In a year that was disrupted around the world by the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. national team played just four games in 2020. With so few options for coach Gregg Berhalter to assemble his team, it amounts to a wasted year in program development as American football prepares to right the wrongs of a failed 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign in Russia by confirming its place in Qatar 2022.

So for the new year, ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, Austin Lindberg and Gus Elvin have compiled a to-do list for Berhalter & Co. for 2021. In 12 months, the U.S. will be focused on the World Cup, and there is still a lot of work to be done.

Indent: Stryker and Central Turnarounds | Strengthening the Depth | Managing the Pool for the Busy 21 | Defining the Future of Veterans

Article 1: Stabilisation of front and rear centre positions

A year ago, Berhalter didn’t seem to be running out of queues. Apart from Christian Pulisic, there was no sign of creativity, at least not against quality opponents. The midfielder’s form also seemed uncertain, as it was unclear where Tyler Adams would be placed: right midfielder or defensive midfielder?

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But despite the absence of games in 2020, the progression of certain elements in the pool of players has meant that some of these problems have begun to resolve themselves. Giovanni Reina’s breakthrough at Borussia Dortmund showed the potential of the team in third place. Younus Musa is also being considered, although the duo are yet to decide if they will be in top form after impressing in the US in November against Wales and Panama.

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The smile on Adams’ face after the 0-0 draw with Wales in November says a lot about his well-being in front of the back line. Meanwhile, Weston McKenney’s impressive first season at Juventus suggests a more consistent national team. There are even positive signs at the historically problematic left tackle, with Anthony Robinson coming of age, though a bit more consistency – at least in an American jersey – is still needed.

At both ends of the field, however, the wheels keep Berhalter’s head in rotation – a striker and one of the central defensive positions.

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The star player’s role is still intact despite Gyasi Zardes’ impressive 12-goal season that helped Columbus Crew SC win the MLS 2020 Cup. His previous stay with the Berhalter-led team means he is still one of the manager’s favourites, but there is always the urge to look elsewhere. Werder Bremen’s Josh Sargent, who has been praised for his willingness to do the dirty work, has scored just once in 14 Bundesliga games this year. They are joined by teenagers Sebastian Soto (Norwich) and Nicolas Gioacchini (Caen) and 18-year-old Matthew Hoppe, who scored a hat-trick for Schalke against Hoffenheim last weekend.

I think we have good strikers with different qualities, but they can all be effective at what we do, Berhalter told ESPN. For us it’s a continuation of that, watching them perform and seeing them score goals. And when the time is right, we pick the right people who can do what we ask. It’s great to [see] this group of guys and imagine the possibilities.

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Jürgen Klinsmann praises Matthew Hoppe after the American teenager’s heroic hat-trick for Schalke.

And then there’s Josie Altidore. The 31-year-old Toronto attacker still has what it takes to be devastating. However, the injuries continue to affect his overall physical condition and Berhalter doesn’t seem convinced. I think for Josie it’s just about staying healthy, being healthy, and then everyone knows what they can do when they’re out there. Consistency [of power] will be important.

Altidore was called up for a training camp in January, giving him the chance to show the American manager that he can be trusted as World Cup qualifying begins later in the year. Who knows if he… or any of the candidates, for that matter, has a chance for him.

The center of the defense also has some issues, but not as much as John Brooks, who is supposed to be an anchor on the left side. The veteran has been a constant force for Wolfsburg and seems to be overcoming the injuries that have plagued him in the past.

Who plays alongside Brooks is another story. Aaron Long has had his ups and downs in 2020, but still seems to have Berhalter’s favor, making it difficult for MLS defender of the year Walker Zimmerman to break through. Matt Miazgi’s move to Anderlecht has given him some advantages in terms of regular minutes, and he remains well balanced.

We need central defenders who can implement our model of play and play with the space behind the back line, who can win one-on-one battles, who can dive down from behind, Berhalter said. There are many expectations for the back of our center and what we do. I think the final decisions [on who starts] will depend on how they are in the clubs, how they progress in some cases, and then the opposition we play.

