For all the outside noise that has surrounded the US men's national team since its failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the players themselves have always maintained that internally they've all bought in since Gregg Berhalter was named head coach.
But the player pool remains young, with the distinct style and system Berhalter is seeking to implement yet to fully take hold. The topic of the team's identity has re-emerged as a topic of discussion, starting with some quotes from goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who said last month in an interview with ESPN FC's Herculez Gomez that it remains a work in progress.
“We don’t have an identity right now,” Steffen said. “We’re very young and inexperienced and immature in the international soccer world right now. We’re trying to find our feet, we’re trying to find leadership, we’re trying to find our playing style.”
“It takes time,” he added. “It’s tough, it’s not easy.”
Addressing those comments in an interview on FOX Soccer, Berhalter said he didn't have any issues with Steffen's sentiment or read them as any sort of dig. In fact, the coach said that once he mulled them over, he felt that his netminder was correct, but that it's simply a matter of a young group gaining experience together to find that identity.
"The first thing is, it's a young group of guys establishing themselves on the international stage," Berhalter said. "The second thing is we haven't had an event to form our identity. So when you think about the [past teams], you're defined by your year of the World Cup, the '94 group, the 2002 group, the 2010 group — that's how the public forms opinions on the team. We haven't had this opportunity because we're a young group. And we'll get that opportunity and the guys will work really hard in qualifying and then eventually in the World Cup to form what we feel can be a really strong group moving forward."
We'll have to wait until the team can play together again to see if Berhalter's full vision will come to fruition, but weighing in on the topic in his own interview on "Banter" with Taylor Twellman, US midfielder Weston McKennie said he believes the team is headed in the right direction. McKennie cited Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan as an example of the type of selfless nature that he says permeates the whole group and the dedication the players have to developing the team's identity together, even if they're competing for minutes at the same position.
“Cristian Roldan is a good example,” McKennie said. “He doesn’t start many of the games, but the thing is, the games I have played and started on the national team – he is such a team player. That’s probably the biggest team player I’ve ever met in my life. I’ll come in at halftime and he’ll leave his spot, come sit down next to me and tell me things like, 'Wes, if you can open up to this pocket here, you’ll be able to get the ball more because they’re closing that midfield down.'"
And with respect to the topic of identity, McKennie said he believes the group is further along than people might think.
“Whenever I think of the national team, I think of the collective group – that we know what we want to do, we know the type of players we have, and everybody knows what they have to offer, what we can do and everyone knows our abilities," he said. "When they say it’s a lack of identity, I don’t agree with that at all either. Our group is so close together, and so molded together and understand each other so well, it’s something I haven’t experienced in a long time.”