Berhalter's first USMNT roster has his fingerprints all over it

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Sarah Stier
The new U.S. national team coach has a clear preference in style of play, and it showed in the selections of his first national team roster.

The traditional January camp for the U.S. national team has always been a showcase for those MLS players who are either already established national team figures or those who had recently played their way into consideration.  

What hasn't been given much consideration over the years is how each coach's stylistic preferences influenced their selections. 

This was always going to be a subject to consider with Gregg Berhalter's first foray into choosing a January camp squad.  

Known for his preference for possession-based soccer, and for having goalkeepers and defenders who could pass the ball well, Berhalter called in a group that fit with his tactical philosophy. 

"We have very clear profiles for what we're looking for at each position, and we just filled in players based on our profiles," Berhalter said. "This isn't a random group of guys assembled. We looked at what we're going to need to be successful and picked those guys. 

"A guy like Corey Baird, who has the timing to get behind the backline, is interesting. Christian Ramirez is a striker who is very good inside the penalty box. And then Daniel Lovitz, who has the attributes of an attacking left back. Those are just some examples." 

Another example was at goalkeeper, where Sean Johnson earned a call-up after his second season at NYCFC.  

Once known more as a shot-stopper with poor ball skills, Johnson's work in NYCFC's possession-based system has helped him develop into one of the league's better ball-handling goalkeepers.

"It was more from me seeing his transformation in playing with his feet," Berhalter said. "We were able to play against him in Chicago a lot, and I saw him not being that comfortable with his feet. Then, when Patrick [Vieira] took over and brought him in [to NYCFC] he really improved. It was that improvement that intrigued me. When you see a player that age still be able to improve his game and make progress and develop, that's exciting." 

Sean Johnson NYCFC

One omission from the squad that also appeared to show a clear preference for certain types of players was the absence of New York Red Bulls standout Tim Parker. Though Berhalter pointed to the desire to bring in some young options at center back in Auston Trusty, Justen Glad and Mark McKenzie, it wasn't a coincidence that Parker was passed over in the veteran center back department by Walker Zimmerman, who is a better passer, but not a better pure defender. 

"The issue at center back is we're deep when you look across the pool," Berhalter said when discussing Parker's omission. "In this particular case we decided to go with younger athletes but, like all players, Tim has an opportunity through his play in Major League Soccer to get an opportunity down the road. 

Berhalter on Parker

"When I look at the center back pool, I mentioned the depth that we have, I mention the age range, you start with Tim Ream and go all the way down to McKenzie. We're talking 31 to 19, so you have a good group of players there, and in this particular case we chose the younger players to see how they can develop, see how they can get the level when they're around more experienced players." 

Berhalter's mention of Ream was also telling. At 31, Ream is in the older age range and would seem like a long shot to be a factor for 2022, but he also happens to be one of the best passing center backs in the entire USMNT pool, if not the best, which should make him a player who Berhalter turns to once he has a chance to bring his full team together in March and in June for the Gold Cup. 

Berhalter's preferred qualities among attacking players also influenced his decisions in choosing a player like the Chicago Fire’s Djorje Mihailovic, an attacking midfielder who showed good qualities late in the 2018 season. A 20-year-old with good playmaking qualities and a strong work rate for an attacking player, Mihailovic was the most surprising name on Berhalter's 27-man roster, but his age and ability to play a position of need in the USMNT player pool made him someone Berhalter wanted to take a closer look at. 

"We see a very versatile midfield player, a creative midfield player who can create goals and score goals himself," Berhalter said of Mihailovic. "And I think that's always a quality you're looking for." 

Berhalter is surely aware of the need for developing some more attacking midfield options in a pool that has struggled to find them, and Mihailovic's age makes him a player who could also factor into the U.S. Olympic qualifying setup for the 2020 Olympics. He showed real potential in the final weeks of the regular season, registering a goal and three assists in the Fire's final six matches. 

As surprising as Mihailovic's inclusion may have been, it was an encouraging call-up to see after a year that saw far too many USMNT rosters full of midfielders but lacking playmaking options. 

That's something Berhalter clearly wants to change, not only in midfield, but all over the field. He wants players who can pass and create and thrive in the possession-based attacking system he is hoping to construct once he has his full selection of players. It won’t happen immediately, but a look at the make-up of the squad Berhalter has called in shows a coach who isn't wasting any time making it clear what types of players he wants to build the USMNT program around.

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