Although Mark McKenzie is still in his infancy, his recent transfer to Belgian club Genk could accelerate his development, as could some of his most famous teammates. Chris Richards is another talent looking to make a name for himself on the US team and at Bayern Munich. There is no shortage of candidates, and the competition for Brooks’ preferred partner in central defense will be intense. — Jeff Carlisle

Error! The file name is not specified. The USMNT has made great strides in recent years, but 2021 is the biggest year in the program since it failed to qualify for the 2017 World Cup. Photo: John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Article 2: Development depth behind resonant starters

The future looks bright as Pulisic (Chelsea), Reina (Borussia Dortmund), Sergino Dest (Barcelona), McKenney (Juventus) and many others have made their breakthroughs at major European clubs. While Berhalter expects a strong core now and in the future, the next challenge for the United States will be to increase depth and competition within the pool of players. In other words: It is imperative that the United States continue to strengthen the force behind the usual suspects: Pulisic, Raina, Dest, McKenney, Adams, Zach Steffen and Brooks.

USA currently has seven or eight regular players, with a striker and a right midfielder being the main questions for Berhalter’s starting eleven. After that, things got more complicated because in 2020, when there were only four international friendlies, Berhalter wasn’t able to dive into his player pool, evaluate role players or form a two- or three-way hierarchy at each position. The U.S. has no shortage of options for attack and center-back positions (see above), while Jordan Morris, Tim Weah, Tyler Boyd, Paul Arriola, Conrad de la Fuente and Chris Mueller will all compete for road roles.

Musa (if he plays for the US), Sebastian Lletget and Brenden Aaronson are flexible enough to fill eight or 10 spots in the midfield, while the US also have depth on the right side of the defense with the powerful Reggie Cannon backing Dest.

To me, this group is the pinnacle of the development system in America, Berhalter said. And I think that’s a reflection of the investment that [MLS] real estate has made in youth development, just as [many] other academies have made in development. The development academy had a lot to do with it, and now you’re starting to see that it’s a systematic development of players.

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However, the United States is in defensive midfield and left wing. Adams is the strongest No6 in the US, while Fulham’s Robinson is getting better and better and seems to have taken the starting spot on the left. However, the problems associated with these two positions are profound, as the United States does not currently have clear support for either position.

Let’s start with Adams, one of the most indispensable players because of his ability to play alone as a defensive midfielder and the ground he can cover. The role of the Leipzig RB Leipzig midfielder cannot be overstated, but his troubling history of muscle injuries is cause for concern. With the future of Michael Bradley (33) at international level uncertain, Berhalter must find an alternative.

The United States are hoping that one of Owen Otasovi (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Johnny Cardoso (Internacional), Jackson Yuey (San Jose Earthquakes), James Sands (NYCFC) or even recent international double header Andres Perea (Orlando City) will be the answer to the No6 puzzle. The U.S. is in good hands with Adams, but if he hits a deadlock in 2021, can the U.S. deal with it?

The picture is even more confusing on the left side, as there is no natural landing behind Robinson, who earned Berhalter the laurels. MLS kids Sam Vines and Chase Gasper are two of them, but if something were to happen to Robinson, that would be the most likely scenario: Dest will move to the left side and Reggie Cannon or DeAndre Yedlin will start on the right.

USMNT may be on the cusp of becoming a special organization, but it is imperative to find the right actors and go to the depths where they are most needed as they enter a crucial calendar year. — Gus Alvin.

Error! The file name is not specified. Michael Bradley hasn’t played a role for the US since 2019 – does he still have a role under Gregg Berhalter? John Dorton Photos/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Article 3: Managing the player pool for four-team matches

The list of races for 2021 is long, assuming the KOVID-19 pandemic cooperates, which it has not shown in the past 10 months. There are the Olympic qualifiers in late March, the CONCACAF League of Nations final in June, the Gold Cup in July, the Olympics themselves in September (fingers crossed) and the biggest ever World Cup qualifier in September.

It’s pretty easy when you think about the League of Nations and the Gold Cup, Berhalter said. We want to go to two finals and hopefully win two. We haven’t won a trophy yet when I coached [the national team] …. coached. That’s definitely our goal and I don’t think it matters which group we play in, we always want to play for the championship. I think it’s an important message.

