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Berhalter ready for USMNT’s busy 2021, with focus on trophies, points and building a squad

For Gregg Berhalter and the U.S. men’s national team, the 2021 schedule begins with a friendly against Trinidad and Tobago on Jan. 31, after which it is full speed ahead of multiple fronts. Indeed, the next 12 months looks like a case of “so many competitions, so little time.”

In March, Olympic qualifying will commence in Guadalajara, Mexico for an Under-23 squad; June will see the first-choice roster contest the final rounds of the CONCACAF Nations League. July features the Gold Cup and, assuming qualification, Olympics. In September, World Cup qualifying begins.

As such, Berhalter has a juggling act as he seeks to spread out playing time across all competitions, while also maintaining balance between national team and club responsibilities. There are lineup questions as well, although the ascension of several players has eased his concerns to a degree.

The U.S. manager sat down with ESPN earlier this month to address those issues and more. (This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)

– Berhalter calls upon youthful roster for T&T friendly
– How USMNT prospects are adapting to life in Europe
– Connelly: The U.S. can make waves at 2022 World Cup

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On a busy year ahead:

ESPN: There are a lot of competitions this year .What are your goals, beyond being in them to win them?

GB: It’s pretty straightforward when you think about the Nations League and Gold Cup: We want to be in two finals, and hopefully win two finals. We’ve yet to win a trophy since I’ve been coaching [the U.S.]. It will be an important step. So I think that that’s certainly a goal of ours. And I think no matter what group is on the field, we still want to be competing for a championship, and I think that’s the important message. And with World Cup qualifying, we want to put ourselves in a good position after these first eight games. We’d be more than halfway done, and it will be important to us to get off to a good start and World Cup qualifying, so that’s something that’s important to this group.

ESPN: In terms of some of these other competitions like the Olympics, obviously Jason Kreis is heading up that group. With Gold Cup, how critical is it to get international experience for some of the younger elements of the player pool?

GB: It could be important. I think international experience is always important. We just have to see how the whole thing shakes out. When you say younger players, I can envision some part of that younger player pool will be at the Olympics, right? And then I can envision some part of younger pool being part of the Nations League. I just don’t know who’s going to be available for the Gold Cup. And that’s just something we’re in the planning stages now, but we don’t know specifically, exactly who’s going to be involved, and that could change for us. But it’s also something where we had 45 players in camps or on game day rosters, so we do have a broad player pool we can choose from.

ESPN: Obviously, the start of the MLS season is a little up in the air. How much would a delay impact your planning, and in what way?

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GB: I’m not sure that much. I think the important thing is for us to have a whole group fit by June, by the start of the summer. We’ll have friendlies in March that will be important, in Europe, most likely. And we know we have a large contingent in Europe that we need to continue to work with. So it’s not the end of the world. We’ll make do with it. But it will be important that everyone is fit by the beginning of June.

On building a squad:

ESPN: How do you go about establishing depth and hierarchy within the team, beyond guys like Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie? Is it really just about them impressing in camp?

GB: I think that list is bigger than what you just mentioned. You mentioned two players, I think, it’s seven or eight players long. And then it’s just about the performance — their performance weekly within their clubs, and then their performance with the national team. And then more specifically, the form they’re in when they’re playing. If we have to play a World Cup qualifier and you were to choose between two players who are pretty equal in their qualities, we’ll certainly look at the club form they’re in. I think that that’s reasonable to expect.

ESPN: As you head into this year, what parts of the team will we be looking at a little more intently? Is there a part of this field where you want to really shore up?

GB: We’re always thinking about: ‘What are the best [fringe] guys and who’s back in form? And we’d love to have this guy, but he’s got a little injury.’ There’s always circumstances, right? So it’s really difficult to plan that far ahead and say, ‘OK, this is the group we’re 100% confident in,’ because until they’re on the plane, you don’t know. There’s a weekend game and then they fly off and you have no idea what’s going to happen in that game. So for us, we think the team has reasonable depth. I would say the shortcoming of the team in most areas is experience. But that is made up with talent. And now it’s about getting that talent experience.

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ESPN: How do you see the battle at center-back shaking out? It seems like John Brooks is solid in one of the spots, and then it seems like the other spot is wide open.

GB: We need center-backs that can execute our game model and play with space behind the backline, that can win duels, that can pass out of the back. There’s a lot of expectations on our center-backs, and what we do. I think about the guys so far, they’ve done a great job. And when you talk about Aaron Long, or John Brooks or Tim Ream, or Chris Richards, or Walker Zimmerman or Matt Miazga, I think there’s some depth. We have younger guys, like Mark McKenzie, who has done well. So I think that, again, the final decision somewhat will come down to the form they’re in with the clubs, how they continue to develop in some cases. And then based on the opponent and what type of opponent are we playing.

ESPN: The other position that seems to be pretty wide open is the striker slot. Gyasi Zardes is giving you some solid play, but you have other young guys coming up. Jozy Altidore’s in camp at the moment. How do you seen that developing?

