Jose Mourinho once famously named his Chelsea starting XI the day before a UEFA Champions League match against FC Barcelona in 2005, seeking to unsettle his opposite number Frank Rijkaard. But that stunt from “The Special One” is very much the exception when it comes to coaches’ tendency towards secrecy around lineup information ahead of big games, as Gregg Berhalter displayed on Wednesday.
“So we're working through the final lineup now this afternoon, and we'll see,” said the US men’s national team boss when a reporter asked him which of his three goalkeepers would start in Thursday’s World Cup qualifier vs. Jamaica at Austin FC's Q2 Stadium (7:30 pm ET | ESPN2, Univision, TUDN). “We'll keep you guys posted.”
If any of the several dozen journalists on the matchday-1 video conference had any illusions about that last part, a U.S. Soccer press officer left zero doubt about the coach’s facetiousness, adding, “and by keep you posted, we mean about 75 minutes before kickoff tomorrow night.”
But as it turned out, Berhalter was prepared to reveal one starter.
“Weston's going to start the game tomorrow,” he said, affirming his support for midfielder Weston McKennie after the Juventus star was suspended for the USMNT’s previous two qualifiers due to a violation of team protocols during their stint in Nashville in the September international window.
“He's been focused coming into this week, and we’re not holding anything against him. Is he going to have to rebuild trust by a time period of showing that he's the leader that we expect him to be? Of course. But there's nothing held against him,” added Berhalter. “We need to understand that these are young players that we're dealing with, and this is part of it. And I think to me it's just about tolerance, right? Having a certain level of tolerance with players, and with the guys’ situation.”
That prominent gesture of reconciliation may help smooth over the lingering concerns about the status of one of the program’s brightest and most influential talents. It also typifies the USMNT’s overarching desire to strike the proper equilibrium as they walk the Concacaf Octagonal tightrope across another three massive matches in seven days.
That applies in multiple contexts, from mentality to squad rotation to relationships to tactics.
“To talk about breaking lines and playing vertical doesn't mean you're throwing unnecessary numbers forward. I think they're two different things,” said Berhalter when asked about his latest watchword, the concept of ‘verticality’ that has been such a focus this window after the USMNT’s difficulties in converting possession into clear scoring chances in their first three Ocho games.
“We can accomplish the two with having a balanced attack. When I look at our game, we're at our best when we're playing fast, when we're playing behind the opponent – as most teams do. I'm not inventing something here. I think anytime you can turn the defense around, it causes problems, and it's just about the timing and the precision to be able to do that. But I certainly think you can play that way without unbalancing yourselves. The key to the game is going to be balanced, for sure.”
The USMNT are both wary of Jamaica’s speed and verve on the counterattack and confident that they themselves can expose the Reggae Boyz in transition. All week they have taken pains to praise the islanders’ capacity to frustrate opponents, as they experienced firsthand in the two nations’ bruisingly tight affair in the Gold Cup quarterfinals this summer, a narrow 1-0 US win via a late Matthew Hoppe header. Both personnel and tactics have been selected with pace and directness in mind.
“The training sessions have focused in on trying to play more through the opponent rather than around them. And I think with the few sessions we've had, we've done a good job in that,” said Atlanta United defender Miles Robinson on Wednesday, perhaps hinting at the deployment of a high defensive line to better control space. “Also it's just about, defensively, trying to keep them pinned in their defensive half and as a center back, try to win your duels.
“They're a very physical, strong team that likes to counter, likes to break,” Robinson added of the Reggae Boyz. “They’ve got some very fast players on the team. So as a center back it's a matter of trying to lock them in and trying to put out any fires in terms of counterattacks, and just focusing for every second of the game, for the full 90 minutes-plus.”
Thursday’s visitors enter this window mired in last place in the eight-team group, with just one point so far. While Berhalter maintained that it’s still too early in the Ocho for anyone to be panicking just yet, the absence of English Premier League luminaries Michail Antonio and Leon Bailey is another untimely setback for the Caribbean side, as is their government’s decision that Sunday’s home match vs. Canada in Kingston must take place without fans in attendance due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“The vibe in the camp is good,” said Jamaica and Philadelphia Union goalkeeper Andre Blake on Wednesday. “We're a little bit short on players, but I wouldn't use that as an excuse. We're here and we all know what we need to do, we're here for a job. As professionals there's going to be different things that are going to come up that you have to deal with, whether it's family or whatever. You have to find a way to not let that affect you on the pitch, so that's what we're going to do now and we're going to go out there and fight.”