In a year that was interrupted around the world by the coronavirus pandemic, the United States men's national team played just four matches in 2020. With so few opportunities for manager Gregg Berhalter to get his team together, it amounts to a lost year in the program's evolution as U.S. Soccer prepares to right the wrongs of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia by confirming a place at Qatar 2022.
So as we usher in the new year, ESPN's Jeff Carlisle, Austin Lindberg and Gus Elvin make a to-do list for Berhalter & Co. for 2021. In 12 months' time, the U.S. will have its focus fixated on the World Cup, and much needs to be accomplished by then.
Item 1: Stabilize striker, center-back positions
A year ago, Berhalter seemed to have no shortage of lineup issues. Outside of Christian Pulisic, there wasn't much in the way of creativity, at least against quality opposition. The midfield's shape also seemed unsettled as it seemed unclear where Tyler Adams would be deployed: right-back or defensive midfield?
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But despite a dearth of games in 2020, the progress of some elements in the player pool meant that some of these problems began to solve themselves. Giovanni Reyna's breakthrough with Borussia Dortmund ratcheted up the team's potential in the attacking third. There is also Yunus Musah to consider, though the dual-national has yet to decide if he'll fully commit to the U.S. after impressing in the November call-up to face Wales and Panama.
The smile on Adams' face following November's 0-0 draw with Wales spoke to his comfort when stationed in front of the backline. Meanwhile, Weston McKennie's impressive debut season with Juventus hints at more consistency with the national team. There were even positive signs at the historically troublesome left-back spot with Antonee Robinson's maturation, though some more consistency -- at least in a U.S. shirt -- is still required.
Yet things at either end of the pitch will be keeping the wheels in Berhalter's head turning -- striker and one of the center-back slots.
The starting striker role remains up for grabs despite Gyasi Zardes' impressive 12-goal season in helping Columbus Crew SC to win MLS Cup in 2020. His previous time under Berhalter with the Crew means he still remains one of the manager's favorites, yet there remains this impulse to look elsewhere. Werder Bremen youngster Josh Sargent is lauded for his willingness to do the dirty work, yet has scored just once in 14 games this year in the Bundesliga. There are also youngsters Sebastian Soto (Norwich) and Nicholas Gioacchini (Caen), as well as 18-year-old Matthew Hoppe, fresh off his hat-trick last weekend for Schalke against Hoffenheim.
"I think we have some quality strikers that have different qualities, but they can all be effective in what we do," Berhalter told ESPN. "For us, it's about continuing to watch them, watching them perform, watching them score goals. And when the timing comes, you know, pick the right guys who can execute what we're asking. It's really nice to see that group of guys [performing] and just imagine the possibilities."
Then there is Jozy Altidore. The Toronto striker, now 31, still has the tools to be devastating. Yet injuries continue to chip away at his overall fitness, and Berhalter seems unconvinced. "I think for Jozy, it's just a matter of staying healthy, being healthy, and then everyone knows what he can do when he's there. The consistency of [his fitness] is going to be important."
Altidore was called in for the shrunk-down January camp, giving him an opportunity to show the U.S. manager that he can be trusted as World Cup qualifying begins later this year. Who knows if he -- or any of the candidates, for that matter -- will grab the chance before him.
The center of the defense has some questions as well, though not as it relates to John Brooks, who's set to anchor the left side. The veteran has been a consistent presence for Wolfsburg and looks to have shed the injury bug that has plagued him in the past.
Who will play next to Brooks is a different story. Aaron Long dealt with ups and downs in 2020 but still seems to have Berhalter's favor, making it harder for reigning MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman to make a breakthrough. Matt Miazga's move to Anderlecht has done him some good in terms of regular minutes, and he remains firmly in consideration.
"We need center-backs that can execute our game model and play with space behind the backline, that can win duels, that can pass out of the back," Berhalter said. "There are a lot of expectations on our center-backs, and what we do. I think that, again, the final decisions [over who starts] will come down to the form they're in with the clubs, how they continue to develop in some cases, and then based on what type of opponent we're playing."
