playing centrally and on the right respectively. Zardes is the presumed starter up top, unless Berhalter opts for the youthful inexperience of Josh Sargent in a must-win game.

Berhalter appears to have settled on a pretty consistent backline, with Sergiño Dest and Aaron Long manning the right side and John Brooks and, at least on Friday, Tim Ream on the left. Weston McKennie’s place deep in midfield has been cemented for quite some time, but he’s partnered close to a half-dozen players alongside him this year alone. The 21-year-old Schalke midfielder was stellar against Canada, frequently starting counter-attacks and carrying the ball into the final third.

Projected USMNT lineup

I___________I
Guzan

Dest —— Long —— Brooks —— Ream

McKennie —— Roldan

Arriola —— Lletget —— Morris

Zardes

Three things we learned from USMNT-Canada

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The USMNT reclaimed its driver’s seat status for the CONCACAF Nations League with a 4-1 defeat of Canada in Orlando on Friday.

[ MORE: Match recap ]

Here’s what we gleaned from 90 minutes near Disneyworld.

Berhalter returns the tactical beatdown

Canada coach John Herdman opted to take his most electric attacker, Alphonso Davies, and play him at left back. Yes, he’s played there for Bayern Munich — who is in a defender crisis — but considering what Davies did to the USMNT last month in Toronto, well, what a let off!

Berhalter would’ve learned that he had to punish Canada’s back line, an untested group he didn’t test last month. So while it turned some heads that Gyasi Zardes and Paul Arriola got start over Josh Sargent and Tyler Boyd, they combined with Jordan Morris to bring industry in spades.

It also helped that Weston McKennie was much better, and that Sergino Dest and John Brooks were available, but credit Berhalter for flipping the script after October’s Ontario humiliation. While his seven changes to the lineup were an exaggerated change — he certainly would’ve preferred to play injured Michael Bradley and Christian Pulisic — but it’s good to see the coach recognize the errors of his ways.

Gyasi Zardes flummoxes most of the USMNT fandom

Look: It seemed like next level trolling when Gregg Berhalter called upon his longtime Columbus Crew striker to start over Josh Sargent, but it turned out to be a risk well-rewarded.

The athletic, powerful American striker was a handful for the aforementioned, overmatched back line.

Yes his second goal was deflected past Milan Borjan, and no he’s never going to be the club’s best striker. But considering how often many of us have criticized the continued call-ups of Zardes, he’ll be having an ice cold pint water of water and clinking glasses with Berhalter after the match.

Dest delivers

Ajax right back Sergino Dest is now an American player (“Sandlot” voice) for-ev-er, and the recently-minted 19-year-old was absolute dynamite going forward.

Dest presents a variety of 1v1 moves, as evidenced on a lightning counter that finished short of a goal when he dragged a shot wide of the far post.

If there was any question that the Yanks scored a victory in getting him to commit to the U.S., he answered them all positively. Good on you, Earnie Stewart and Berhalter.