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Gregg Berhalter’s leadership provides subdued outlook for U.S.

The first thing you need to understand, if you are an American inexperienced with world soccer, is that Greg Berhalter is not a “bad guy.” He’s not the Bobby Petrino or Urban Meyer of American soccer. I personally have had the opportunity to engage in a number of brief conversations with the man and can confirm he is a genuine, humble and approachable person who truly cares about U.S. soccer.

Another thing you need to know is that Gregg Berhalter likely obtained his current position due to nepotism. His brother was an executive in the U.S. Soccer Federation and reportedly fought hard to elevate him, then the head coach of the MLS Columbus Crew toting a 39% win percentage, to the nation’s most prestigious soccer position. 

Throughout the post-2018 disaster era of the USMNT, whether it be friendlies, World Cup qualifying, recruitment, roster selection or, most recently, preparation for the World Cup, Berhalter’s reign has had its ups and downs. There were the bright moments, such as recruiting dual nationals Yunus Musah, Pepi Ricardo or Malik Tillman, emphatically defeating Mexico dos a cero in Cincinnati or expanding the USMNT player pool into Europe. Then, there were the lows, like an embarrassing loss to far inferior Canada in qualifiers, notching zero goals in recent September friendlies or the alienation of veteran players.

Many always believed Berhalter’s most mind-numbing lapse in leadership was his commitment to a stringent system in international play. Again, to my potentially inexperienced readers, international soccer is thrown together in a matter of weeks. There is no time to establish a system similar to that of FC Barcelona or Manchester City in, at most, a combined month together over the course of a year. Yet GGG (Berhalter’s nickname) has emphasized “verticality” as if it was his Bible. The system of “verticality,” which puts a priority on building from the back, slow methodical play and a bevy of runs in behind, has done nothing but stunt the growth of this team. It has neutered star attackers such as Christian Pulisic or Giovanni Reyna and alienated talented players that deserve to suit up, such as Jordan Pefok or John Brooks, simply because they do not “fit the system.”

Yet Berhalter’s masterclass of troughs came this past week, when the Federation announced the 26-man roster that would be attending the World Cup in Qatar. As someone who has meticulously scouted this pool of players, lets just say, I was far more than a bit underwhelmed. Now, the roster is no failure — there were some lock picks that elevate it, as well as a few pleasant surprise selections that will be vital in the Cup matches. Yet overall this roster provides little prospects for the United States exceeding expectations in Qatar. 

In the defense, GGG selected Cameron Carter-Vickers of Celtics, Sergino Dest of AC Milan, Aaron Long of NY Red Bulls, Shaquell Moore of Nashville SC, Tim Ream, captain of Fulham, Antonee Robinson of Fulham, Joseph Scally of Borussia Monchengladbach, DeAndre Yedlin of Inter Miami and Walker Zimmerman of Nashville SC. It is important to note that Chris Richards of Crystal Palace sustained an injury and thus was unfit to play. This slew of selections screams “MLS quota.” There is absolutely no reason this many players from a far inferior domestic league should be representing our country in 2022. We have far better options available. I am pleasantly surprised to see Tim Ream, who has been in fantastic form for Fulham, on the roster. Dest and Robinson have played fantastic for the national team, and Carter-Vickers and Scally deserved nods based off immense club performances. Zimmerman has been a beast for the USMNT, and was the sole MLS player I believed deserved a spot. 

But then… it gets bad. Long has a great comeback story after injuring himself at the start of qualifying. That’s all well and good, but he should be nowhere within 500 miles of this roster. His form has been questionable in the retirement league of the MLS, he has played mediocre at best for the national team and has major injury concerns. Perhaps there’s hope President Biden could sign an executive order to kick him off the roster.

Shaq Moore and DeAndre Yedlin exist. There’s not much to say about them. They’re not very good for their already underwhelming clubs, nor the national team. Their principal accomplishment is that they can run and sometimes kick. Hooray! One could make the argument Yedlin is here for past WC experience, but if that’s the case, where is John Brooks, who scored in a World Cup? Reggie Cannon, Mark McKenzie or John Brooks would have been far more talented options. But Gregg had to show the USSF is “in league” with the dead weight and talentless MLS, leading to a back line that lacks critical depth.