Finally, while it still seems a bit early for Mark McKenzie, his recent move to Belgian side Genk could accelerate his development in a way similar to that of some of his better-known teammates. Chris Richards is another talent who is aiming to make his mark with the U.S. squad, as well as at Bayern Munich. There is no shortage of candidates and the competition to become Brooks' preferred partner in central defense will be intense. -- Jeff Carlisle
Item 2: Build depth behind high-profile starters
The future is bright as Pulisic (Chelsea), Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Sergino Dest (Barcelona), McKennie (Juventus) and many others have broken through at top European clubs. While Berhalter looks to have a strong nucleus in place for both the present and future, the next challenge for the U.S. will be to build depth and competition within the player pool. In other words, it's paramount that the U.S. continue to round out the squad behind the expected usual suspects: Pulisic, Reyna, Dest, McKennie, Adams, Zack Steffen and Brooks.
At present, the U.S. have around or seven or eight surefire starters, with striker and right-sided center-back the biggest remaining questions for Berhalter when it comes to his starting XI. After that is where things get muddled, as with just four international friendlies in 2020, Berhalter wasn't afforded much of a chance to dive into his player pool, make judgments on role players or start forming a two- or three-deep hierarchy at each position. The U.S. has no shortage of options at striker and center-back (see above), while Jordan Morris, Tim Weah, Tyler Boyd, Paul Arriola, Konrad de la Fuente, and Chris Mueller will compete for roles out wide.
Musah (if he sticks with the U.S.), Sebastian Lletget, and Brenden Aaronson are all flexible enough to play as either No. 8s or No. 10s in midfield, while the U.S. is also in good hands from a depth perspective at right-back with the capable Reggie Cannon backing up Dest.
"To me, this group is a culmination of the development system in America," said Berhalter. "And I think it's reflective on the investment that [MLS] ownership was put into youth development, how [much] other academies have put into development. The Development Academy had a lot to do with it, and now you're starting to see that it's a systematic development of players."
Yet the U.S. is thin in defensive midfield and at left-back. Adams is the stalwart No. 6 for the U.S., while Fulham's Robinson continues to improve and looks to have made the starting left-back job his own. Issues at those two positions lie in terms of depth, though, as the U.S. doesn't have a clear backup for either at present.
We start with Adams, one of the most indispensable players because of his ability to play as a lone defensive midfielder and due to the amount of ground he can cover. The RB Leipzig midfielder's role cannot be overstated as he papers over so many of the side's shortcomings, but his troubling history of muscle injuries is a concern. With 33-year-old Michael Bradley's future uncertain at the international level, Berhalter will have to find alternatives.
The U.S. will be looking to one of Owen Otasowie (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Johnny Cardoso (Internacional), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes), James Sands (NYCFC) or even recently flipped dual national Andres Perea (Orlando City) to emerge as the answer to their No. 6 conundrum. The U.S. is in good hands with Adams, but if he were to go down in a jam-packed 2021, would the U.S. be able to cope?
The picture is even less clear at left-back, as behind Robinson there is no natural fit who has earned Berhalter's trust. MLS youngsters Sam Vines and Chase Gasper are two to watch here, but if anything happened to Robinson, the likeliest scenario would see Dest move over to left-back and Reggie Cannon or DeAndre Yedlin start at right-back.
The USMNT could be on the verge of something special, but landing on the right role players and establishing depth where needed most are imperative as they begin a crucial calendar year. -- Gus Elvin
Item 3: Manage player pool to compete on four fronts
The list of competitions for 2021 is long, assuming the COVID-19 pandemic cooperates, which it hasn't shown an inkling of doing over the past 10 months. There's Olympic qualifying in late March, the finals of the CONCACAF Nations League in June, the Gold Cup in July, the Olympics themselves (fingers crossed), and the biggest one of them all, World Cup qualifying starting in September.
"It's pretty straightforward when you think about Nations League and Gold Cup," Berhalter said. "We want to be in two finals, and hopefully win two finals. We've yet to win a trophy since I've been coaching [the national squad] ... that's certainly a goal of ours, and I think no matter what group is on the field, we still want to be competing for a championship. I think that's an important message.
