Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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Gregg Berhalter emphasizes importance of ‘crucial’ Copa America to building USMNT momentum for World Cup

Copa America prep is officially underway as the United States men’s national team prepares to face Colombia. With questions ahead of the tournament surrounding the fitness of players, who the first choice right back will be without Sergino Dest, and even if the team can compete against national sides of the caliber of Colombia and Brazil, it’s an important time for manager Gregg Berhalter to see what areas of improvement are needed ahead of a tournament with high expectations. Berhalter stated that he will put out a strong lineup against both Colombia and Brazil with few changes as there are eyes on competing against Bolivia when the group stage begins.

“We’re looking for our performances to give us information of where we’re at. We know we’re playing two top South American teams and we’re going to learn a lot both about our group and our opponents in these two games,” Berhalter said about what he’s looking for starting Saturday. “But for us, it’s about how do we go out in the field and have a good level of performance? How do we go out on the field and compete? And then get the entire group ready and fit for Copa America.”

Berhalter takes things a step further though when he speaks about Copa America. While most view the tournament as an important litmus test not only for if the USMNT can compete against top opposition but also for whether Berhalter is the coach who can lead this team in 2026, he doesn’t seem to feel a similar pressure about these games. In a certain sense, he shouldn’t show that there’s pressure because that just transfers pressure to the team, but figuring out how to gauge the upcoming tournament is critical. While fans would like to advance past the round of 16, in some ways that’s easier said than done without Dest, but Berhalter did have a few things to say about his views for the tournament. 

“I think that Copa America is essential to the growth of this group and I believe that this is a very important tournament for this team. This is the last major tournament before the World Cup. We’ll have Gold Cup but the caliber of teams does not match Copa America When you think about the big four teams that are in this thing in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Colombia,” Berhalter said. “We’re playing two of them pre-tournament, one of them in the tournament and we can potentially face them against as we march throughout the tournament, so this is a big tournament for us and it’s a building block in which to go into the World Cup confident. I think this can build a tremendous amount of momentum among the group. It can bring confidence to the team so you know we’re treating this seriously and we want to put in good performances.”

He’s right that the USMNT will be facing some of the best teams in the world, but the part being left out here is how deflating a poor performance can get. If the team can’t adjust for missing Dest, they’re facing teams that will make them pay for it. It’s a good thing to do that now to know where they stand ahead of the Copa America, but also there isn’t much time to tinker with things if plan A doesn’t work this late in the game. Looking at right back, Berhalter remained coy about what he plans to do.

“For the next two games, we will try different looks. We’re going to give the natural right backs an opportunity in these games and then we’ll perhaps look at some other options for us,” Berhalter said. “We’ve been able to see so far in camp with the performances of our right backs, but also with other players and really just taking it game, opponent by opponent.”

When Dest can’t go, Joe Scally has usually been his primary backup, but that hasn’t boded well, which could give Shaq Moore a chance at playing too. In 33 caps for the national team, the team has a record of 18-8-7 when Dest starts with three of those losses coming with him at left back. With the USMNT picking up four losses during Dest’s career during non-January Camp matches that he didn’t appear in, his importance to the side is quite clear. 

This points toward needing to try something new at right back, but if that doesn’t work it still leaves Berhalter searching for options. The Bolivia match is approaching rapidly as June 23 is right around the corner. The USMNT will have more time to train ahead of then but setting right back among other rotations now instead of continuing to Copa with looming questions will be critical.

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