CINCINNATI, Ohio -- It's the day before the U.S. men's national team is set to play Venezuela and Gregg Berhalter eases into a chair in the lobby of the team's hotel. The mood is light: the players' families have accompanied the team to get some quality time in before the start of the Gold Cup. Kids are running around and the squad is grateful for the time spent.
Little do Berhalter and the players know that in less than 24 hours the U.S. will be blown out by La Vinotinto 3-0, a massive wakeup call coming on the heels of a 1-0 defeat to Jamaica four days earlier. But in this moment, Berhalter is feeling optimistic about where things stand and is more than willing to explain his thinking on all manner of things from his team's preparations, how he's striking a balance between the present and 2022, the roles for Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Michael Bradley and what he thinks of his compliment of center-backs.
(Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. It was also conducted before RB Leipzig midfielder Adams withdrew from the Gold Cup squad to rehab a persistent groin injury.)
ESPN: When we spoke in January, you talked about the 10 areas of the game: offensive and defensive transition, offensive and defensive set pieces, high-press defending, middle block defending, low block defender, building from the goalkeeper, building out of midfield and finishing. Where do you think your team stands in each of those areas? What are you pleased with and what areas do you need to make the most progress?
Gregg Berhalter: It's been interesting because I think the different games with different opponents have revealed different things about us.
When I look at Ecuador, we struggled breaking down a low defense. So we need to work on that. Then Chile comes and they're high-pressing us and we struggled there, so we need to work on that. What I'd say is we have a foundation for all of these phases right now and we need to continue to build on that, so that were really confident in all phases of the game so we can adapt.
When you think about the different personnel in each game, we've had our full group, I would say, maybe for one game: the Ecuador game. Weston [McKennie] got injured against Ecuador. Christian [Pulisic] played 30 minutes against Chile. We mixed guys up. We haven't had the entire group together long. Them being around, talking to them, I think we've made progress in a lot of areas.
When I look at our defensive "low-block" shape, our "mid-block" shape, we don't give up very many chances at all in these games, which I'm very pleased with. Our high pressure could be better and more coordinated. That's something you see when you don't work with a team for a long time. [Our] High pressure isn't as good as it should be. And then in defensive transition we've been very good. In offensive transition, that's something we can be better in as well.
ESPN: Is improving in those areas going to be an ongoing process throughout this cycle?
GB: I think you just need the foundation. You need to keep building on the foundation that we can understand what we're doing in any given moment in the game. The opponent does this? Okay, we do that. You look at Chile, I think that's a good example of a team that can adapt during the game. It's no problem for them. If we pressed with three players, they would build [attacks] with four; if we pressed with two, they would build with three. During the game, they would change on the fly.
When we changed to five in the back, they changed their pressure right away. It was really nice. But then I think, this is a team that has won two Copa Americas together. The majority of those players have been playing together for over eight years. That's what you get when you have a team like that -- they become intuitive. We just need to keep building on the concepts and the variations. That's why against Jamaica, it was very important to play that formation [with three in the back] and for the guys to see, okay, thay's how it should be functioning. And for us as coaches, just to realize these are the potential weaknesses of this system. So if we play against an opponent that plays like this, we shouldn't use that. But if they play like this, we could use it.
[The Jamaica game] gave us material, and that's what we're looking for right now.
ESPN: How are you trying to strike a balance between the present and the future in terms of personnel, tactics, what you're teaching the guys.
GB: I think that in terms of personnel, it's important to have guys who have been around the national team. I think that's important to guide some of the younger players. We do have some young players that haven't been around the national team for a long time but part of it in our head is projecting out to 2022. Can they be available for 2022?
What we don't want is to have too many players that we don't think will be around in 2022. That's what we're aware of. That's on our mind. For the Gold Cup roster, it was just thinking about that. How many do we have that have no chance of being there in 2022? That number we want to keep small.
