What to watch for in Berhalter's first match as USMNT coach

Comments()
Sean M. Haffey
The U.S. national team faces Panama on Sunday, with central defense and the forward position among the keys to watch

The U.S. national team features plenty of players looking to make a good first impression in Sunday's 2019 opener against Panama, but there is no first impression more important than that of U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter.

The former Columbus Crew coach will be looking to start his tenure with the kind of positive team performance that can inspire some confidence, not only among the players, but also among fans who have spent 17 months waiting for a new leader to start the rebuilding process after the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

Berhalter's first January camp as head coach has begun that process.

Article continues below

"When I look at these last two and a half weeks I think it was very successful and it all starts with the mindset of the players," Berhalter said. "They were very engaged, very open to the environment, very inquisitive, and really bonded over these last two and a half weeks.

"We’re interested to see how the ideas now are going to translate onto the field. I’m really excited for this. It’s going to give us information. Right now we’ve got no body of work to go on and this is the start of our body of work."

The MLS-based U.S. squad will be facing an inexperienced Panama team that doesn't include any of the familiar names that helped carry the Canaleros to their first World Cup a year ago, but the young Central American squad should still have enough athleticism to challenge the Americans, and test out Berhalter's possession-based system.

The full USMNT squad won't come together until March, but Sunday's friendly against Panama, and next week's friendly against Costa Rica, should help to start answering some questions about Berhalter's player pool.

Here are some key things to watch for in Sunday's USMNT friendly against Panama:


Finding forward options


Gyasi Zardes Hugo Ayala Mexico United States USA 2018

The search for good forward options is going to be one of the keys to a successful rebuilding of the U.S. team, and Berhalter spoke optimistically about his options.

"When I look at the pool of strikers that we have, I think they’re capable of scoring goals," Berhalter said. "We have some veterans when you think about guys like Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood, Gyasi Zardes. We have some younger guys like Josh Sargent, and some inexperienced guys who have potential like Christian Ramirez and Jeremy Ebobisse. We always want goals and hopefully our system can help get them chances that they can finish."

Zardes should get the nod in Sunday's friendly, with his experience and familiarity with Berhalter's system giving him the advantage over both Ramirez and Ebobisse, who are both searching for their first national team cap. The trio of MLS forwards need to take advantage of these upcoming friendlies before veterans like Altidore and Wood return to the fold, along with Sargent.

Despite those options, the forward pool is still seen as one of the weakest areas on the team, something Berhalter is hoping can be aided by the successful implementation of his system.

"As a coach you always want goals. I wish I had five strikers on the team that each scored 25 goals. That’s normal, but I don’t think it’s realistic," Berhalter said. "What I’d say is we want to put forwards in positions to score goals. We want to create a system that can produce goal-scoring opportunities, and then it’s up to the strikers to finish them off."


Center backs state their case


Aaron Long MLS Red Bulls 11112018

Central defense is an area in flux for the national team at the moment, with Matt Miazga enduring a rough period in his career after a failed loan to Nantes before his recent move to Reading. John Brooks is a clear-cut first-choice starter for the USMNT when healthy, but the spot next to him is wide open.

Both Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman will look to show Berhalter that they should be considered for that starting role when the full squad comes together in March. Long is coming off an MLS Defender of the Year campaign while Zimmerman is fresh from an impressive season with Los Angeles FC.

Berhalter has liked what he has seen from Long and Zimmerman, and from his central defenders in camp overall.

"One thing I like about the center backs, all of them, including Justen Glad, who was in camp, is they’re very comfortable in one-v-one situations and I think that gives us flexibility as a group," Berhalter said. "When we’re attacking we want to be balanced, but we’re also not afraid to be left in one-v-one situations.

"That’s going to give us flexibility, that’s going to give us the ability push numbers forward, so that’s been really good," Berhalter said. "Offensively it’s still getting them accustomed to what we’re trying to do. Getting them accustomed to always opening up, every single time.

"Getting the ball, putting themselves in situations where they’re getting pressed but being calm, but that’s a work in progress. Expect to see that in a game, but I also know the game on Sunday is not going to be perfect."


Newcomers to watch


Djordje Mihailovic USMNT 01202019

One of the revelations of the current camp has been young Chicago Fire midfielder Djordje Mihailovic. The 20-year-old was originally seen as a player brought in with a look toward his involvement in Olympic qualifying down the road, but he has made the most of his opportunity, and could be called on to start on Sunday ahead of some more established veterans.

Montreal Impact left back Daniel Lovitz and San Jose Earthquakes right back Nick Lima are both searching for their national team debuts, and both have shown well in camp. Lovitz was the only healthy natural left back in camp after Greg Garza's departure due to injury, while Lima appears to have beaten out Colorado's Keegan Rosenberry and FC Dallas' Reggie Cannon for the first chance to climb the right back depth chart, currently topped by DeAndre Yedlin.

Close