The midfielders are a far more elite group, mostly because there was little way GGG could screw it up. Brendan Aaronson and Tyler Adams of Leeds United, Luca de la Torre of Celta Vigo, Weston McKennie of Juventus, Yunus Musah of Valencia, Kellyn Acosta of LAFC and (deep sigh) Cristian Roldan of Seattle Sounders (screams in agony). It is likely the captain will be in this midfield group, whether its Adams or McKennie. All of the European selections here are top-notch. Each has been in top form for their clubs, particularly the Leeds United boys, and contributed immensely to the heart of the USMNT. 

The MLS players are highly questionable at best. Kellyn Acosta has a high motor. Congrats, you can run a lot. That may come in handy against inferior pawn teams such as Jamaica or Cuba, but will be utterly useless against a side of immense talent like England. Cristian Roldan should be triple the distance of Aaron Long from this side. He has been fine for Sounders, but utterly invisible on the national team. He may even be a net negative. GGG apparently believed one spot needed to go to a “glue guy,” and the selection was Roldan. The idea that Berhalter would overlook the talents of a Malik Tillman or James Sands simply for a “glue guy” to record some funny videos in the locker room is befuddling. Actually, more like downright negligent. Roldan has no business warming the USMNT bench, much less seeing minutes.

The forwards provided perhaps the most shocking exclusions of the roster. Christian Pulisic of Chelsea, the undisputed star of the team, was joined by Tim Weah of Lille, Gio Reyna of Borussia Dortmund, Josh Sargent of Norwich City, Haji Wright of Antalyaspor, Jesus Ferreira of FC Dallas, and … Jordan … Morris … of Seattle Sounders. The first four names mentioned were locks and should be critical contributors and shining stars of this side. 

The bottom three warrant not just discussion, but anger. Jesus Ferreira is not the second coming of Cristiano Ronaldo because he scored some sexy free kicks in MLS. In fact, recently his form has been utterly disgusting, as he sends easy goals 30 yards into the air as if he was kicking a field goal. GGG’s favoritism is more than apparent there; it’s blinding. Haji Wright has been blazingly effective in the Turkish Super Lig, yet was underwhelming at the national level. His skill set is utilized better by Jordan Pefok, who at one point was the top scorer for his Bundesliga team. Pefok was not selected due to “form concerns,” yet Ferreira was given an almost guaranteed spot, despite a form that could be rivaled by certain writers at The Observer. 

Jordan Morris has no merit to be on this team. It is 2022 and Jordan Morris is still receiving call-ups, despite proving time and time and time again he is an underwhelming winger who cannot effectively create attack chances. He is undoubtedly the worst pick here. 

Pepi Ricardo, who struggled in the Bundesliga but now is tearing it up in the Eredivisie, was not selected. Pepi saved the USMNT a number of times in contested qualifying matches and was, at a point, the second-leading scorer behind Pulisic. He proudly chose to represent the USMNT over Mexico, and was a fierce proponent of the American vision of football throughout 2021 and 2022. Yet, he will remain at home, a heartbreaking decision for fans and Pepi alike. These are the sorts of decisions that may threaten Berhalter’s job come January. At least he did a good job picking goalkeepers in a historically weak USMNT keeper pool.

So, what can American hopefuls, both diehards and casuals, expect when the U.S. plays its first match next Monday? That will ultimately come down to Berhalter. He needs to ditch the ideas of “verticality” and loosen up his coaching style. Let talented players like Christian Pulisic (who truly is Chelsea’s best attacker), Gio Reyna (Golden Boy nominee) and Timothy Weah take players on and beat them. Let the trio of Musah, McKennie and Adams operate with more independence as opposed to following a script. Let Dest shoot from deep outside. In other words, let the youngest team in the tournament play like the youngest team in the tournament. Do not restrict them to playing like your mediocre Columbus Crew sides of old or a middling Premier League side. There is a fire here in this side that can come out at any time. GGG needs to stop trying to work to tame that flame and instead let youthful exuberance be what propels this unbelievable group of teenagers forward. 

This article may have been bleak. I know. But, readers, you must understand this is the most talented team the USA has ever sent to a World Cup, and it’s not close. If utilized correctly, these players have the potential to make some noise in this tournament. They will be likely favorites against Iran and Wales and, despite the pompous celebrations of the English media, reports are Gareth Soutgate and the Three Lions are uneasy about their match versus the Americans. This is the group of boys we will be sending — there are no more changes to make, barring injury or emergency. Let’s show them the support they need as they undertake the most iconic tournament in the world. And Gregg, try not to screw things up. 

Contact Adam Akan at aakan@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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