ESPN: But there are some guys here who won't be around in 2022?
GB: Potentially there are some guys who won't, yeah.
ESPN: To what extent does the previous cycle, with the U.S. failing to reach the 2018 World Cup, hang over the program at all? I know you weren't there and I know you had nothing to do with it. But is there even an emotional component that is hanging over the guys at all?
ESPN: So is it a clean slate and you guys are just completely looking forward?
GB: Yeah. I think what you have is a new opportunity. I think the guys understand that listen: this is a new coach and it's a new opportunity for us to go in the direction that we want to go. I think that I don't see guys looking back in the past. One thing I will say is we're comfortable with what happened in the past. We're comfortable with making the World Cup in 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010, 2014. That's great history. That's our past also.
I think when people talk about the past, they get hung up with 2018. It was a moment for us that wasn't great, but it was also a moment for us to learn. I think that's part of us, just as much as all those great triumphs are part of us also. All the times we went to the World Cup, and made the quarterfinals and went to the second around in the Group of Death in Brazil. That's all part of who we are as a nation. It's important to embrace that. But if you're talking specifically about 2017 and not qualifying, guys are ready to turn the page on that.
ESPN: You've been in charge for six or seven months. Is there anything that has been unexpected, that you've been made aware of? Is there anything in the job that you didn't anticipate?
GB: I think when you come from club soccer to the national team, you have to get used to not being on the field every day. That's one thing. But it's been a great opportunity to learn and reach out to other clubs and visit other clubs and get to see how teams are working. I've enjoyed that. Then it's just finding the balance of when you're assembling the roster, where guys are at and what the needs of the clubs are versus the national team, and that's always going to be a balance. That's always a challenge and I think every national team coach faces that same challenge.
ESPN: Why do you think Tyler Adams is best suited to this hybrid right-back/center-mid role, and how likely are we to see him remain in that role going forward? (Note: Adams is now out of the Gold Cup due to injury.)
GB: I think that Tyler is an extremely gifted soccer player. I think he has huge, huge potential. We want to put him in a position to succeed. When I think about a guy that is a big part of what we're trying to do, he's one of those guys. For us it's figuring out, if he's going to play there, how can we still utilize his skill set? And his skill set, to me, is more central than it is wide. To me this is a way to bring out his skills, get him on the field and help contribute to the overall success of the team.
ESPN: How much of a balancing act is there between the system and the personnel you have? When you look at the player pool, are you plugging guys into the system or would there ever come a time when you say, "I don't know that the system is working, maybe we need to try something else?"
GB: I guess our process is working with the players, seeing their strengths and adapting to it. We just haven't had time to adapt to it. So getting to know the players, getting to work with the players.
Christian [Pulisic] is a great example. People are asking, "is he going to be wide? Is he going to be central?" My idea is that he'll play central but move wide sometimes. We want him in between the lines, being able to attack players, go at players, and then help other people get goalscoring opportunities. We think he can do it from a central position better. But that may not be the case when we actually see him.
We know he has one-on-one ability out wide, so that's in the back of our minds already. Now it's just gathering information and saying, "Let's work with these guys. Let's see exactly everything they have. Let them form us a little bit." The product of that I think will be much better.
ESPN: So how many different tactical layers do you have to this? Will there be an end point?
GB: I hope not. Seriously. That's the fun part of the game, creating a team that can adapt. That's what we want to do, and it's difficult. With the national team you might even say it's impossible.
I can see that side of it, where it would be challenging because you don't have them every day. But the idea is that you have great and smart players, and they can adapt to what you're asking them to do based on our identity. Our identity is the same. We want to use the ball to disorganize the opponent and create goalscoring opportunities. That's fine. That's there, but we can have different ways to do it. That's what I'm interested in. That's why a game like Jamaica to me was great because we learned a lot.
