The Gold Cup is back and it seems like the last one just ended. In two short years a lot has happened. In the same year that the USMNT managed to beat Jamaica in the Gold Cup final, thanks to manager Bruce Arena using his ability to change his roster to bring in tried and true players rather than see if younger ones could handle getting to the final against an international soccer power like the Reggae Boyz, the team also missed its first World Cup in 28 years.
Since then, much has changed... or it has stayed the same as new faces have emerged. Sunil Gulati is gone but Carlos Cordeiro has taken his place with the same dedication to bringing more transparency and equality to the federation that his predecessor did. Other constants have been more obvious as the player pool has yet to produce players that can replace veterans like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and fan favorite - guy who is nominally able to play left back. At least that seems to be the case in the eyes of Gregg Berhalter.
Let’s take a trip though time to see how the player pool has evolved. Here is basically what the USMNT looked like in 2017 during the Gold Cup final:
And here it is now:
But there’s hope, here’s what it could look like in 2021 when qualifying gets serious.
That 2021 lineup has a lot of promise, but right now it’s all hype and the yoots have a lot of work to do to shape themselves into a squad that is full of players not only testing themselves at the highest levels, but thriving in them.
I want to believe that we can win (sorry)
Speaking of changes, there’s also a new coach. Gregg Berhalter has had some... growing pains as USMNT manager. There seem to have been some closed door coin flip type shenanigans rather than an open and transparent process that led to him being hired as manager of the team, so he didn’t exactly build a lot of goodwill with fans from the start. Not being named Tata Martino also hurts his case for being good actually. Not only that, but his teams haven’t ever really dominated in MLS. The Crew could usually be counted on to make the playoffs, but weren’t Supporters’ Shield winners ever and failed to win MLS Cup against a hot but badly flawed Portland Timbers team. There are certainly better managers than Berhalter, or at least managers who have had better players.
But here’s the thing, men’s soccer in America needs coaches like Gregg Berhalter. On the cusp of the Gold Cup 40 man roster being announced, the last manager to take the USMNT to the tournament made his return to coaching. Bruce Arena was brought into New England to turn around a franchise that is poorly run, has a roster that might have been competitive in MLS 10 years ago, and whose field is so embarrassing they might as well play at McCoy Stadium. It’s a perfect fit. Arena represents a bygone era of managers in MLS - ones who think coaching means fitness, team spirit, and leadership more than... you know, knowing about the sport they manage while also taking credit for his team’s accomplishments while having the best designated players and best American in MLS during their most successful run and knowing who is actually stirring the drink.
Berhalter represents a shift and an important one. He seems to be intellectually curious about the game and understands that he doesn’t have all of the answers but wants to find them. The MNT manager wants to play with possession and do it in a certain style - say a Catalan style. I mean look at this video, it exists and is about an American soccer coach, it’s pretty remarkable and speaks to the ambition and talent that Berhalter has as a manager.
The video includes a quote from Berhalter that may as well been uttered by Johan Cruyff: “We’re about the collective. We’re about 11 players on the day, being able to play together in a way that makes it difficult for the opponent. I don’t think we’ve ever been about the individuals; that’s not our style.” Whatever you think about Berhalter, having a manager who even has this as a foundational value as a soccer manager is a good thing even if he’s not nearly the coach that Cruyff was.
And yet, the dread remains
This brings up a question - why isn’t it working? Partly it seems to be due to the players. Right now those charged with making that system work in central midfield either aren’t playing in their best spot or won’t be able to compete at a high international level because they just aren’t as good as the competition. However much MLS has improved, American central midfielders in the league are not starting in La Liga for a reason. Berhalter can get the tactics to work, but the right players will need to emerge and he’ll have to get out of his own way to recognize their talent and trust that they can do the job.
Partly it also seems to be due to the fact that what Berhalter wants is to have his team play simple and simple soccer is hard. As former Columbus Crew central defender Michael Parkhurst recently told Chris Fuhrmeister of ProSoccerUSA:
Gregg has adapted the system to certain players as well. You have to find players’ strengths and adapt things here and there to fit their skill set. Coaches have to adapt, players have to adapt.But players do need to learn a certain way of playing and runs that need to be made and where to find guys and how he wants to build up out of the back and pressing defensively. And he wants a right back to play as a No. 6 sometimes and move things around and switch formations and stuff. That’s difficult, even for the highest level of professionals.
The last piece of the puzzle though is the manager. The players Berhalter has called in have been a little... perhaps over-represented by MLS since he’s more familiar with those in the league. In part this is due to the fact that the federation let American Manager Dave Sarachan coach the team for a year rather than hire a permanent manager. It is taking Berhalter some time to figure out what he thinks of players like Josh Sargent whose entire summer as an international has been unnecessarily wasted - a victim of a process that hasn’t been implemented very well so far. This also meant that the right back at number six thing is taking a while to figure out. Tyler Adams and Nick Lima could have been learning that role over the last 18 months rather than rushing into the role now, with Adams injured that process will be further delayed in his case.
At the end of the day, Berhalter will be judged by the results on the field and by how well his team plays against the best sides in the world in the World Cup. As much as the results will say about Berhalter and his ideas about tactics, they will also speak to the quality of the men’s player pool. There are promising signs right now that the players could be up for the challenge. Weston McKennie has an edge and toughness to his game that central midfield has lacked since the days of Kyle Beckerman cleaning out Raul Meireles and dumping Bastian Schweinsteiger in 2014. That he’s doing it in the Bundesliga is promising. The talent that the other youngsters like Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent, Tim Weah, Miles Robinson, Tyler Boyd, and Paxton Pomykal have should enable Berhalter to get his system to work if they keep developing along the paths they’re on.
Sadly for now we aren’t going to get to see that team that could be legitimate dark-horses in 2022 and possible contenders in 2026. It may indeed be a while before the positive results from Berhalter’s process emerge, if they do at all. The Gold Cup will be an opportunity to see how his system is progressing, but the talent will also need to emerge in order for the team to really thrive.