Gregg Berhalter’s first competitive tournament as coach of the U.S. men’s soccer team could mark an early turning point in his efforts to remake a program coming off its first failed World Cup qualifying campaign in more than three decades.
The Americans begin play in the CONCACAF Gold Cup on Tuesday in St. Paul, Minn., facing Guyana in the final group-play opener of the three-week, 16-team regional championship. The tournament kicked off Saturday at the Rose Bowl and will conclude July 7 in Chicago.
Guyana, playing in tournament for the first time, shouldn’t be much of a challenge for the U.S. But after that come stiffer tests against Trinidad and Tobago, the team that kept the U.S. from playing in the 2018 World Cup, and Panama, the team that went to Russia in its place.
But it isn’t so much who the Americans are playing at this stage as it is how they’re playing.
“Our goal,” midfielder Weston McKennie said “is to make people see U.S. soccer as something different.”
In Berhalter’s first three games in charge, all winter friendlies, the U.S. laid the foundation for implementing the coach’s new system by posting three shutout victories. In its last three games the U.S. is winless and has been outscored 5-1.
The coach is promising to stay the course, though, insisting that learning to play the attractive, demanding and free-flowing type of game he wants to play will take time to master.
“Everyone’s starting to understand the style,” McKennie said. “We want to progress. Of course that also means winning games. But we want to develop our style.”
McKennie’s summer call-up is just his second under Berhalter and he’s still learning the system. For forward Paul Arriola, who is in his third training camp of the year, things are starting to make sense.
“Our first camp in January was very demanding as far as learning experience and learning curve,” Arriola said. “Once we get over that, it’s amazing. Gregg has sent us up to succeed and it’s up to the players to accomplish the mission.”
Michael Bradley, playing for his fifth national team coach, agreed.
“There’s already a comfort level in terms of how he works, what he wants, the way he goes about things,” Bradley said. “The ideas of who we want to be, of how we want to play and what we want to be about, those are all very clear.”
Things could get a little cloudy in the Gold Cup, however, since the U.S. will be without defender Tyler Adams, who has adapted exceptionally well to Berhalter’s hybrid right-back role, perhaps the most important and challenging assignment in the coach’s 4-3-3 formation.
“Tyler has a unique skill set. He has versatility, he can play inside, he can play wide, he’s a top talent,” Berhalter said of Adams, 20.
“We would have loved to have him. But we don’t.”
The U.S. is the defending Gold Cup champion and has won two of the last three editions of the biennial tournament. However, the roster Berhalter will take into Tuesday’s opener has just seven holdovers from the one that started the 2017 tournament, and just three players who have gone to a World Cup, an indication of just how drastic a makeover the team has undergone.
Among the additions are Chelsea midfielder Christian Pulisic and the LAFC pair of Walker Zimmerman, a defender, and Tyler Miller, a goalkeeper.
Berhalter said he plans to use Pulisic, his most dynamic player, as a central midfielder but will push him wide on occasion as well. Zimmerman, in his second national team camp this year, is likely to get additional playing time because of an injury that kept Wolfsburg’s John Brooks off the team.
The U.S. has made it the semifinals of the last eight Gold Cups, winning the tournament six times overall.
”It’s a long tournament. It’s a challenging tournament in that there’s a lot that gets thrown at you,” said Bradley, who is playing in the tournament for the fifth time. “Games come quickly. There’s travel, there’s heat, there’s humidity.
“It’s not a tournament where every moment of every game is not going to be perfect. You have to understand that, you have to embrace that and you have to still know how to play well.”
Because for Berhalter, at this point playing well may be just as important as winning.
“Every single one of us is behind the mission to change the way the world views American soccer,” former Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez said. “We’re going to have a certain style. Everyone’s going to be able to notice it.