We had this hypothesis that we could play with wing-backs, treat them like wingers, and they're still going to be able to get behind the back line. We just found we couldn't do it enough. They were too far from goal. You look at a couple of crosses, Antonee [Robinson] is outside the penalty box. And we need our wingers inside the penalty box. Then we can point to, okay, was it because we weren't fit because he hasn't played since May 5? Or is it because he's coming from too deep a position?
We're analyzing all these things and trying to get answers. That's why to me, it was a great exercise to get answers and start trying to figure out how this can work here, but it won't work in this situation.
ESPN: What will constitute success at this Gold Cup? Is it win or bust, or is it more about players getting knowledge about your style and your tactics?
GB: It's about competing. It's about our tactics, the way we play. It's about going through this process and learning together because tournaments are a learning process for a group. So it's about those three things. Then to me, it's ultimately about putting ourselves in a position to win.
We know Mexico is a very good team, probably the favorites of the tournament. We know that's a good team. We know that Panama has an experienced team. We know it's not going to be easy, but it's going to be good for this group to dig and have to compete for something.
ESPN: What do you see in Michael Bradley in terms of his role going forward?
GB: Michael is one of our best players. He's just such a smart soccer player, he's technically very good, he reads the game very well, he can make passes. He's an excellent, excellent player. What I would say about Michael, and this is the conversation I had with him, is that he's a guy you don't have to make any promises to regarding what the future holds. He's enjoying his moment when he's here.
ESPN: How do you see your center-backs shaking out? You've got Matt Miazga and Aaron Long, you've got Omar Gonzalez still in the mix, as well as Walker Zimmerman. How are you looking at that competition?
GB: John Brooks is injured. Brooks is a very good center-back: a top center-back, I think. When you talk about Matt and Walker, [they're our] younger center-backs. Aaron is a little bit older, but less experienced. You have Omar with more experience. We think it's a rounded group for this particular tournament.
Cameron Carter-Vickers is another guy who was in consideration and in the end, we went with the experience of Omar over that. I think it's a good group. In Walker you have a guy who is playing for LAFC and doing a great job: he's very dangerous on attacking set pieces. When you look at Aaron, you've got speed, someone who is very good in defensive transition. Miazga is a combination of both of them a little bit.
With Omar, you have the veteran experience. If you need to put him in difficult games, it's no problem for him. He's played in games like that before. He's won championships in MLS and Mexico. He's a great culture guy.
ESPN: It seems like the USMNT program has more guys in Europe now than maybe it did than at any time in the last few years. What do you make of that development as well as what MLS is doing in terms of developing players?
GB: I think it's a credit to MLS. It's a credit to our youth academies. It's a credit to the Development Academy because now you have young talents that are being scouted and I've always said, everyone has their own pathway. For one guy it may be going through the academy system, playing in MLS, and then progressing over to Europe. For another it may be going from the Development Academy straight to Europe and then going to the pro ranks there. Another guy may be playing in MLS a long time.
ESPN: Having played in Europe, to what extent is the culture over there more cutthroat than it is over here?
GB: It's not the same but I think you just have leagues that are more established. That's what it is. There are leagues where you don't have a salary cap, so money is driving most of this. When you're talking about cutthroat, when you're talking about pressure, what's it driven by? Money. That's all it's driven by. So when there's big TV contracts and to win the Champions League you get "X" amount, and if you get relegated you lose "X" amount. That's where some of this comes into play.
I think MLS has done a great job of growing and improving the quality of its league. But we're still not where the Premier League is or the Bundesliga is and that's normal. But what we've done over the last five years alone is amazing.
ESPN: How so?
GB: Think of the players we've sold in the past five years. Think of the young talents we've attracted to this league in the last five years. Think of the quality of players we have. My last year in the league, 2011, think of the strikers in the league at the time. Now look at the strikers in the league. It's a different level.
When you think about all the national team players we have, the younger talents we have, the transfer fees we're paying, but also the transfer fees that we're taking in is great. It was never like that.