The second Gregg Berhalter era is officially underway. Well, technically, it got underway this summer when U.S. Soccer confirmed the head coach would return for a second cycle. However, after missing out on the summer tournaments, he is officially taking over for his first camp back in charge. This is our first look at Berhalter Ball 2.0.
By opting to bring him back, U.S. Soccer made something of a statement: the program would not be undergoing a total rebuild, but rather undergo some tweaks. The foundation was laid during the 2022 World Cup cycle and Berhalter will now get to see it through to the 2026 tournament on home soil.
Still, this team is far from a finished product, and Berhalter is walking right back into a team with lingering problems from last cycle. So, what are the big decision Berhalter will have to make? GOAL takes a look...
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What to do tactically?
During the 2022 World Cup cycle, Berhalter was committed to a 4-3-3. There were some deviations, most notably the bold switch to a 4-4-2 against England at the World Cup but, by and large, it was a safe bet that the U.S. was going to come out in that favoured 4-3-3.
This summer, though, proved that the formation may not be the best one to maximize this team's talent, especially in moments like these when Tyler Adams isn't on the field.
In the Nations League, B.J. Callaghan leaned on a 4-2-3-1, inserting a No.10 into the fold with Adams out. Without a true No.6 in this camp, it seems that the U.S. could also turn to that system for these matches as Adams remains out.
The problem is that Gio Reyna, the starter in that position in the Nation League, is missing too. Malik Tillman seems like an obvious fit for that spot if Berhalter does want to go with it. Brenden Aaronson or Christian Pulisic could also tuck in if he wished.
When Reyna is healthy, playing a 4-2-3-1 is the best way to get the most out of him. However, it does mean taking one of Adams, Yunus Musah or Weston McKennie out of the XI. Is that something Berhalter is willing to do?
We won't truly find out this camp, but it's a storyline to keep an eye on over the next year or so.
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There's one big puzzle piece that Berhalter didn't have during his previous spell in charge: a No.9. Well, he surely has one now.
Folarin Balogun looks like the real deal, having offered a glimpse at his potential with a fantastic goal in the Nations League. After months of recruiting, the young striker has arrived, and he looks like the present and future of the national team.
Berhalter says he's already held good conversations with Balogun and is ready to tweak his system to get the best out of the newly-signed Monaco striker.
"I think with the national team, if you've seen how the ideas of the game model have evolved, to me, it's always about fitting to the players because you have a limited player pool," Berhalter said. "So with Flo, it's our obligation to work around what he can bring us because we know he's got a tremendous amount of talent.
"I've already talked to him about what he thinks his best skill sets are and how to get him involved and active. He's a very dynamic player running behind the line, good in the penalty box, so these are all things that we know are going to help our group be successful. We're very much open to working around the players and taking their strengths and integrating that into what we do."
Balogun won't just be handed the job, though. Ricardo Pepi is also in camp and is expecting to push the Monaco man for that starting spot. But, for now, all signs indicate that Balogun is the guy to start this cycle up and, barring a massive swing, will likely be start at the Copa America next summer.
Sorting out the centerbacks
Even at age 35, Tim Ream almost certainly remains a go-to starter at centerback. He is essentially ageless for club or country as he joins the camp after scoring for Fulham against Manchester City. Despite his advanced years, Ream hasn't slowed down since returning to the fold for the World Cup, barring an injury last season.
Still, at some point, the U.S. will need to figure out the centerback situation, and all of those involved come with positives and negatives.
Chris Richards was magnificent during the summer, but is still finding playing time hard to come by at Crystal Palace. Miles Robinson has long looked ready for the top, but hasn't quite been able to seize that role due to that disastrous Achilles injury ahead of the World Cup. Mark McKenzie has done well on the club level, but hasn't yet convinced with the USMNT.
And those are just the centerbacks in this camp! Walker Zimmerman, Matt Miazga, Jalen Neal, Auston Trusty, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Erik Palmer-Brown are all very much in the pool, while youngsters like Brandan Craig and Josh Wynder could earn their chances at some point.
There are a lot of names there that Berhalter will somehow need to narrow down as he looks to find a consistent duo at some point this cycle.
