Tuesday, April 23, 2024

USMNT vs. Mexico: USA coach Gregg Berhalter preaches patience ahead of Concacaf Nations League final

ARLINGTON, Texas — U.S. men’s national team head Gregg Berhalter and midfielder Tyler Adams logistically speaking, are exactly where they are supposed to be by spending a portion of their Saturday addressing members of the media with the Concacaf Nations League trophy next to them before they compete for the title a day later.

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Their journey to a third successive CNL final, though, is undoubtedly overshadowed by caveats chiefly fueled by the immediate circumstances in which they got there. The USMNT conceded in the first minute of their semifinal against Jamaica, did little with the 20 shots they took after the fact and were only afforded extra time after Cory Burke scored an own goal moments before the final whistle was scheduled to be blown. The next 30 minutes went swimmingly — Haji Wright scored two goals, both assisted by Gio Reyna, to ensure the USMNT would pick up a 3-1 win.

It was a more dramatic version of other underwhelming showings, including the second leg of their CNL quarterfinal in which they lost 2-1 at Trinidad and Tobago, forcing many to question the recent progress of a group Berhalter has worked with since 2019. It makes for a stark, but understandable, contrast that he and Adams were projecting the power of positive thinking in their pre-match remarks.

“I think we paid the price for a moment of not being tuned into the game in the first 30 seconds of the game and that made it extremely difficult for us and we obviously wouldn’t have scripted it like that,” Berhalter said, “but I also think it’s good for this group, good for the growth of this group to have to endure situations like that and I think gain the confidence that we can endure situations like that.”

Sunday’s matchup against Mexico will not just be a chance to showcase their learnings from Thursday, though. It’s also a very specific measuring stick of the coach and the player pool, who three years ago beat their longtime rivals in an eventful 3-2 win that served as a young USMNT’s first statement-making performance. That victory was proof of concept of the team’s new chapter, led by Berhalter and a new player pool that went on successfully to erase a previous generation’s disappointment of missing the 2018 World Cup. Adams recognized a sense of maturity the group now exhibits.

“We’ve become more patient,” Adams said about the group’s evolution. “We understand our roles a lot better. I think around that time, we’re still developing our identity and style of play whereas now, we’re more flexible, we’re able to adapt on the fly a lot more but again, that patience thing is a huge thing. I think in the past, if we were to play Jamaica and they were sitting really deep, we’d be trying to force things nonstop whereas [now], we had the belief in our side that a goal would come and then we’d be able to dominate from there.”

Berhalter, meanwhile, admitted there’s almost a night-and-day feel to the 2021 final and its 2024 equivalent. The player pool remains nearly the same, but Thursday’s game was the first time no players under the age of 21 were named to a matchday squad since 2017, which means an aspirational group is now one that can match it with life experience.

“To see the individual growth of our team since then has been really great,” Berhalter said. “When you think about a guy like Tyler, now he has a family, has a child and he’s an adult, and it seems like they were kids back then even though it was only three years ago … And from the collective, how the group has gelled and merged and come together and how I think key components of the group have emerged over these years and taking leadership roles.”

Berhalter’s team is an admirably ambitious one, which lines up with the expectations that have been placed on them. Adams described the group’s performance against Jamaica as one that reflects the teams at the top of the game.

“When you look at the best teams around the world, they continue to suffocate you and pin you in for 90 minutes,” he said. “It’s never a goal in the 60th minute, and then they defend so for us it was about continuing that patience and we got the win in the end.”

In the year-plus since the youngest team at the 2022 World Cup capped off their run with a round of 16 exit to the Netherlands, though, some argue that the progress has stalled even if their aspirations — and perhaps their potential — have not. The Copa America might be just a few short months away, but the team’s main objective is to impress two years later at the World Cup on home soil, and Berhalter’s right to argue there’s still time on the clock.

“It’s time,” he answered about what it will take to realize the team’s potential. “I think [they] played really solid at the World Cup and now it’s how do you take that next step? And it’s just going to be continued development at their clubs, [more] continued development together and using milestones like this to continue to push the group.”

Patience, though, is wearing thin. While the team underwhelms at times collectively, the individuals are yet to hit some of the targets that Berhalter identifies, chiefly the one about development in a club setting. While Christian Pulisic arrived in Texas off a four-game scoring streak for AC Milan and Weston McKennie clawed his way back into a Juventus team that left him off their preseason roster, players like Reyna and Matt Turner are sitting on the bench at Nottingham Forest.

None of this is permanent, of course, and two years is a lot of time to change things. The big question facing the USMNT ahead of the CNL final against Mexico, as well as the Copa America and World Cup, is this: Is the team in need of small tinkers or a much larger reset to ensure they meet the lofty goal of a statement-making World Cup performance two years from now?

Berhalter was surprisingly noncommittal.

“Time will tell,” he said. “That’s the thing about everything, right?”

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