"With World Cup qualifying, we want to put ourselves in a good position after the first eight games [from September to November 2021]."
The problem facing Berhalter is one in which he must balance seeing his starting XI as often as possible -- even as the pandemic rages -- while staying in the good graces of the players' clubs. With unprecedentedly congested fixture lists, overseas players will need a break at some point. It's a thought never far from Berhalter's mind.
"We're always thinking about, 'Who are the best [fringe] guys and who's in form?' And we'd love to have this guy, but he's got a little injury. There are always circumstances, right? So it's really difficult to plan that far ahead and say, 'OK, this is the group we're 100 percent confident in,' because until they're on the plane, you don't know. There's a weekend game, and then they fly off, and you have no idea what's going to happen in that game.
"For us, we think the [USMNT talent pool] has reasonable depth. I would say the shortcoming of the team in most areas is experience, but that is made up for with talent. Now, it's about getting that talent some experience."
For that reason, the most sensible approach is one in which the top guns are called in for the finals of the CONCACAF Nations League. There will be an international window in March to try and build on what few camps took place in 2020. The team selected for the Olympic qualifying tournament is complicated by the fact that not only is it an Under-23 tournament, but clubs aren't required to release players, hinting strongly at a squad picked heavily from MLS as opposed to Europe-based players.
The Gold Cup will likely draw from MLS as well, but the roster could be completely different if the U.S. qualifies for the Olympics, as the two tournaments will have some overlap. While it's easy to dismiss both tournaments as being unimportant in terms of the competition level, it's still valuable international experience, and depth will be critical as Berhalter navigates his way through the slog that is WC qualifying. That will begin in September, and the more players Berhalter has who can excel in these tournaments, the better off the team will be. -- Jeff Carlisle
Item 4: Determine which veterans have a future
The youth movement within the national team has been well documented, and to great fanfare, but there are four players with considerable international pedigree at Berhalter's disposal whose careers are nearing their ends. Bradley, Altidore, Brad Guzan and Tim Ream all might have roles to play as the Stars and Stripes looks ahead to Qatar 2022; or, just as possible, they might not.
Altidore is the only one of this quartet to be called into Berhalter's January camp, and considering the Americans' inconsistent play at the No. 9 position and relative lack of depth, he might be the best positioned of this group to have a spot moving forward. Ream finds himself in a similar situation, with the second center-back spot wide open and having gone the full 90 in six of the U.S.'s last seven contests before the pandemic-enforced shutdown.
Each has significant hurdles to overcome, though, if they're to carve out a recurring role in 2021. For Altidore, it's remaining healthy, having been fit enough to start just 11 of Toronto FC's 20 games during a shortened 2020 campaign. Ream, on the other hand, has found minutes hard to come by at Fulham in recent months; already 33, his usefulness for a national team with its eyes on making a splash at the World Cup in just under two years' time might be on the wane.
For Bradley and Guzan, the odds of continued participation are longer. Neither has played for the U.S. in more than a year, and Guzan had already been usurped by Steffen as the Americans' No. 1 well before his most recent appearance. Similarly, Adams has established himself as the No. 6 choice, but he's also been prone to injury, and the squad lacks another option who possesses the tools necessary to operate at the base of midfield. Does this keep the door a tiny bit open for Bradley? We'll find out soon enough.
"I think I've been consistent with my messaging since I first took over," Berhalter told ESPN. "First of all, we really value veterans. We value what they bring, we value their experience, we value how they can help the group. And with all those guys, it's just a case of them playing and being in form. Then, there can absolutely be a role for them, and that's what we're looking for.
"That's the measuring stick for those guys: Are they playing, and are they in good form?"
Come the end of 2021, the U.S. will be less than a year away from the 2022 World Cup, a tournament at which expectations will be high considering the glut of burgeoning young talent at the team's disposal. Experience is a nebulous value, but as the calendar turns and Qatar looms larger on the horizon, Berhalter will need to soon determine which vets he needs at his disposal -- if any at all. -- Austin Lindberg