With the World Cup qualification, we want to be in a good position after the first eight games [September to November 2021].

The problem Berhalter faces is that he has to strike a balance between seeing his starting eleven as often as possible – even when a pandemic is raging – while staying on good terms with the player clubs. With unprecedented schedules, foreign players have to take a break at some point. This thought is not far removed from that of Berhalter.

Deadline for men’s football

Olympic qualification 18 March to 30 March
League of Nations June (data to be determined)
Gold Cup July (details to be determined)
Olympic Games 21. July – August 7.
World Cup Qualifying Round From September to 22 March.
World Cup Soccer 2022 21. November – 18. December 22

We always think: Who is the best and who is in shape? And we’d love to have this guy, but he’s a little hurt. There are always circumstances, aren’t there? So it’s very hard to plan and say that far in advance: Okay, this is a group we’re 100% sure of, because until they’re on the plane, you don’t know. There’s a game on the weekend and then they fly off and you have no idea what’s going to happen in that game.

For us, [USMNT’s talent] has enough depth. I’d say the team’s shortcoming in most areas is experience, but it’s offset by talent. It’s about giving this talent experience.

Therefore, it makes more sense for the best arms to be drawn at random for the CONCACAF league final. There will be an international window in March to try and build on what has happened in different camps in 2020. The selection of teams for the Olympic qualifiers is complicated by the fact that not only is the U23 tournament not required to release players, but neither are the clubs, which strongly suggests a team with a strong MLS selection as opposed to European players.

MLS will also likely win the Gold Cup, but the team composition could be completely different if the US goes to the Olympics because the two tournaments will overlap. While it’s easy to dismiss the two tournaments as unimportant in terms of the level of competition, international experience and depth will be crucial as Berhalter makes his way through the qualifying rounds. It begins in September, and the more players Berhalter has who can shine in these tournaments, the better the team will be. — Jeff Carlisle

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Casey Keller praises Weston McKenney’s Player of the Year for his quick adjustment to Juventus.

Item 4: Identifying veterans with a future

The rejuvenation of the national team has been well documented, and with great fanfare, but Berhalter has four players with significant international pedigrees whose careers are coming to an end. Bradley, Altidore, Brad Guzan and Tim Ream all have a role to play as the Stars and Stripes look forward to Qatar 2022; or maybe not.

Altidore is the only one in this quartet recruited out of Berhalter’s January camp, and given the Americans’ inconsistent play at the No9 position and their relative lack of depth, he could be the best candidate in this group to secure a spot in the future. Rome found itself in a similar situation, finishing first in the middle for the second time and scoring 90 points in six of the last seven American leagues before the pandemic ended.

Everyone has significant hurdles to overcome if they want to play a role in 2021. It’s important for Altidore to stay healthy, as he played just 11 of Toronto FC’s 20 games in the 2020 season, which was cut short by the lockout. Rome, on the other hand, have struggled to make it to Fulham in recent months, and at 33 years old already, their usefulness to the national team, which is just under two years removed from the World Cup, could be at stake.

For Bradley and Guzan, they are more likely to keep playing. Neither had played for the United States for more than a year, and Guzan had been supplanted by Steffen as US No1 long before his last appearance. Similarly, Adams has established himself as a No6, but he is also injury prone and the team has no other option with the tools to work at the midfield base. Does that leave the door a little open for Bradley? We’ll know soon enough.

I think I’ve been consistent with my message since I’ve been in office, Berhalter told ESPN. First of all, we are very grateful to the veterans. We appreciate what they bring, we appreciate their expertise, we appreciate how they can help the group. And with all these guys, it’s just about playing and being in shape. Then maybe there’s a role for them, and that’s what we’re looking for.

It’s a measuring stick for these guys: They’re playing, and they’re in good shape?

By the end of 2021, the United States will be less than a year away from the 2022 World Cup, a tournament where expectations will be high given the wealth of young talent available to the team. Experience is a nebulous quantity, but with the calendar turning and Qatar on the horizon, Berhalter will soon have to decide which veterans, if any, he should have at his disposal. — Austin Lindbergh

 

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