We’re closing in on ten months with Gregg Berhalter in charge of the U.S. Men’s National Team, and despite all of the results in that time span, give credit to Berhalter for one thing. He’s sticking to his plan.
Berhalter and a young USMNT (with an average age of just 25) open up the CONCACAF Nations League on Friday by hosting Cuba in Washington D.C. at 7:00 p.m. Based on the roster he called up, Berhalter plans to continue drilling his tactical and playing style ideas into his players heads until it becomes second nature. 20 players from the now-25-man squad were in his September camp and per U.S. Soccer, 24 of the 25 players have seen time for the USMNT this calendar year.
[READ: Pulisic details his journey so far]
While the Nations League is a competitive match on paper, there isn’t a whole lot that the U.S. can take away from a game against Cuba at home. All fans and the USMNT coaching staff would see individual performances and how the team performed at executing a gameplan.
It’s this gameplan, along with some of the young stars taking part, that will be most interesting to watch.
With Steffan starting again in goal, Cuba should provide more space or at least a better chance for the USMNT to play out of the box and start the buildup play early. From there, we can see players like Matt Miazga grow some confidence with good passes out of the back into the midfield or the long diagonal pass to the wingers in space.
It’s unclear whether Berhalter will start Bradley, his preferred No. 6, or save him for the game against Canada at his home stadium, BMO Field, on Tuesday. If not, it could be another cap for Jackson Yueill to show off his range of passing and keep the ball moving from side to side.
Speaking of wingers from before, it’s been a roller coaster of a last few months for Tyler Boyd. He completed his one-time switch to join the USMNT, started a few games and even scored in the early Gold Cup match against Guyana. But then he lost his national team starting spot to Jordan Morris, who’s had a terrific second half of the MLS season with Seattle, and Boyd has also struggled with his new club, Besiktas. He has just one start in all competitions since the beginning of September. He didn’t even make it off the bench in Besiktas’ 1-0 defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers in the UEFA Europa League last week.
And yet, Berhalter has committed to Boyd and is willing to call him in, whether he’s in form or not. So the match against Cuba could be another chance for Boyd to show what he’s all about.
Somewhat similarly is Christian Pulisic. Everyone has watched as he started the season well but has found playing time hard to get. Even so, when he’s played he’s had an impact, as was seen last weekend in his 15-minute substitute appearance for Chelsea when he set up a goal. Clearly, even if he’s out of form, he is still the best attacking talent the USMNT has and will always be given a chance by Berhalter.
Lastly, there’s the striker position. It was announced earlier that with Jozy Altidore out injured again – missing his second straight USMNT camp, though last time was not injury related – 19-year-old forward Joshua Sargent would start up top against Cuba. This could be a changing of the guard, with Sargent preferred over Gyasi Zardes as Altidore’s backup with the USMNT. Or, it could have been the plan all along to play Sargent against Cuba and Zardes against Canada. We’ll see.
In any case, with Sargent getting starts for Werder Bremen in the Bundesliga, the Cuba match could be his chance to become a household name for many. It’s his first senior international game in a competitive tournament, and his hold up play, the way he reads the game and ability to play off the back shoulder of the centerbacks could lead to a goal or two on the night.
Ultimately, Friday’s test with Cuba will be a study in how this squad continues to absorb and understand Berhalter’s style of play, as he looks to prepare his team ultimately for the start of World Cup qualifying in September 2020.