When Gregg Berhalter unveiled his Gold Cup roster at the beginning of July, even the many young and up-and-coming players on the list could not head off the questions about some of the more familiar – and in certain sectors of the fanbase, all too familiar – names. Starting with Gyasi Zardes, the second-most-capped member of the US men’s national team’s tournament squad.
By now, the knocks on the Columbus Crew striker are fairly well-known. Even some of his backers wondered why a known quantity like him needed to be part of a group built with evaluation in mind.
Yet Berhalter gave a noteworthy explanation of why he wanted Zardes along for this midsummer campaign.
“Gyasi’s just doing what he always does, really,” said the coach on July 1. “Being aggressive in the penalty box, his work rate, his dependability. When I talk about the variance in performance, Gyasi always has a really tight variance. He always has good solid games. Just continue with that, give opposing defenders a difficult time. When he can continue to do that stuff, and be himself, he’ll be fine.”
That phrase “tight variance” deserves closer inspection, because it tells us a lot about what went right for the USMNT this month, and in Berhalter’s tenure as a whole, which is suddenly adorned with major hardware after two and a half years of slow-building and stop-start pandemic jury-rigging. Maybe it can offer some perspective for Berhalter’s detractors, who have been declaring their dissatisfaction for longer than he’s even been in the job yet today have little choice but to acknowledge his accomplishments thus far.
Berhalter is a data-oriented manager, and with "tight variance” he’s seemingly referring to the range between a player’s best and worst possible levels of contribution on the pitch, a concept you might visualize as an advancing band on an X-Y axis graph, like the needle that ebbs and spikes to form a seismograph reading.
So world-class stars like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo would post tight-variance bands at or near the top of the range of possible output; “mercurial”-type players have the ability to match their highs but only occasionally, while the bottom of their range drifts far lower. Role players and reserves can’t reach that upper echelon, but carve out a place in the squad by establishing a baseline above the norm and/or the potential to raise their ceiling in the future.
With their players locked into club commitments for most of the calendar and typically only spending a precious few days at a time together, national-team coaches are constantly forced to execute a sort of triage process. They must evaluate the current form of those in their pool, gauging not only who is playing well but who carries the knowledge and experience to apply it productively within the national team’s system and culture, and which selections and combinations offer the best chance of success against a given opponent or set of opponents. And then they have a matter of hours to gather, prepare and motivate the group, particularly in the tight windows of World Cup qualifying like the ones that await this fall and winter.
Coaches in Berhalter’s situation can only adjust so many variables at once. Though Zardes’ mere presence has a peculiar way of infuriating swathes of the USMNT support, his ability to reliably present known quantities without unknown drawbacks makes him an easy pick when he’s in form, which he usually is in Columbus.
No one has to wonder whether Zardes will selflessly chase after hoofed long clearances over and over like he did in Sunday night's 1-0 win over Mexico, or graciously accept a supersub role, or give anything but his utmost commitment to the collective. The same can be said for Paul Arriola, Sebastian Lletget, Reggie Cannon and other regular Berhalter call-ups. They provide a stable floor upon which the lofty vaulted ceilings of Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna & Co. can be built.
The fact that the USMNT have added several names to that category this month is possibly even more valuable than that extremely large Gold Cup trophy the guys guzzled beer out of and carried around the nightclubs of Las Vegas. It’s the real legacy from this event, a potential difference-maker during qualifying and a feather in Berhalter’s cap.
“I think it’s trust, trust in the player pool,” said the coach after Sunday’s adrenaline-soaked defeat of Mexico. “The staff worked extremely hard with the group while we’re in camp. We have a great staff, and we have great players. They have a great mindset, really understand what it means to play for the US national team, and embrace that.
“Through the course of these last couple of years, we've been evaluating people non-stop. I mean, you guys know who's been in camps, and that's what it was about – evaluating to get to these points.”
I’m still not sure of what the program’s ceiling looks like under Berhalter. The difficulties in convening a 100% full-strength roster and testing it against top-caliber opposition are big factors there; we should know a least a bit more about that by year’s end. At this point I do have a decent conception of what the floor looks like, however – and I believe it’s a lot higher than the one we saw in the disastrous 2018 cycle. That matters a great deal in Concacaf qualifying, especially this gruelingly compressed 2022 version.
“Qualifying is everything right now, we're focused on that now, actually,” said Berhalter. “This tournament is in the past and now we shift towards qualifying. We know it's going to be grueling, but we think the player pool has matured and it's been battle-tested, and now we move on.”
He seems to have concluded that the upcoming gauntlet will be about consistency as much as excellence, about wearing down opponents as much as blowing them out of the water. He’s grown comfortable wielding bigger rosters and relaxed substitution roles as weapons, and crafting his player pool accordingly. In this sense, the Gold Cup and its string of grinding 1-0 wins could be a preview and microcosm of the rough road to Qatar.
“For us it's about relentless pressing, it's moving high and it’s next man up, because we need fresh guys, we need fit guys to be able to play the way we want to play,” said Berhalter in Vegas.
“It sometimes looks a little different and sometimes the shape changes and the personnel change. But we have guys that are committed to winning and take great pride in when they step on the field to represent the country … This was a great opportunity to evaluate guys in competitive games, and we certainly have been able to do that in this tournament.”
It’s time to give the coach some credit, because his variances have been pretty tight, too.