Gregg Berhalter sees progress. The U.S. Men’s National Team coach made that clear after last Friday’s 3-0 loss to Mexico, and reiterated it on Monday in St. Louis ahead of Tuesday’s friendly with Uruguay.
USMNT fans are finding it difficult to agree after watching the Americans struggle badly against Mexico for the second straight match, and after a summer that included friendly losses to Jamaica and Venezuela, and some lackluster performances mixed in with predictable strolls over weak opponents in the early stages of the Gold Cup.
The Americans have yet to deliver a signature performance against a top opponent since Berhalter took charge in January, but Tuesday’s friendly against Uruguay will provide that opportunity, while also offering a chance to erase the bad taste left behind by Friday’s loss to Mexico.
Berhalter drew criticism after the match for a perception that he was happy with his team’s performance against Mexico. On Monday, Berhalter made it clear that while he was happy with certain aspects, he was far from pleased with the result.
“it wasn’t like I was in the locker room opening champagne bottles after the Mexico game,” Berhalter said. “Not at all, but what we have to do is look at what we wanted to accomplish in that game, and then say ‘did we accomplish them?’. In some respects we absolutely did, and then in some respects we failed, and where we failed we need to analyze it.”
Growing pains shouldn’t come as a surprise for Berhalter’s squad, not with the former Columbus Crew coach trying to implement a possession-based system into a national team program that has long relied on counter-attacking and physical play.
The Mexico loss was the latest painful lesson for the USMNT, but one Berhalter believes is a necessary part of the learning process.
“We want to play. We want to be able to break lines. We want to be able to open up the opponent. We want to be able to disorganize the opponent,” Berhalter said. “I think that it was a huge emphasis against Mexico in that game for a reason. To show the guys that you can do it. That you can be brave against a high-pressing team like Mexico and you can succeed.
“Moving on, it’s about being smart and understanding what that means. That if Mexico is pressing with eight players then we need to play long, and that’s another way to disorganize them.”
“In the Gold Cup (against Mexico) I thought we were too direct, and in this game I thought we were not direct enough,” Berhalter said. “We need to find that mix where we can draw them in and be able to hurt them when they’re coming.”
Berhalter defended the progress being made during his tenure as USMNT coach, and is quick to point out how early in the process things still are.
“I think we’e doing a good job. I think we’ve come a long way,” Berhalter said. “I think it’s very clear to the players what we want to do. Now it’s just continuing to work on that. When we have conversations with the guys, when we do video sessions with the guys, it’s really impressive how tied in they are to what we’re doing. How informed they are of what we’re doing.
“The group’s been great and I think we’ve come a long way since January,” Berhalter said. “It’s hard to believe that we’ve only been working together for nine months because I think we’ve come a long way.”
The next test for the USMNT will come from a tough Uruguay team that won’t have stars Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godin, but will still feature plenty of quality, including the likes of Atletico Madrid defender Jose Gimenez, Arsenal midfielder Lucas Torreira, Juventus midfielder Rodrigo Betancour and Valencia striker Maxi Gomez.
“It’s a good team, everything’s a challenge with them,” Berhalter said of Uruguay. “Space is a challenge with them. It’s a very physically aggressive team. It’s a very compact team. If I had to say, the biggest challenge would be space, the lack of space and how you have to process quickly, and how you have to earn the space that you get against them because in the penalty box. It’s probably one of the best teams I’ve seen defend in the penalty box.”
The departure from camp of USMNT standouts Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Zack Steffen will put some new faces in the spotlight against Uruguay, including Josh Sargent, who is expected to start in front of his hometown fans in St. Louis. San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Jackson Yueill is also slated to start in the defensive midfield role, while Atlanta United defender Miles Robinson is a good bet to earn his first national team start after making his debut against Mexico on Friday.
The young USMNT squad will attempt to end the September international window on a positive note, while also attempting to show that the national team is capable of performing well in Berhalter’s demanding system.
The loss to Mexico left plenty of doubt about whether the USMNT program has the players to implement Berhalter’s system, but Berhalter remains convinced the USMNT does.
“The answer to the question ‘Do I believe the players have the ability to do it?’ is yes, I do, ” Berhalter said. “I think we have a large group of talented players. I think they’re intelligent players. They’re technically good players. We’re going to develop, and we’re going to keep developing. Don’t forget, it’s a very young team. We’ll get there.”