USMNT feeling the 'urgency' as World Cup qualifying looms

Reyna Berhalter USMNT GFXGetty/Goal

Gregg Berhalter and the U.S. men's national team are feeling the urgency.

Unable to play for most of 2020, the U.S. is now staring down an absolutely vital 2021 campaign that includes World Cup qualifying, the Gold Cup, the Olympics, Nations League and the Under-20 World Cup.

It is going to be a busy year.

And this USMNT is still anything but a finished product. For various reasons, Berhalter has not truly had his complete 'A-Team' for over a year, and he may not get that chance before World Cup qualifying begins either.

This current group is without Christian Pulisic, still the team's best player, as well as a slew of MLS stars. Most of the A-listers are here, like Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Sergino Dest and, now, Gio Reyna, but there is still much work to be done and little time to do it.

When the U.S. kickstarts World Cup qualifying next June, it will likely be the first time Berhalter sees something close to a full-strength team featuring players from both MLS and abroad.

And, with so many vital pieces still new to the international game, there is a sense of urgency to develop chemistry and confidence quickly.

That process continues on Monday, when the U.S. faces a familiar foe in Panama.

The game will not only serve as a potential World Cup qualifying preview for a team loaded with players who are unfamiliar with the challenges of CONCACAF, but also one final opportunity for the team's non-MLS-based stars to play together before returning to their clubs for several months.

Berhalter says that the U.S. is still aiming to play a game in December, and that would likely feature a domestic-based squad with potentially a few European additions, but Monday's match has added importance for a team still trying to come together.

"When you look at it, when I first took over, we're switching guys left and right," Berhalter told reporters. "Now as you're getting towards this time, you start to feel the urgency.

"When you think about it, this group won't [be together] until March again. And then potentially Nations League, doubtfully Gold Cup. So we're basically going to have four more games together after this game. That's a small number.

"For us, it is crucial that we get guys playing together, we get guys comfortable with each other, so that's definitely part of it."

The USMNT's performance against Wales drew plaudits, with Berhalter's side showing plenty of progress stylistically. The U.S. kept the ball and, in the moments when they lost it, pressed effectively. It was a performance with most of the hallmarks of a Berhalter-coached team.

Aside from one aspect: the goals.

Giovanni Reyna USMNT Tom Lockyer WalesGetty Images

For all of those positives, it is difficult to leave a 0-0 draw feeling truly satisfied. There were good moments, sure, but good moments do not win games; goals do.

It was a match that only further highlighted one key weakness for the U.S.: the lack of a go-to No.9.

Most positions in the player pool are fairly accounted for, with maybe a handful of players competing for one or two spots. But the striker spot is still very open, with veterans such as Jozy Altidore and Gyasi Zardes, as well as youngster Josh Sargent, looking on intently from outside of this current squad.

After seeing Berhalter opt to play Sebastian Lletget as a false nine against Wales, Sebastian Soto or Nicholas Gioacchini could be given their chance to stake their claim on Monday.

But, regardless of who is up there, Berhalter says he expects more from everyone in the final third after a fairly tepid attacking effort last time out.

"I think there’s certainly room to improve," Berhalter said. "On the defensive side, I think it was really strong, but when we have one shot on goal in a game, that’s not enough. So, to me, there is a lot of room to improve on the offensive end.

"I talked before the game about stretching the defense and I didn’t think we did that nearly enough. If we do play with a false nine, it’s imperative that the wingers are run-behind-the-line wingers and I didn’t think we got that enough.

"I just think we can improve, we’re focused on competing to win the game and we want to score goals."

Berhalter quote GFXGetty/Goal

While Berhalter did not disclose his starting forwards, he did reveal that Reggie Cannon would start at right-back. The Boavista defender is a player that also finds himself at the center of a position battle, with Cannon and Monday's starter, Antonee Robinson, competing to start opposite of Dest.

Dest is the USMNT's swiss army knife, able to start at either full-back position, with Cannon competing to start on the right and Robinson on the left.

Wth those changes come adjustment, and Berhalter believes that Dest is still adjusting to the differences that come with playing on either side, while he is not the only one still learning what is being asked of him.

Berhalter's system is still fairly new to most of these players, who have had a handful, at most, of games under the former Columbus Crew boss. That means there will be growing pains, especially when it comes to this specific squad that opened camp that featured 10 uncapped players.

But, come June, those growing pains will not be an excuse. Berhalter and the U.S. have just a few months to iron those out and, with so few games on the schedule to do it, Monday's clash becomes an even bigger moment in this team's evolution.

“One thing I’ve noticed, especially when you’re working with young players or a group that’s just forming, is you go through different stages of team development," Berhalter said. "With this group in particular, it is more of individuals looking for their position within the team. We clearly want to move to more of a team-oriented standpoint as we get into qualifying.

“It’s completely natural what’s happening now - a guy wants to come into camp, he wants to make a good impression on the coaching staff, he wants to play really well and focus more on himself. As he gets more comfortable, now he’s focused more on his team-mates. We certainly want to get to that stage by qualifying, because that’s going to be really important.”

He added: "[Monday] will certainly be the last time this group is together this year. And anytime we're together, what we're stressing on them is we want to compete to win games."