Gregg Berhalter's first opportunity to field a first-choice U.S. national team squad will also mean his initial chance to work with several of the top young stars who will help define his tenure as USMNT head coach.
Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie are three key pieces in the rebuilding project Berhalter is undertaking with the national team, and all three also happen to be extremely versatile, giving the U.S. coach plenty of options as he tries to shape his team.
Berhalter's first camp with that group begins next week, and so does the work toward identifying where best to deploy his prized puzzle pieces.
"I’m really excited about it," Berhalter said about the chance to figure out where best to play Pulisic, Adams and McKennie. "What I’ll say is we’ll do something in this camp and it won’t be set in stone. It’s not to say that these guys are always going to play that position, but this is our initial idea. We’d like to see how they interpret those positions. We know it’s not going to be perfect given the runway, and that’s fine.
"Our job, we’ve been talking to them about where they’re going to play, and it’ll be nice to actually see," Berhalter continued. "When I think about the versatility, it gives the coach more ideas and it gives them more flexibility. Whether I’m thinking about Weston as a number 10 who then defends as a number eight, or Christian as a number 10 who can also move wide, or Tyler as a right back who can come inside, but can also attack overlap or inner lap. Those are the kind of things that are exciting to me. It gives a lot of flexibility to the team."
Berhalter has plenty of background information on where the trio can play, with each of them having gained considerable experience at multiple positions and, in Pulisic's case, a variety of systems under the assembly line of coaches that have passed through Borussia Dortmund.
Pulisic has spent the majority of his time at Dortmund in various wing roles, both on the left and on the right, though he has also admitted his preference for a central attacking role, which he has played for the United States. Adams spent the better part of the 2017 MLS season playing as a right wingback but has seen most of his past two years as a defensive midfielder for his Red Bull-affiliated club teams. McKennie began his first-team career at Schalke as a defensive midfielder, but more recently has been deployed in an attacking midfield role and even occasionally as a right back.
Here is a closer look at where Pulisic, Adams and McKennie could play for the United States, and where we are likely to see them feature in the March friendlies:
From the moment Berhalter unveiled his system in January, it seemed inevitable Pulisic would fill one of the dual-number 10 roles in the midfield, even though he could also be effective as a wide player in the same system.
"In this camp we’re going to look at him as the number 10 slanted to the left," Berhalter revealed earlier this week. "We’ve played with two number 10s last camp, we’re going to do the same this camp. Within that structure what we’ve seen is there is flexibility. When you looked at last camp, there’s times when the wingers go inside and the 10s go wide, and we just want to see how that looks. We want Christian to be flexible. We want to take advantage of his 1-v-1, but we also want to get him in front of goal.
"With Christian, and I’ve been consistent saying this, we want to find a spot where he can affect the game and he can get more out of his teammates and also put him in position to score goals and make assists."
Setting up on the left side of the dual playmaker setup, Pulisic will be able to cut inside onto his stronger right foot and also combine with the other central midfielders and the striker. He will also have the freedom to float wide from that position, and he should have less defensive responsibility than the other number 10 in the system, which it's a good bet will be McKennie.
As Berhalter noted, the positions he tries in these upcoming friendlies won't necessarily be where the players stay long-term. You have to wonder if Berhalter winds up using Pulisic as a winger if the pool's wing options don't impress him, leaving him to turn to the superior depth the player pool currently has with central midfield options. That still feels like a long shot when you listen to Berhalter's comments about wanting to have Pulisic be closer to goal.
McKennie's work rate, tenacity and growing confidence in attack make him a dream option for Berhalter's system, and while he could certainly handle the defensive midfield duties, his engine will serve the team better in one of the dual 10 roles. Ideally that will come alongside Pulisic, where he can provide cover as well as a partner to combine with and make his trademark powerful runs.
The defensive midfield role in Berhalter's system is more suited for those types of midfielders who can keep the ball and circulate it effectively, which is why the likes of Michael Bradley and Will Trapp, and potentially Darlington Nagbe, could be better fits for the role. McKennie isn't ideally-suited for that role, even if he could handle stepping into the defensive midfield spot if needed.
Could McKennie eventually develop into a defensive option? Schalke has deployed him in the back at times, but it's tough to see him being used in a defensive role by Berhalter given his blossoming attacking qualities.
Adams has enjoyed a seamless transition from MLS to the Bundesliga, earning a regular starting role as the defensive midfielder in RB Leipzig's high-pressing system. Berhalter's system is different from the one Adams has spent his entire career playing in, but his qualities should translate well whether he is used as a defensive midfielder or as the hybrid right back/defensive midfielder role we saw in January.
"I’ve been watching him with Red Bull Leipzig and I think he’s been doing a great job," Berhalter said of Adams. "I’ve been talking to Red Bull Leipzig at length about his development and they’re really happy with him. It’s interesting because I think he can play the right back tucked in naturally, and when you look at his skill set he’s slanted to the right a lot with Red Bull also, especially when he’s pulling out in buildups and opens up to get the ball. I also think he can play central midfield.
"For us it’s going to be bringing him to camp and looking at him in one of those positions, and moving forward we know that he can play a number of positions and I think that flexibility is only going to help the group."
Adams may wind up being best-suited for the right back role in Berhalter's system, but it will be interesting to see whether Berhalter tries that already or instead gives long-time starting USMNT right back DeAndre Yedlin the nod in that spot while keeping Adams in central midfield. Another wrinkle to consider is deploying Yedlin as a winger, where his speed could cause problems and help the U.S. press more effectively, while allowing Adams to spend more time on the ball as the hybrid right back/defensive midfielder.
Could Berhalter push Adams into a right wing role? It's a position Dave Sarachan deployed Adams at times, but the general consensus is Adams is best in a defensive midfield role where his unmatched work rate can make life easier for all his teammates. The only question then is whether Adams is a polished enough distributor to fill the defensive midfield role in Berhalter's system the way the coach would prefer. The right back spot could be better for Adams in the long run because of the versatility of the role in Berhalter's system, and how it plays to Adams' strengths.