National Writer: Charles Boehm

USMNTers keep focus on Nations League amid coaching search: "That's our responsibility"

Zimmerman USMNT

In one week, the US men’s national team face their ancient rivals Mexico in a Concacaf Nations League semifinal in front of what’s expected to be a decidedly pro-El Tri crowd at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas.

A win is required in order to extend their defense of the 2021 Nations League title, with either Canada or Panama awaiting in the final three days later. And the USMNT will navigate all this – and the Gold Cup – without a permanent head coach, as BJ Callaghan has stepped in for Anthony Hudson as the second interim boss of the year while the hiring process inches forward under new sporting director Matt Crocker.

The players, though, say they don’t mind the wait.

“I think it just highlights the importance of this hire,” US and Nashville SC center back Walker Zimmerman told reporters in a Wednesday media availability from the Yanks’ June camp at the LA Galaxy’s Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California. “I'm glad that we aren't rushing into a decision just because we might need an interim for the time being. I think we have to get it right. It's important for everyone to take the time.”

Both Callaghan and Hudson – who departed the program last week to take the manager’s job at Qatari club Al-Markhiya SC – worked as assistants under Gregg Berhalter during the 2022 World Cup cycle and have emphasized continuity and familiarity in the wake of upheaval following the tournament in Qatar.

For players like Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic and Ricardo Pepi who are facing profound uncertainty about where they’ll be playing their club soccer come August, that means one less thing to worry about.

“I think just having BJ, a lot of the things stay the same,” said Pepi. “A lot of the concepts, the way we play, that we build out of the back, a lot of things stay the same because it just crosses over through to a new coach. … It’s very important that he has a good relationship with the players.”

Pepi’s loan stint at FC Groningen couldn’t prevent the Dutch side from getting relegated from the Eredivisie, which he called “a hard season, of course, a roller coaster, but a learning season.” His 12 goals and three assists did renew other European clubs’ interest in acquiring him from Bundesliga survivors Augsburg. He professed to have no idea what his future holds, preferring to focus on the task at hand with the USMNT.

Balogun joins the USMNT mix

That task now includes a new challenger for minutes at the No. 9 spot: celebrated dual-national recruit Folarin Balogun, taking part in his first camp since switching his allegiance from England last month.

“I think for me it is the first time meeting Flo, and right off the bat just seemed like a great character, great person to have on our team; we're really excited about him,” said Zimmerman. “But then on the training field, you see his quality. He's got a great touch, he's able to have some hold-up play, get runs in behind and obviously finish attacks.”

Pepi said he welcomes the battle for minutes.

“He's a good guy,” the FC Dallas product said of Balogun. “Of course, personally for me, it's going to make me better. I'm going to make him better. So it's a lot of competition in our spot. … He's a player who's had a good season, I'm a player who's had a good season. So of course, we both want the starting spot, and we're always going to be competing in a healthy way.”

Many pundits and fans have rued the months of limbo imposed by the search for first a sporting director, then a head coach, with real trophies on the line and the 2026 North American World Cup growing closer all the time. Yet the group itself has extolled the strength of the routines and values crafted under Berhalter, and their power to keep the squad on course without a longer-term leader.

“We're a team that has a very strong team chemistry, strong culture within our group. And we know that for us, not much has changed right now,” said Zimmerman. “We know the same principles, style of play, expectations, accountability – all those things are the same. So I think that's player-driven, to hold each other accountable to the standards that we've set over the past four years. BJ, he's on top of it. He's knowledgeable about what we want to do, how we're going to go about these games.”

While the Nashville star admitted it “might not be the most ideal situation in the world,” he explained that the players themselves are capable of producing results and charting a steady course for ‘26.

“We don't feel like it's lost time. That's our responsibility as players, to make sure that we're up and we're competing for these tournaments this summer,” he said. “We're putting a lot of trust into everyone involved in that hiring process, and then making sure that we take our responsibility on the field and making sure that we still feel like we're competing for our spots each and every training, each and every game.

“Because we know that whether it's the coach now, whether it's the coach that's watching us play in these games, the future coach, it's important to show well.”