The COVID-19 pandemic has put international soccer on the shelf for the majority of 2020, and even though there are signs that national teams will return to action in the fall, the U.S. Men’s National Team is facing the prospects of having to wait until 2021 for important matches.
Of course, when 2021 does arrive, the USMNT will have no shortage of opportunities for what is shaping up to be a young squad for Gregg Berhalter. The Nations League knockout rounds, followed by the start of the final round of World Cup qualifying, potentially the Olympics, and then the Gold Cup. It is a schedule that is going to test the USMNT’s depth and quality, and set the tone for the rest of the cycle.
“It’s going to be a balancing act,” Berhalter said of 2021 in an interview with USSoccer.com “For us it’s about first prioritizing World Cup qualifying. We need to have our top group in for these games, and they are very important games starting in June.
“As we move into the Gold Cup, we know we have another opportunity to win a trophy and it may be a different group that steps up for that. For us, it would be giving players another opportunity to prove they’re good enough.
“Having said that, it’ll be a balance also with the Olympics because those two events overlap each other,” Berhalter said. “It’s balancing the age of our roster and making sure we don’t have players that are gone for all three of these events. There’s going to be some maneuvering involved, that’s for sure.”
Given the young age of Berhalter’s squad, the reality is many of his top players are age-eligible for the Olympics, meaning the USMNT will likely have to decide whether to try and send as strong a team as possible to the Olympics and sender a lesser squad to the Gold Cup, or prioritize the Gold Cup and send a weakened squad to the Olympics (assuming that the United States qualifies).
Another challenge for Berhalter will be gaining player releases for Olympic qualifying and, if the Americans qualify, the Olympics. Clubs are not obligated to release players for the Olympics, and it is a safe bet that some teams will object to having their players playing in June qualifiers and the Olympics.
That reality would make prioritizing the Gold Cup more practical for Berhalter, but his comment that “it may be a different group that steps up” for the Gold Cup than would be used in qualifying suggests the Gold Cup won’t necessarily feature a full-strength squad.
The USMNT’s first competitive matches will come in March of 2021, in the Concacaf Nations League semifinals, followed by four World Cup qualifiers in June of 2021. The Concacaf men’s Olympic qualifying tournament is also set to be played in March of 2021 as well.
The unveiling of Concacaf’s plan for World Cup qualifying, and the rest of its senior competitions over the next two years, helped provide a clear picture for Berhalter and the USMNT program to start planning ahead, with October looking like the best bet for the national team to come together for the first time since January, and for the first time as a full team since last November’s Nations League wins against Canada and Cuba.
“Our priority is to get games in a safe manner, Berhalter said. “We don’t want to put any players at risk, but we want to play in the October and November windows.
“The first thing is figuring out opponents and locations,” Berhalter said. “Given what the world has been confronted with the last few months, it goes without saying that the priority is doing it in a safe way.”