US men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter addressed a range of topics Friday morning as he unveiled his roster for next week's December camp set for the LA Galaxy’s Dignity Health Sports Park. Prominent among them was the program’s plans for January 2022 – normally a quiet stretch of fitness and preparatory work, but the start of a three-match World Cup qualifying window this time around.
The USMNT are gathering one domestic-heavy group this month, concluding with a Dec. 18 friendly vs. Bosnia and Herzegovina. A comparable squad will convene on Jan. 8 to keep MLS-based players sharp during the league’s offseason. Then a full, first-choice list will wade back into Concacaf Octagonal qualifiers against El Salvador, Canada and Honduras on Jan. 27, Jan. 30 and Feb. 2, respectively.
“We get to evaluate some new faces, guys we haven't seen before that we're really interested in working with,” said Berhalter, “and keep the guys, the core players of this domestic group, moving. We play again January 27, and it's essential that when we hit the field on January 27, we have guys that are ready to compete at a World Cup qualifying level.
“So this [December] camp is essential to have, and we understand that guys have been playing all year and they're fatigued, and that's why the program will be slightly different. But we got to keep them moving and looking forward to competing against Bosnia on December 18.”
With the January international window an exceptional occasion necessitated by COVID-19 pandemic-caused delays, the next two months pose a fairly unprecedented challenge for both Berhalter’s staff and players, particularly for those in MLS, as many of their overseas-based counterparts will continue to train and play for their clubs through the winter.
Some, like Daryl Dike (Orlando) and Miles Robinson (Atlanta), have been given December off to rest after a long, draining year and will follow individual training programs before reporting back in January.
“Starting January 8 we have another training camp, and we'll be able to see right up until that window opens where guys are at fitness-wise,” said Berhalter, who also confirmed that pending final paperwork, Luchi Gonzalez will become a USMNT assistant coach in the wake of Nico Estevez taking up his former head coaching post at FC Dallas.
“We’ll be able to see firsthand where the guys are at, but first and foremost it's going to be important to have fit guys on the field in January.”
Berhalter also shed some light on the decision to site home qualifiers vs. El Salvador and Honduras at Lower.com Field in Columbus, Ohio and St. Paul, Minnesota’s Allianz Field in the dead of the Midwestern winter.
“We were waiting to see where Canada was going to play. That's the first thing,” he said; Les Rouges eventually sited Canada-USMNT at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario. “We heard they may play in Vancouver, indoor. So we had to be ready to react; we were ready to react. There were two venues on the west coast that would have fit nicely. Some of the criteria we're looking for is minimizing travel and pro-US crowd. So now you start thinking about stadiums that you can minimize travel and have a pro-US crowd.”
He went on to explain that places like Washington, D.C., New York and other points along the I-95 corridor were ruled out because of their large Honduran and Salvadoran expatriate populations; the same rationale was applied to balmy Florida. Ultimately, the risks of extreme winter weather were outweighed by the desire to avoid away fans and make their Central American visitors uncomfortable.
“We know a large portion of our guys are playing in Europe. They're playing in cold weather right now. They're coming back to cold weather, they should be able to adapt pretty nicely,” said Berhalter. “We know the field in Columbus is going to be good. Some other venues weren't able to get the field up to standards to play in the winter, so we had to exclude them. And Minnesota and Columbus popped out from a travel and field standpoint and weather.
“If it's tough for us, and we have guys playing in Europe in cold weather, what's it going to be like for Honduras, who's coming from Honduras midweek, coming from 85-, 90-degree temperatures to go to Minnesota? What's it going to be like for them? So we see that as an advantage for us, honestly. And qualifying is about winning games and about qualifying.”
With average January temperatures ranging from 23 degrees down to a bone-chilling 6 degrees Fahrenheit in St. Paul, there's inevitably an element of risk present in U.S. Soccer’s decision. But Berhalter cited the state-of-the-art heated pitch at Minnesota United’s home ground as a mitigating factor.
“What we're being told is that the field is not going to be an issue. The field is going to be soft, it's going to be smooth. And that was the first question we were asking, which is important,” he said. “There could be a case where we get severe snow during the game, which could affect it, for sure. And we're looking at average snowfall in the month of January – there's no exact science for this.
“We did our best possible work to make a good decision on where we should play. In terms of the cold, we'll be fine. We'll be able to deal with the cold weather. It is what it is, even if it gets to temperatures like that, we'll be able to perform. The field was a concern but again, we think that it should be alright.”