For most of the United States, the long school year is just about over, and exams season is here.
Something similar can be said of Gregg Berhalter and the US men’s national team as they face Honduras in Thursday’s Concacaf Nations League semifinal clash at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver (7:30 pm ET | CBSN, Paramount+, TUDN in US).
Besides being a FIFA competition with a trophy and title on the line, the finale of the inaugural Nations League – just the second such event of his 30 months in charge, after the 2019 Gold Cup – is the last chance for Berhalter to work with his full player pool before they commence 2022 World Cup qualifying in September.
It’s not quite the final exam, but it’s close.
“The group has expectations, and the group has desires to be a certain level of a team. And with that comes needing to win,” Berhalter told reporters in his matchday -1 press conference on Wednesday. “I don't think we're looking at it as this is our last chance to make a statement, I think we want to win for us, and because we think we're a good team.
“The team certainly has expectations to perform well in this event and that's what we're focused on.”
A new wave of extraordinarily gifted young players has risen in the aftermath of the USMNT’s grisly failure to qualify for World Cup 2018, many flourishing at Europe’s biggest clubs, and fueling hopes of a phoenix-type rebirth for the program. Berhalter’s current roster has an average age of 23 years and 336 days, some five years younger than the group that lost at Trinidad & Tobago in shocking fashion to crash short of Russia in 2017.
“It's amazing to see the talent that's here, and the ages of these players is incredible, and how talented they are,” full back DeAndre Yedlin, one of the few holdovers from the previous cycle and at 27 a grizzled veteran by comparison, said last week. “I think we're entering sort of a golden era for US soccer, so it's really exciting to be involved in it.”
Thanks to injuries, a pandemic and other factors, this golden generation’s opportunities to compete together at full strength in truly meaningful international matches have been few and far between, however. That makes this week’s test bigger than the fledgling CNL concept might otherwise indicate.
The USMNT raised as many questions as they answered in their tuneup, Sunday’s 2-1 friendly loss in Switzerland, and for all the depth Berhalter and his staff have cultivated over the past two years, some contributors are more fundamental than others.
The USMNT are sweating over the back injury plaguing tigerish holding midfielder Tyler Adams – “Tyler is working his way back. He was able to do team training yesterday, and in terms of his availability for tomorrow, we're still working through training today,” was Berhalter’s guarded answer about his availability on Wednesday. And he acknowledged that the arrival of Christian Pulisic and Zack Steffen from their involvement in Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final is “huge” for the squad.
“It's been an incredible couple days, definitely. Obviously getting to celebrate and having some family and friends there and being with my teammates, it was really an incredible achievement, so we're really proud. And now it's right back to work,” said Pulisic, who helped Chelsea win Europe’s highest club honor. “But I'm happy, I'm excited to have a chance to go after this trophy with the national team and yeah, I’m ready to go.
“I want to lift another trophy at the end of the season. So we have a great opportunity to do that and I'm going to give everything I have.”
As is so often the case in this region, a signature United States-Mexico showdown is in the offing for Sunday’s final, with Honduras and fellow Central American semifinalists Costa Rica aiming for upsets to sabotage that showcase.
Though Los Catrachos have not beaten the USMNT on US soil since their infamous 3-2 World Cup qualifying win at Washington, D.C.’s RFK Stadium in 2001, they have habitually troubled the Yanks on other occasions over the years. Most recently their Under-23 side knocked off their US counterparts in Concacaf Olympic qualifying in March to extend the North Americans’ drought in that competition, and coach Fabian Coito’s senior team plan to exploit Berhalter’s possession system with their pace and inventiveness on the counterattack.
“Due to the characteristics of our football, I believe that the model that the opponent will use will benefit us,” Coito said on Wednesday. “We have players who with space are very dangerous, we have depth on the wings, players in the middle to counteract the opponent, and we will carry those strengths forward. And we are strong defensively.”
While CF Montréal striker Romell Quioto is out injured, Houston Dynamo FC alum Alberth Elis is a livewire creator who loves to run at defenders and could feast on the space that tends to open up behind marauding US fullback Sergiño Dest.
His former teammates in Houston Maynor Figueroa and Boniek Garcia are strong candidates to start on Thursday, as are former Vancouver Whitecaps Deybi Flores and Johnny Leveron. Striker Anthony Lozano, fresh off a successful La Liga debut campaign with Cadiz, is another key figure.
“They certainly have threats in offensive transition. Elis is a very dynamic, dynamic player, we know him well from Major League Soccer. We also know him well because he plays with Reggie Cannon at Boavista,” said Berhalter, emphasizing the tactical value of counter-pressing to pin Honduras back.
“We're going to have to be cautious in some respects, we're going to have to be well-balanced and we're going to have to really take advantage of defensive transition moments to press the ball when we lose it, to avoid these long transitions.”