Five Berhalter-an Pillars: How Will They Hold Up?

By John Roche (johnrochenj@hotmail.com)

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Roughly six months into his official tenure and ahead of his biggest test yet, the Gold Cup, Gregg Berhalter has demonstrated devotion to a handful of core principles to help build his team.

These traits do not complete the doctrine of his coaching philosophy, but are visible principles that will be crucial enough to his success (or failure). They warrant analysis, so let’s take inventory of them here and evaluate how we think they will transpire during and after the Gold Cup.

  1. It’s the System! As the team has floundered recently with awful performances against Jamaica and Venezuela, Berhalter’s public commitment to his vaunted “system” is starting to sound a little desperate, even cryptic. There are certainly new faces in this most recent camp, but enough of the players are familiar that the team should not have looked so listless and disorganized in these recent games. How he adjusts his tactics to the Gold Cup competition will be critical. Consider:  

    Is Tyler Adams’ absence going to mean Nick Lima slots into the “inverted right back” role as the focal point of the formation? (And is there an opponent at the tournament that would be afraid of that?) Will players like Christian Pulisic and Tim Ream return to favored roles if it disrupts broader systematic principles? Will we continue to see less talented players who are on the roster as “system guys” (Gyasi Zardes; Wil Trapp) if they remain ineffective?   

    Worth noting is that Tata Martinez stepped into his role as Mexico caretaker after Berhalter did and has shown no such tactical problems securing cohesive, winning performances from his players, despite missing several of his top players in recent matches.

  2. His inaugural January Camp still looms large. Rarely do the rosters from USMNT January Camps end-up being integral to the rest of the year’s fixtures. In 2018, for example, only eight (8) of the 29 field players from January camp were called-up again – this in a stretch where 40+ different field players were capped.

    But January was Berhalter’s first camp in charge, and he is getting the January Band back together by bringing 13 January Campers to the Gold Cup – and probably would be carrying 14 were it not for Sebastian Lleget’s injury. To put this total in perspective, there were only eight (8) 2017 January Campers in Couva. We certainly hope that this bunch finds the same camaraderie that enabled them to run over two far lesser opponents, but most fans would justifiably be skeptical.

    If the Gold Cup team flops, will we still see names like Daniel Lovitz, Christian Roldan, and Wil Trapp come CONCACAF Nations League?    

  3. The 2018 Dave Sarachan Youth Movement is over. For most fans, the most exciting dimension to the Dave Sarachan Lame Duck tenure was the capping of so many young, intriguing players. Berhalter has opted to terminate this trend rather abruptly. Impressive 2018 debutants like Josh Sargent, Jonathan Amon, and Tim Weah have been largely passed over in 2019, while other promising MLS youngsters like Brenden Aaronson, James Sands, and Miles Robinson would almost certainly have made debuts had they been in their current form in 2018.  

    What is most curious about the lack of youth players on Berhalter’s rosters is the inclusion of older players that seemingly no USMNT fans or analysts projected. Is Omar Gonzalez so valuable to the team that Berhalter would not replace him with Cameron Carter-Vickers or Robinson? Despite a bad performance against Jamaica, does Antonee Robinson really offer nothing more than Daniel Lovitz or Tim Ream?

    Thematically, aging players with lower ceilings are being named ahead of more raw, higher upside players. The only rational explanation for these moves is that the team needs these players to win now. If they do not do so convincingly at this tournament, do we see the shift back to the future?

  4. His performance barrier is lower for MLS players than non-domestic contenders. Queue the USMNT-MLS-SUM Conspiracy Crowd for a very obvious point! As in March, there are players on the USMNT Gold Cup roster that are simply not distinguishing themselves in MLS. Whatever player measurement you choose – Scoring Leaders, TOTW, MOTM, WhoScored/FotMob, MLS Player Rating Index, etc. – you will not see names like Jonathan Lewis, Gyasi Zardes, Michael Bradley, or Jordan Morris. The trend is worrying when you consider Americans playing well in foreign leagues who did not even make the 40-man provisional roster.

    And there are plenty: Andrew Wooten at Sandhausen was the 3rd leading-scorer in Bundesliga 2 this season with 17 goals; Julian Green was named MOTM twice for Greuther Furth twice in the last 6 games of his Bundesliga 2 season, Ventura Alvarado has been performing at a high level in Liga MX as captain of Nexaca (a league that shredded MLS clubs in the CONCACAF Champions League), Andrija Novakovich was named to the March Best XI in the Eredivisie…and so on.

    This trend will be important to watch as some of the January Campers eventually fade out of contention or get injured. Will Berhalter continue to look domestically for a steady, uncapped 25-year-old (Alex Muyl?) to fill the void? The showing of this MLS group in this tournament will be critical.

  5. He is not interested in (or not very good at) recruiting dual national players. One of Berhalter’s most admirable traits in his young tenure has been his transparency. He is willing to discuss key details of his plans in an engaging way, much unlike Bruce Arena or Jurgen Klinsmann, and even proactively broaches unsolicited topics. Which makes his utter silence on the subject of dual national players all the more disappointing.

    Few would argue that the USMNT player pool is very deep right now. A key way that Jurgen Klinsmann offset a similar lack of depth was to look abroad for players like Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Aron Johannsson, Danny Williams and Tim Chandler, who all became USMNT contributors for at least a spell.

    Tyler Boyd’s inclusion in this GC roster was a healthy inclusion given Berhalter’s grim winger options, but this find is not really his; Boyd has been pressing US Soccer for a while, repeatedly turning down a cap-tying call-up by his native New Zealand.

    But there are plenty of options that would be an upgrade over current USMNT players. And Berhalter can put a stamp on his tenure – and send a message to a floundering player pool – by boldly making a very public move. For example: nab the very promising, 18-year-old Jesus Ferreira from Colombia as soon as his citizenship is finalized! Finally convince Jordan Siebeatcheu publicly to recognize that France will never call him up! Publicly tell Timothy Tillman that if he continues to log Bundesliga minutes in the fall, he is invited in! (For practical reasons, I will not humor the topic of Efra Alvarez.)

    The lack of movement on this front is not surprising given Berhalter’s young tenure, but if the pool continues to be soft, and the poor results persist, it will be an interesting space to watch.

John Roche