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Young USMNT brings big-game experience to new challenge in World Cup qualifying

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When you look at the U.S. men’s national team roster heading into Thursday’s Concacaf World Cup qualifying opener against El Salvador you see a list filled with young players who have already played in some of the biggest matches the game has to offer, but you also see a group of players about to embark an altogether different kind of experience.

Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna, Sergiño Dest and Brenden Aaronson have played in and won cup finals in Europe, while Josh Sargent and Antonee Robinson have played in pressure-packed relegation battles. Tyler Adams has scored the winning goal in a UEFA Champions League knockout round and Matt Turner has stood in goal in a sold-out stadium in a Gold Cup final to beat Mexico.

Whether it is those big-game challenges already faced, or the experience garnered at some of the most storied clubs in the sport, the new USMNT generation has head coach Gregg Berhalter feeling good about its chances of success, even though he knows the challenge that awaits is unlike any the group has faced before.

“One thing that gives me confidence is you have guys on the team that are playing for really high level clubs, and their expectation is to win every single game they’re in,” Berhalter said on Wednesday. “Barcelona can’t lose a game. Juventus can’t lose a game .Man City, Chelsea, Dortmund, These teams can’t lose games. They’re high profile clubs, and they want to win. And no matter what competition they’re in, they want to compete for championships in those competitions. So I think that does help.

“Having said that, this is a different animal,” Berhalter said. “CONCACAF qualifying is not UEFA Champions League. It’s not competing for the Premier League title. This is a different type of a game. There’s a different sense of urgency in these games.

“And a lot of times we have a target on our backs is as the United States,” Berhalter said. “And it’s having to deal with that, that is important. Embracing the the physicality, the competitiveness of these games is extremely important to be successful. And that’s the main message to the guys. I think we have the quality. And now it’s about do we have the right mentality?”

Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos

Berhalter knows about the challenges of World Cup qualifying from his own experiences as a player. He was a part of multiple cycles, including the 2002 World Cup qualifying cycle, which saw the USMNT get off to a fast star with three wins. That is the kind of start the current U.S. team is hoping to emulate.

“We’re looking for a nine-point week, bottom line,” USMNT midfielder Tyler Adams said. “If you don’t set the standard high, then obviously there’s going to be a lot of room for improvement. So we want to set the standard and the bar high, we’re always looking to reach that goal.”

As ambitious as a three-win September run might seem, rest assured Adams and his teammates aren’t taking for granted being able to walk through the competition, particularly with two trips to Central America, where American teams have not always played well.

“When you go into these games being naive, thinking that they’re going to be an easy game, or that there’s going to be opportunities to score a lot of goals, I think this is where you, you’re able to make a lot of mental mistakes,” Adams said. “And for us going into this game, we need to be prepared for a challenge, for a battle. It might not be pretty football, we’re gonna have to win our duels, these guys are going to be hungry to come out that when they represent the US, it’s like playing Manchester City or playing one of the best teams in the world, because that’s just how it’s always been in CONCACAF.

“The pitches might not be great, there’s a lot of things that we can make excuses about, but when we go down there, we just have to be ready to battle,” Adams said. “And at the end of the day, the intensity and the mentality has to be there or else it’s going to be a grind the whole game.”

Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos

The Americans will not only be facing a hungry El Salvador team that showed signs of real progress during its quarterfinal run at the recent Concacaf Gold Cup, but they will also be trying to battle the ghosts of the team’s failed World Cup qualifying cycle for the 2018 World Cup.

The scars of that disappointment have not yet fully healed among some of the USMNT fanbase, but as far as the current team itself, it is a new group, with few players who were involved in the last qualifying cycle. This new generation may be young, but it has already garnered valuable experience at the highest levels of club soccer, and this new generation is more focused on make its own mark rather than atoning for the failure of the previous generation.

“We’re not really trying to focus on what happened in the past,” Weston McKennie said. “Obviously, it’s gonna be in the back of our head somewhere, but that’s not our main fuel. It’s not our main focus, trying to redeem what happened years ago, Right now, we’re just trying to create a legacy of our own, create a new a new cycle, a new way of approaching things.”

