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Two years of Gregg Berhalter: MNT squad building

It’s been two years since Gregg Berhalter took over the USMNT, so let’s take a critical look at what kind of players he’s calling up, and what that says about the program.

El Salvador v USMNT

With the close of January camp, we passed a milestone. On January 27, 2019 and 5 days after that on February 2nd, Gregg Berhalter fielded his first two teams as head coach of the United States Men’s National Team. And with the victory over Trinidad and Tobago on January 31st, we marked the two year point since those first two games. This basically marks a halfway point in the four year cycle, with about 6 months to go until World Cup Qualifying starts, and just shy of two years until the World Cup kicks off in November 2022.

We are going to dig into how the national team changed over the last two years. Of course, that’s a big topic, so to break it up a little bit, I’ve split it into four articles, two for this week and two for next. Today, we’ll take a look at Berhalter’s player pool, how aggressively Berhalter is recruiting, who is getting called up, and who is on the outside looking in. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about dual nationals. And we’ll continue next week with a piece on how Berhalter’s tactics have evolved over these two years, before finishing on the state of the talent pool.

Bringing in New Players

Berhalter has spent a lot of time bringing in and testing new players, many of whom have never appeared with the national team before. Indeed, Berhalter has capped a lot of players for the first time. Going into 2021, Berhalter had given an astounding 33 players their first cap, with an additional 6 players making their first appearance against Trinidad and Tobago on January 31st. That’s a lot. The list is basically too long to publish (don’t worry, I’ve got it here on a simple spreadsheet), and it’s an especially high number given the fact that the team only played four games in 2020. In total, 39 of the 69 total players that have received caps under Gregg Berhalter were new to the USMNT. It builds upon then-interim manager Dave Sarachan calling up green players like Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Zack Steffen, Josh Sargent, and others in 2018. The result has been a sustained period where new players have been introduced to the USMNT. It’s getting harder to cap new players now because, eventually, you start running out of uncapped players.

The obvious critique of testing so many new players is that you don’t get a chance for them to build chemistry and become accustomed to the international level. That’s admittedly hard to do in Covid times. Of the 5 games the USMNT played since we entered 2020, only 2 fell during a FIFA window where clubs were required to release players. Given that context, I can’t really fault Berhalter for spending the time exposing new players to the senior program.

Even with the huge number of new players, we still have an easily identifiable core, led by Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Zack Steffen, and Sergiño Dest. Even beyond those names, we have a good idea of how a projected roster would look. The real questions sit on the fringes...or in the future.

The future really is the answer to why the manager is capping so many players. There are practical concerns of course; who makes up the depth, particularly in positions of weakness? There's the fact that appearing for the national team helps players get noticed by bigger teams. In the cases of Sebastian Soto and Daryl Dike, it helped them both qualify for work permits to play in England. But really, the thought here is that these are young players who will grow, and grooming them for the national team early will help them later in their careers. I’ve talked before about how the January Camp for 2021 was built so heavily towards players on the Olympic team. But it hasn’t merely been the January Camps. Berhalter and the USSF has consistently been leveraging the senior team in order to give time and exposure to the U-23s. Considering that the U-23s have not qualified for the Olympics since 2008, and only once in the last 20 years, it seems some emphasis is due.

Left to Yesterday

The flip side of all this is the list of players who Berhalter has dropped or phased out of the national team. Of the players who started in that doomed last match for the 2018 World Cup qualifying, only a scant few are still with the team. Of the 23 players on that roster, only nine have made any appearances with Berhalter, with little prospect of that number increasing. Further, the only players from Bruce Arena’s group who remain a crucial part of the team are Christian Pulisic and Paul Arriola. However, the departure from Arena’s choices did not represent a return to the players that his predecessor, Jurgen Klinsmann, favored. Indeed, Berhalter has chosen to completely drop nearly all the senior players from the previous World Cup cycle. As a result, there are almost no players left with a high amount of international experience. Here is the list of players with at least 50 caps who have ever appeared under Gregg Berhalter:

Michael Bradley (151)
Jozy Altidore (115)
Brad Guzan (64)
DeAndre Yedlin (62)
Gyasi Zardes (56)
Omar Gonzalez (52)

Almost none of these players are expected to be first choice going forward. Indeed, almost all of them are expected to see declining minutes at the international level going forward. Bradley and Altidore represent by far the most senior players, with over 100 caps to their respective names. While both are among the most distinguished players in USMNT history, they both are showing clear signs of age-related career declines and have not featured for the MNT in over a year. Of the two, only Altidore (still only 31!) tentatively remains as a starter, and even then, only until either age or one of the promising young strikers forces a change. Brad Guzan is similarly an aging squad member. While he may serve as a back up, it’s not clear whether he will actually play again. On the other hand, Omar Gonzalez appears to have been completely phased out of the program. Only Gyasi Zardes and DeAndre Yedlin still have possible futures going forward, but both appear projected to be back ups. Out of the entire lot, I only feel confident that Zardes will have a significant and consistent presence on the team. Indeed, Zardes only makes this list because of how often Berhalter fielded him in 2019.

This phasing out of senior talent actually represents a big shift in the MNT’s culture. Both of America’s senior national teams have heavily relied on seniority for decades. While managers have come and gone, there has been continuity in a core of senior players. The U.S. actually has the most players in its history with at least 100 caps in the men’s game (and also the women’s game) with 17 (tied with Saudi Arabia). Indeed, Michael Bradley is the 8th most capped active player in the world, 26th in history. To go so quickly and completely from a squad historically rooted in seniority to one with almost no real senior players at all represents a massive — and frankly ambitious — move on the behalf of Berhalter. This sudden shift from a senior heavy squad to one full of teens and early 20-somethings means that Berhalter stands to shape the locker room culture for the next decade or so.

I think that helps explain a lot about why so many faces have simply been gone since Berhalter took over. Part of it is merely that a number of players simply were old and retired (ex. Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard). But Berhalter could have still called up the likes of Alejandro Bedoya, Timmy Chandler, or Fabian Johnson. Indeed, Dave Sarachan did call up Bedoya shortly before Berhalter took over, likely for exactly that sense of continuity. But if you are going to reshape that program culture, you aren’t going to really value that continuity. And without that, what purpose does bringing in these older players serve? While they may provide a small short-term talent improvement, they take away from what the younger players are building now. For this reason, I don’t think we are ever going to see the likes of Timmy Chandler or Eric Lichaj or Aron Jóhannsson again, simply because their time has passed. The current national team project is about looking ahead, and Berhalter has no interest in looking back.

That’s it for now. We’ll be back tomorrow to talk about how the national team has approached dual nationals under Gregg Berhalter, and continue next week with the tactics and the overall player pool. I’m sure a lot of you have thoughts and criticisms for everything I just said, so hit the comments and let me know what you think! And, of course, stay safe out there.