Gregg Berhalter would much rather talk about soccer.
In fact, he made that explicit after a reporter broke up a steady stream of Weston McKennie-related questions with a tactical one during Tuesday evening’s matchday-1 press conference ahead of Wednesday’s weighty World Cup qualifier against Honduras at Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula (10:30 pm ET | Universo, Paramount+).
“I just want to say,” Berhalter said, “thank you for asking a question about soccer.”
But putting on blinders of that sort is not really an option for the US men’s national team press pack, or Berhalter, or his players, in the wake of the decision to suspend McKennie for Sunday’s 1-1 Concacaf Octagonal draw with Canada at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, then send him back east to Italy to rejoin Juventus instead of jetting south for a match that Berhalter himself has framed in must-win terms after two ties to open the Octagonal.
“When you talk about team policies and team rules and what we're trying to accomplish as a team, the team absolutely comes first, and we made this decision not only for the short-term but for the long-term health of the program,” said the coach.
“And it's not an easy decision, trust me. Countless coaches are faced with decisions where they have to take talented players out of the lineup for some reason. But we did it for what we think is the good of the group, the good of the team. And look, it is what it is, we’re obviously going to be missing Weston for Wednesday, but it doesn't rule him out for the future.”
It took three queries about McKennie, whose transgression has only been framed in general terms of violating team rules, aside from the player’s own Instagram admission that it concerned breaking COVID-19 protocols, for the coach to lose his patience.
“I think what's happening, or what I'm hearing from a lot of the questions, it’s starting to get into information that's not need-to-know,” said Berhalter. “You guys know I'm very up-front, very open with the media. But this is a team matter, this is stuff that happens within the team. That's not appropriate to share to the outside world.
“And I'll leave it at that because, I think what we do, it's such a close working environment, and we're so close together. I think when it’s violated, I think it goes to a point where too much becomes open, and that's not what we're about. We're about the team.”
But there are reasons for all the cross-examination.
TUDN and ESPN have reported that McKennie – a key central midfielder and respected locker-room presence who multiple sources and reports say delivered an emotional, heartfelt speech rallying the troops after Thursday’s unsatisfying 0-0 draw in El Salvador – broke the USMNT’s COVID bubble by not only bringing a person from outside the camp into his hotel room, but also spent the night outside the bubble.
And Christian Pulisic, who opened Tuesday’s press availability, explained that the USMNT didn't have the chance to speak with McKennie firsthand before his return to Turin.
“We didn’t speak to him. We were just obviously told what happened by the coach,” said the star winger. “We were pretty much forced to look past it, which we have, and we’ll look to what’s important and that’s getting a result [in Honduras].”
That would appear to conflict with Berhalter’s version of events.
“The morale is great, I mean, I think people make mistakes,” said the coach. “Weston apologized to the group, apologized to me, and things happen. I guess the most important message that we're getting through, or that we're trying to get through, is that we're here in camp for seven days. And the intensity is incredible, it's three finals in seven days, and we need everyone’s single-minded focus on what we're trying to accomplish. And that's the most important thing.
“By and large the group is there, the group is focused on it. And sometimes when people aren't, then you have to have a talk with them and you have to sometimes enforce standards. So that's all part of it,” he added. “Listen, this isn't the first time something like this has happened in a team. It's not going to be the last time. It is upsetting to me as a coach, it's upsetting to Weston, it’s upsetting to players and staff. But it is what it is and we'll be ready to play tomorrow.”
Berhalter parried further questions about the McKennie situation, though he did clarify that the FC Dallas academy product has not been exiled for good and will return when he’s in form and fit for selection.
“It's an open-door policy. There's very rarely a situation where a player would never be allowed back into the national team camp. That's not how we operate,” said Berhalter. “If you see the track record, it’s guys in and out based on performance, based on how they're doing. Me and Weston had long conversations, he's a guy that I care for deeply. He's a big part of the team, and I'm sure when he's performing well, he’ll be back in the team.
“This is a team environment. Any conversations will remain between the team and I, and the team and the staff, and the team and Weston, and that's how we'll leave it. Violating policy, that’s as far as I'll go with that.”