<
>

'Aggressive' Pulisic has earned teammates' trust at Chelsea - Berhalter

play
Burley: Hazard carried Chelsea, Pulisic's not there yet (1:21)

Craig Burley says Christian Pulisic is a huge talent, but urges fans to avoid comparisons to stars like Eden Hazard. (1:21)

United States manager Gregg Berhalter said he has seen Christian Pulisic become more assertive over the course of his debut season with club side Chelsea.

Berhalter is in Orlando, Florida taking in the MLS is Back Tournament, but has stayed in steady contact with the U.S. players, both those playing domestically as well as abroad. Pulisic's play is always at the forefront given his importance to the U.S. attack, and Berhalter has noticed the player's uptick in form since the Premier League returned from its coronavirus-induced hiatus.

- Stream MLS Is Back LIVE on ESPN networks, ESPN app (U.S. only)
- Group schedule set for MLS is Back Tournament

"You see now that [Pulisic] was picking the ball up in space, in pockets and just being really aggressive going at defenders, dribbling defenders," he said during a zoom call with reporters on Tuesday. "It's not just only on the sideline. Now he's getting it towards the middle of the field and he's had some really positive effects, taking players on."

Berhalter said he has also noticed a significant difference in how his club teammates are interacting on the field with Pulisic, and that there is a much greater level of trust.

"If you watch the games, you can see the dramatic shift and how [Pulisic's] teammates relate to him now," he said. "They actually look to him. Whereas there were times in the beginning, when you're thinking, 'Wait, why aren't they passing him this ball?' Now they get the ball, their first glance is to him. And you know he's really grown to be an important part of this group, important part of that team, and it's been fun to watch."

As for what is going on at the MLS is Back Tournament, Berhalter said it would be "silly" to conclude that a player's stock has risen or fallen based on their performances in the competition, especially given the amount of rust that has accumulated since MLS shut down back in March. That said, Berhalter said he is observing the matches and collecting some data points on the players involved, and that includes noting the good performances.

"We're looking at how the players are dealing with adversity," he said. "I mean think about some of the conditions they're playing in. Some teams have shorter rest. Some teams will play the nine o'clock game [in the morning]. Some teams will play in the 10:30 game [at night], and just seeing how players are processing that as individuals, how they're able to work through that."

One player that has looked sharp is the Columbus Crew's Darlington Nagbe, who has led his side into the knockout rounds with a game remaining in the group stage. Nagbe looks to be precisely the player Berhalter needs in his midfield given his ability to maintain possession. But the Crew midfielder has long said he's no longer interested in playing for the national team, preferring to use international breaks to spend time with his family.

Berhalter said that he hadn't spoken to Nagbe specifically about returning, but that he feels Nagbe knows "the door remains open."

"It is a commitment, it's not for everyone," Berhalter said about playing for the national team. "There's a lot of travel involved. You are away from your family. When you think about a World Cup, being away, and Gold Cups in the summer, so I can understand him having that point of view of not wanting to leave his family. It isn't for everyone but I think he also knows that it is an open door."

Berhalter added he would also need to be convinced of Nagbe's commitment if the player was to come back.

"There's hesitation by him," said Berhalter about Nagbe. "I would worry about what that would do to the performance. And so he has to be ready. We can push him, but it needs to be something he says, 'Okay this is what I really want.'"

ESPN reported earlier this month that U.S. keeper Zack Steffen is set to return to Manchester City next season and back up Ederson. That has led to concerns that a likely lack of game time would stunt his development. But Berhalter believes returning to City would be a net positive.

"Man City is a super high level right [now], and to gain that experience for a year, to be in that training environment, and have the opportunity to potentially break into that team is exciting," he said. "I think it'd be worth it."

As for Werder Bremen forward Josh Sargent, Berhalter said it was "amazing" for a player Sargent's age to experience a relegation battle, with Bremen prevailing in a playoff over Heidenheim on away goals. But Berhalter also lamented Bremen's difficulty in creating chances for Sargent, who scored four goals in 34 league and cup appearances.

"They need to find a way to be able to create chances in an efficient way," he said of Bremen. "Right now they've been really poor in that, and that's been affecting Josh. They don't play to get the forward goal-scoring opportunities, and it's tough man. I'm watching the games and he doesn't get many opportunities. And when you think about it, one of the reasons why they're in the predicament they were is because lack of goal production. They weren't scoring enough goals, and hopefully they're looking at that and they're addressing that and bringing in personnel that can help them create."

Another player who has impressed since MLS's return is Toronto FC forward Ayo Akinola. The former U.S. youth international is the tournament's joint-leading scorer with five goals, but is also eligible to represent three national teams -- the U.S., Canada and Nigeria. Akinola has been non-committal about his international future, but Berhalter cited his time with U.S. youth teams as a reason why the player will ultimately throw his lot in with the U.S.

"This is a guy who is similar to [Sergino Dest], when we're talking about him, that was raised in our youth national team program. He was a U17 player, a U20 player ... We consider him part of our program. And that means, most likely, the next stage for him could be the U23s, and then eventually the senior national team."