GB: For us, it’s about continuing to watch them, watching them perform, watching them score goals. And when the timing comes, being able to pick the right guys who can execute what we’re asking. Seeing a guy like Matthew Hoppe score goals for Schalke; it’s nice to see Josh Sargent playing all the time. Gyasi had a good season with Columbus winning the championship. Sebastian Soto, and Nicholas Gioacchini, Jozy obviously is a real talent; it’s just a matter of him staying healthy, being healthy, and then everyone knows what he can do when he’s healthy and performing for his club.

ESPN: To what degree do you see veterans like Michael Bradley, Brad Guzan, Tim Ream, DeAndre Yedlin, what kind of role do they have to play going forward?

GB: You know, I think I’ve been consistent with my messaging since I first took over. We really value veterans. We value what they bring. We value their experience .We value how they can help the group. And with all those guys, it’s just a case of them playing and being in form. And then there can absolutely be a role for them, and that’s what we’re looking for. And I think that’s the measuring stick for those guys is: Are they playing and are they in good form?

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On Americans excelling in Europe:

ESPN: What do you make of Matthew Hoppe’s play with Schalke? And what does he give you that’s maybe a little bit different than some of the other forwards on the pool?

GB: So I need to continue to watch him, but it was just an amazing performance [against Hoffenheim], to be a teenager and score a hat trick in the Bundesliga. And for him, I think it’s just the beginning. Now, it’s about just continuing to perform. It’s not about one performance, it’s about the next performance and the next performance and the next performance. And I think he’s got a good mindset and he’s ready to do that. And most importantly, help the team. They’re in a tough spot and know they need to get out of the relegation zone.

ESPN: And just in terms of his skill set?

GB: What I saw is really good movement behind the line. I think that was what was interesting to me that movement behind their back line. His movement in transition was excellent. The timing of it, the awareness of it. On the third goal, he had to adjust and take advantage of the space there. It was really high-level.

ESPN: A lot has been made about the moves of Weston McKennie and Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson, moving to Juventus, Barcelona and Fulham respectively. How impressed have you been with their ability to go into a new situation and very quickly become a key part of the team?

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GB: I think they were prepared for it. They knew it was going to be difficult. It’s always going to be difficult and you have to perform. But Weston in particular, he’s just been grinding his way into being an essential part of that team, which is great. And Sergiño, he’s been playing well and got opportunities and been able to hang on to it. That’s been great. And Christian is a top performer for his club. Gio Reyna is doing really well. Tyler Adams is performing well. So it’s really good to see. Our goal is to get players playing every week and playing at the highest level possible. When we have that combination, it’s good for the team.

ESPN: What do you think is different about this group, who have been able to do that, compared to players in the past?

GB: I think every group is different. I think this group has a ton of talent. To me this group is a culmination of the development system in America, and I think it’s reflective on the investment that [MLS] ownership was put into youth development, how other academies have put into 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. That’s important to raise talent.

ESPN: Depending on how the team lines up, do you see Christian Pulisic being more central, or do you see him more having the wing he plays for Chelsea and still tucking inside quite a bit?

GB: I think Christian’s best role is when he has the freedom to be flexible, because we know he can beat players wide, but we also know he can get final passes in the middle. What I can tell you is that it’s highly unlikely that we’re going to put him in a position where he’s only asked to do one thing, because that doesn’t match his skill set. He’s a game-changer you need to put in position to be able to change the game in a number of areas. I think the areas that he’s going to be effective will change from game to game based on the opponent.

ESPN: In terms of Tyler Adams, after the Wales game he said he was really happy to be that guy to sit in front of the back line. Is that where you see him playing, or might he move around a little bit more?

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GB: I think that’s a really good position for him, and it’s a position that we need to continue to develop him in. And keep having conversations with him and talking to him about how to how to execute that role. But he definitely has a really good profile for that role. He’s got a number of skill sets in other areas of the field as well: Really good work rate, really good engine to get up and down the field. So you can see him playing other positions as well. But he’s in a good club (RB Leipzig), and it’s nice to see.

On new talent coming through:

ESPN: To what degree does Andrés Perea fit that role? Do you see him maybe providing some cover for Tyler in that part of the field or do you see him exceling in another role?

GB: I think that’s a good spot for him. And another player to mention in my mind, who has done really well, is Jackson Yueill; [he] has a really good understanding of the position. And I think those guys are all young and powerful players. With Andrés, I think it’s great to have him committed to the United States; he’s a very good player with a high potential. He learns very quickly. He’s got a good competitive streak in him, and I think that role will be a good role for him.

ESPN: Who are some other dual nationals that you are looking to bring in?

GB: Any player with an American passport, we would look at closely. I mean, that’s our job. We want to have talent. And it’s not necessarily me bringing players in. It’s the program selling itself. The players want to play with talented players. And I think it’s more a reflection of the talent we have, and what our players are doing that that’s attracting a lot of players. I think it’s a great thing. We have a good team. We have good guys in the team. And that’s why it’s so important for me to have them see our environment, because that’s where I think they see the quality people we have, they see the team spirit, and they want to be part of that.

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ESPN: Along those lines, is Yunus Musa any closer to making a decision?

GB: We’ve been in close contact with Yunus, and he’s having a good season in Valencia. He’s the guy that we hope to have in the program.

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