That pesky backup left-back spot
Throughout the 2022 World Cup cycle, the USMNT was looking for someone, anyone, to claim the backup left-back spot. Antonee Robinson was, and still is, the No.1 in that position but the U.S. needed someone that could play that role in case of emergency.
They never really found anyone. In those moments Robinson couldn't go, Sergino Dest was brought in on that side, reshuffling half of the defense as a result. This cycle, finding someone else to play that position is key, and there are several good contenders.
One is in camp for the first time: Kristoffer Lund. The Palermo defender recently completed a one-time switch to join the U.S., suggesting that the Stars and Stripes have high hopes for him.
Youngster Kevin Paredes is also in the squad and is someone that can play anywhere up and down the left-hand side. DeJuan Jones and John Tolkin had chances this summer and could get another run soon, while George Bello and Sam Vines are players that could step into the mix too.
No matter who it is, it needs to be someone. Robinson is an ironman, but even he needs a backup just in case.
What to make of the Juve duo
Tim Weah and Weston McKennie have split time at right wingback for Juventus this season, with Weah the primary starter and McKennie seemingly filling in as his backup. Both have looked good to start the season and the pair should head into camp feeling confident.
However, they'll now be stepping into their old positions on the wing and in the midfield. Both are World Cup veterans, so it shouldn't be too hard to switch back and forth. But, at some point, there could be complications, especially if one gets so ahead of the other at Juve that it relegates the other one to the bench.
In theory, all should be fine, but it's definitely a story to watch, especially with McKennie as the USMNT midfield may undergo a shakeup.
Which youngsters are ready?
It's a new cycle, and with new cycles come new blood. The 2022 World Cup is over and, with Berhalter now officially back in charge, it's all about finding some new pieces to add to the player pool.
The good news is that, due to the team's age, a total rebuild isn't required. Most of the starting lineup is accounted for, and it would take something special to knock a few of these guys out of it.
Still, there are pieces that need to be added to the mix and, with the Copa America less than a year away, how fast can the USMNT add them?
Balogun is the obvious one, but he's more starter than youngster. Cade Cowell is getting his chance after impressing during the Gold Cup, while Tillman and Benjamin Cremaschi are getting a look in midfield. Then there's Paredes and Scally; the latter did make the World Cup squad, but didn't see the field.
And let's not forget the U-20s with players like Wynder, McGlynn, Craig, Caleb Wiley, Rokas Pukstas and Gaga Slonina, all players that could make an impact this cycle.
There are plenty of future stars in the USMNT pool, but Berhalter will need to be careful about how, when and how often he integrates them to the main team in this one-year cycle towards the Copa America and three-year cycle towards the World Cup.
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Getting the relationships fixed
This is the big one. Even if everything above goes totally wrong, even if the U.S. never answers some of the big questions of this cycle, Berhalter must figure out how to fix what is broken.
And there's plenty broken. It's one of the hardest parts of being a two-cycle coach: reintegrating those that missed out on a World Cup. It's never possible to have a totally clean slate, and it isn't here. Players like Ricardo Pepi, Zack Steffen and Reggie Cannon have said how frustrated they were to miss out, and now Berhalter will need to make them feel like an important part of the program.
But Berhalter isn't just a two-cycle coach. He's a two-cycle coach that had a very public war with the family of one of his most promising players. Reyna isn't in this camp, so this drama will go on a bit longer, but at some point all involved will need to figure it out.
Thus far, there's seemingly been little progress, with Berhalter admitting that he hasn't yet sat down with Reyna. Several months into his return, that seems like it has to be a total misstep or perhaps a misdirection. There's no way this should be allowed to linger like this. Reyna is too important to not get this patched up.
Whenever it is, Berhalter and Reyna will need to hash it out, and the sooner the better. Berhalter says he's waiting for the right time and right way and the USMNT will have to trust his judgement on that one, but the program will also really need to hope he gets it right.
It's a tough job, fixing something that broken, but it's something Berhalter will need to do. For the good of Reyna, and the USMNT as a whole, it's the most important task ahead of him as he begins this second cycle.