It’s been a full year since US men's national team head coach Gregg Berhalter last had the opportunity to gather his full team together: MLS players and others based overseas. That last occasion was the Concacaf Nations League matches against Canada and Cuba in November 2019.
So it would have been reasonable and understandable if Berhalter had taken advantage of this November 2020 FIFA window to bring that group together for matches against Wales and Panama ahead of a 2021 that will see the USMNT occupied on multiple fronts: Concacaf Nations League, Concacaf Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying.
Instead, Berhalter opted to stick to what has been a customary November plan for much of the last 5-10 years: a Euro-based squad with MLS stars staying back with their clubs teams for the stretch run of the MLS season and the playoffs, especially with the league season running longer due to the COVID-19 stoppage.
“We purposely didn't call MLS players in because we didn't want to jeopardize their eligibility for playoffs,” said the former Columbus Crew SC boss. “I think this is an important distinction that we need to just talk about. And it's another example of the United States Soccer Federation working with MLS to benefit the clubs. And I think that is important, because other countries aren't necessarily doing that.
“There are some core players that we’re leaving off this roster because of that. But we felt that we have enough depth in Europe right now to field a good roster, and we're looking forward to working with these guys.”
Even though MLS will not be scheduling matches during the November FIFA window, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging and forcing travel quarantines on most visitors in and out of the United States and Canada, it would have been a fraught process to shuttle MLS-based players back and forth across the Atlantic and quarantined for the start of the playoffs.
“I would like nothing more to have our whole group there and continue to build. So definitely we are sacrificing by not having some of those guys in camp,” he noted. “I was an MLS coach before, I understand that the end of the year is the time, you invest all the energy in the season to get to this end of the year and it's such a special time when you have the playoffs. I know that from the owner standpoint, it's been a tough year for everyone and to have your team going into playoffs potentially short-handed isn't a great feeling. And so we considered all those things.”
An eye toward "give and take" in 2021
There’s a long-term perspective at work here. With the USMNT and U.S. Under-23 Olympic sides facing a hectic 2021 marked by four different competitions including the Tokyo Olympics, Berhalter hinted that he’s doing MLS clubs a solid now with an eye towards collaborating with them on a release schedule for next year.
History shows that U-23s coach Jason Kreis, who will take part in this month’s European camp, faces a particularly challenging task to get clubs to voluntarily release players for Olympic competition, which does not fall under FIFA’s mandatory call-up rules. It’s perhaps not a coincidence that 19 of this month’s 24 players are age-eligible for the Olympics.
“We made this decision to benefit the MLS clubs knowing that next year is will be a difficult year, and hopefully some of the clubs will remember that,” Berhalter said. “Hopefully some of the clubs will say, 'OK, now, when you need the guys a little bit early for the [Concacaf] Nations League, we'll let them come a little early.' Because it is a give and take.
“We've given a lot this fall, we really have, and I don't regret it. I think it was intentional. But there's going to be times where we can't be as flexible. You talk about World Cup qualifiers, you need your squad, it's your best 23 players that you want in camp, and that's going to be non-negotiable. So again, it was a difficult decision, but we thought it was in the best interest of the clubs, and we were happy to accommodate at this time.”
So instead, the November camp will be a showcase for a wave of top young American talent with a program-record nine players currently participating in UEFA Champions League, several promising new faces – including some freshly-recruited dual-nationals – and an average age of just 21.
“It is a young group, a young group with a tremendous amount of talent. And when you think about the opportunity to be optimistic, and to really be excited, I think this group gives you that,” Berhalter said.
“What I'm proud of is that you see a lot of guys ... that participated in our Development Academy. And it shows that the work we're doing, the work we've done is paying off and we need to continue along that pathway,” he noted. “The [MLS] owners, the way they supported youth soccer has been amazing, the amount of money they’ve put into the infrastructure has been great, the coaching. So we're on the right path, we just need to keep going.”