National Writer: Charles Boehm

MLS-based USMNTers address fitness challenges around rare winter WCQ window

On Friday afternoon Gregg Berhalter will release the US men’s national team roster for the trio of Concacaf World Cup qualifiers against El Salvador, Canada and Honduras at month’s end.

Just making that list is a notable achievement for any North American-based players.

That’s because this is an unusual international window falling in the US and Canadian offseason, added to the calendar in light of the multiple delays inflicted on the qualifying schedule by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Under normal circumstances, MLSers would only be a few weeks into their preseason fitness periodization process at this point, which would seem to connote a significant advantage for European-based USMNT players whose clubs are in the heart of league play.

“It's a really tricky window, obviously,” said D.C. United winger Paul Arriola from the USMNT’s January camp in Arizona this week. “So for us it's really just kind of trying to get as sharp as possible, continue to gain fitness for the games that are coming up.”

That’s why Berhalter held a December camp in Carson, California capped by a friendly vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina, then brought back many of the same MLS-based players for two weeks of fitness-centric work in Phoenix that wraps up on Friday. From that group of 20, he and his staff will select those who’ll continue on to Columbus, site of the Jan. 27 clash with El Salvador, to merge with the overseas contingent.

“It's different for domestic-based players versus the guys who are over in Europe right now, just the rhythm of playing games,” said Nashville SC defender Walker Zimmerman. “December camp was important, I think, for a lot of us to just maintain rhythm, continue to have games and training, keep your fitness up, and really only taking nine, 10 days off right after that game and then right back into it.

“That's been the beauty of this camp is, we're not just preparing for some kind of friendly; we're preparing for three qualifiers. And so that being said, the staff’s done a really good job of making sure that we are fit, that we are gaining fitness. And so we've had scrimmages, bike workouts in the afternoon to just increase our aerobic fitness … certainly we feel like we’re ready to compete and are prepared for these games.”

To facilitate that, the USMNT scheduled scrimmages against USL Championship club Phoenix Rising FC, NCAA Division I side Grand Canyon University and Sporting Kansas City, the latter of which takes place before the roster drop on Friday and is said to be closely approximating the rigors of a full 90-minute match.

“The schedule isn't technically in our favor,” said New England Revolution midfielder Sebastian Lletget. “It's unfortunate that the schedule just doesn't line up with the same as Europe, but it's just another obstacle that the domestic guys, we’ve just got to deal with, and I think as long as we do our part, training-wise and working hard on our fitness, I think it shouldn't be too much of a problem.”

Berhalter himself didn’t sound unduly concerned about this rare complication, noting how many European leagues – like the Austrian league where Philadelphia Union product Brenden Aaronson stars for RB Salzburg – pause for winter breaks around the holiday season.

“Some of the European guys, Brenden Aaronson, for example, [hadn't] played in a month, he was off December 12. A guy like Walker Zimmerman, his last game was December 18 and he was back in camp in December on January 7, so there wasn't that much time off for these guys,” said the coach at the start of the January camp.

“What we're going to do is use these next weeks to evaluate ... . We're going to play three scrimmages and get them up to close to 90 minutes in the last scrimmage, and then we'll be able to tell. And the most important thing is that we can put a team on the field that can compete at a high level because we know that's what World Cup qualifying games are about.”