Comments

  1. Interesting, he went to Chile and left. It definitely sounds like he has serious reservations about playing for Chile. Despite all the moaning about “losing” players, we actually don’t “lose” many who would have actually made a big difference to the USMNT. Are there any dual national US players starting for other countries other than Alex Roldan? I don’t know; would they be playing for the USMNT and making a differnece now?

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    • Erik Zavaletta, Armando Moreno, Josh Perez also for El Salvador. There’s a handful of other Salvadorans that you probably haven’t heard of from USL level teams. The big one still in limbo would be Thomas Romero the backup keeper for LAFC who would have to file a switch for US but he did decline a GC invite for ES. None of them would playing tonight would play for us. Altogether maybe Akinola would play for US but he’d be down the roster (probably would have played GC). Jonathan David for Canada would have been eligible for the US but I think he was pretty locked in for Canada at an early age. I heard Patrick Weah might play for Liberia but he isn’t making the field for Minnesota so he’s a long way from the NT. Efra would be in the pool but not play on a full strength, Araujo would be similar if he switches. I’m sure I’m missing more but not too many that were born and raised in US. More likely born and moved away early or service member parents.

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  2. Berhalter can speak from personal experience about the possible problems with officiating. Can’t remember the year, but it was in Costa Rica and I assume Berhalter was playing left back of left center back. An opponent came down Berhalter’s side and got to the end line. Watching live it was clear that Berhalter had his arms pressed against his body, down his sides. The ball was kicked and hit Berhalter and was called a hand ball. The replay showed that the ball had clearly hit Berhalter in the chest. They converted the penalty kick and that won them the game. I’m not happy that there won’t be VAR.

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  3. He’s not on the roster, but of note, Robbie Robinson has left Chile’s camp to return to Miami, as he is 2nd guessing his international future.

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    • That’s really, really interesting. I coached in Upstate SC and I saw Robinson play several times at Clemson and I thought he was potentially a USMNT guy…he had some injury and personal setbacks his first couple years in MLS but he’s started to emerge as the player a lot of us thought he was going to be this year and I was a little annoyed Chile had snatched him before we got a good look at him. I think he could factor for us at some point.

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      • since he went to college, he’s already 22, will be 23 end of the year. so he is outside the “3 games” thing. one commits him. and at his age he might have only so many chances left so he should be smart. first factor should be loyalty. but second factor, if you’re a LF would you join us? rationally? pulisic, aaronson, and then he took konrad over you on 1 cap? hoppe and others? i want us to get anyone we can and then sort out their value. LF is not quite striker in terms of how open it would be for a noob. but then on the loyalty thing, if you feel like an american deep down, so what, take your lottery ticket and try to fight your way in. just saying if this is a game, rationally, chile would probably be the easier choice. either that or he needs to say he’s a striker, play right side, something.

    • i’ve gotten some criticism for saying we should have been capping dual nationals early — when ironically now people want to use WCQ to chase these guys. the implication of chile’s comments was like they would rapidly work on integrating him now and only then sort out “confidence” concerns. mexico aggressively chased a trio of ours players. it almost feels like some fans want us to be the high minded slacker at the party waiting while everyone else talks to the pretty girl.

      that being said, i am old school in the sense i say be aggressive but also reward the most loyal. i don’t know if he had a change of heart or played chicken with us and we didn’t blink. not a fan of rewarding dest-style tactics where you pit us against others, without an enthusiastic commitment, while demanding special treatment. one way of addressing critics’ ethical or performance concerns is you fast track the ones who aren’t confused. that also encourages an enthusiastic, unqualified, undivided nationality decision. as any confusion or game-playing would only be held against you and slow down your progression. there is a logic to how things have been done before where if you had said you weren’t sure if you were dutch or american in camp you probably would clean out your locker that evening.

      that being said, there should be maybe 1 “pulisic fast lane” spot per 3 game quali window. special player, enthusiastic interest. the time for wholesale cap-tying and trialing was the summer or before. this is money on the table time. every away game will be tough. the majority of home games will be a contest. there will be limited windows the next 14 games to gratuitously use subs. people thinking otherwise are missing that this is usually not easy game by game until it’s clinched. last cycle was merely a harsher version of what is always at least somewhat difficult and testing, and where laughers are in short supply.

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