As 2020 nears its end, one would think that United States men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter could rest easy a bit.
In the team’s last game of the year, his U.S. side cruised to a 6-0 win over El Salvador, this coming off a 6-2 win over Panama last month. On Wednesday night, he was able to debut another five players, making it a total of 34 debuts in his first 22 games in charge.
One of those debutantes, Chris Mueller, became the second U.S. player in two weeks to score twice in his debut and he also had two assists. Ayo Akinola was another player making his international debut, adding a goal in the process. Veteran Paul Arriola continued his comeback from a torn ACL by opening the scoring, and Brenden Aaronson and Sebastian Lletget scored as well.
And yet Berhalter wasn’t about to get carried away.
“I’m always nervous,” Berhalter said after the match. “That’s part of the job, right? I believe in the process.
“I believe in that when we train the way we do, we will be able to perform in the game, and the guys showed that tonight. But you don’t want to get ahead of yourself. It’s a day-to-day job. You’ve got to put the work in every single day and hope to get better every single day and that’s where we are as a team.
“We know right now, that none of these results are going to help us in 2021. [Next year] is a different game. I think the team has confidence, but we still have to go out in the field and play the game and every game is different. We’ll prepare as hard as we can to put the team in position to win those games.”
Berhalter is right to put this game in its proper context. This was an El Salvador side playing its first game since January, and looked every bit like a group of players unfamiliar with one another. The game was never in doubt after the U.S. raced to a 5-0 lead inside the first 28 minutes. About the only time the U.S. goal was threatened was in the 73rd minute when Julian Araujo played a wayward pass to El Salvador’s Duston Correa only for him to shoot straight at U.S. keeper Bill Hamid.
But if there’s one reason for Berhalter to relax over the holidays, it has to do with his team’s depth. The international calendar for the U.S. in 2021 — COVID-19 permitting — figures to be jam-packed. There’s qualifying for the delayed Tokyo Olympics in March, followed by the finals of the CONCACAF Nations League in June. The Gold Cup is set to be held in July. If the U.S. is able to qualify for Tokyo, there’s the Olympics starting at the end of July. Then there’s the biggest competition of all, with World Cup qualifying — which will contain some windows with three matches — starting in September.
As ESPN television analyst Taylor Twellman pointed out during the game broadcast, the U.S. probably will need enough players to fill out three teams so as to keep them fresh and not alienate their clubs. And for all the talk about the emerging quality at the top of the player pool, that talent will need to extend deeper than ever if the U.S. is to successfully fight on multiple fronts. For that reason, it was an encouraging sign to see this young U.S. side take control and put the game away early.
Nobody did more to help the U.S. team’s cause than Mueller. At age 24, the Orlando City attacker is something of a late bloomer, having gone through the college ranks at the University of Wisconsin, though historically the U.S. has made use of such players. Mueller laid on the opener for Arriola, added two goals of his own — the second on a diving header from Araujo’s service — and could have had a hat trick, only to slide a pass into the center of the penalty area that Akinola was able to finish.
There is competition aplenty given the rapidity with which young players are making an impression. But for Mueller, consider it a first test passed ahead of a year that should be filled with them.
“I think we still need to be cautious and careful a little bit,” Berhalter said about Mueller. “You know, one game I think isn’t going to put a guy in or put a guy out either way. But it’s a step for Chris, and it was an important step. And, I’m really proud of the work he’s done to get himself to this point.”
One player making a step back into the national team fold is Arriola, who played in only one game this season with D.C. United due to his aforementioned injury. And as gratifying as his goal was, he has his eye on a bigger prize. Arriola is the rare player who was around for the failed attempt to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, and is ready to help write a more successful chapter in U.S. soccer history.
“I’m extremely eager. I think we’re in a great position,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of hard competition. It’s hard to replicate going down to the Azteca in a World Cup qualifier there or Costa Rica or all of these other countries. So I think even today the killer instinct [we showed] is a great step for us.”
It will need to be one of many.