What Gregg Berhalter expects from MLS-based players in the Jamaica, Northern Ireland friendlies

Kellyn Acosta - United States - roar

This month’s friendlies against Jamaica (a March 25 match taking place in Austria) and at Northern Ireland are a dominantly European-based affair for the US men’s national team -- with a few notable exceptions.

Though the roster is littered with former MLSers, all but three members of the squad are currently based on the Old Continent, while a fourth, Daryl Dike, is an Orlando City SC player who's on loan to Barnsley FC.

The striker has been a smash hit for The Tykes -- he scored his fourth and fifth goals in his 10th league game for his second-tier English side on Wednesday -- and has reportedly already drawn a big-money transfer offer from an as-yet-unnamed club in the upper reaches of the Premier League.

The 20-year-old clearly has US coach Gregg Berhalter’s full attention.

“In terms of what we see from him now, it's been great to see him compete in the English Championship,” Berhalter said during a media call on Wednesday. “We know it's a difficult league, we know it's a league where physicality is a priority, and he's doing a great job [dealing] with that. Really sharpening some of his movement in the penalty box, using his body, using his physicality more. He scored a couple goals, but for me, it's great to see a player just continue to learn and continue to develop. You can see he's making progress, week in and week out.”

Dike would probably be spearheading the US Under-23 team’s Concacaf Olympic qualifying campaign in Guadalajara, Mexico right now if that competition fell under FIFA’s mandatory release rules.

Berhalter said that Barnsley declined to let him go for that tournament, understandable given the dramatic boost his arrival has given their previously-remote hopes of a Premier League promotion push. He’s instead joining the senior squad, and with seven US players returning to their clubs after the first match, Dike looks like a strong contender to earn significant minutes against Northern Ireland in Belfast on March 28.

The same might be said of versatile midfielder Sebastian Lletget, an ever-present in the USMNT picture of late thanks to the trust he’s earned from the technical staff, and Aaron Long, the New York Red Bulls center back who seems to be in strong contention for a starting role. Berhalter underlined his confidence in those two veterans, plus suggested that Colorado Rapids box-to-box dynamo Kellyn Acosta is climbing into a similar position on the depth charts.

“Our focus in this camp was to bring in the best possible roster that we can, and that certainly includes Aaron Long and Sebastian Lletget and Kellyn Acosta at this time. And you could add maybe Paul Arriola and Jordan Morris to it, although they were on loan with Swansea,” said Berhalter. “But there's certainly a contingent of MLS players -- Matt Turner, you can add to this as well. So I think that the objective was to get our best possible team in preparation for [Concacaf] Nations League, and these guys are in it.”

Now 25, Acosta first broke through as a teenage homegrown starlet with FC Dallas some five years ago, only for his career to hit a lull just as he looked poised for a big move across the Atlantic. He's hauled himself back into form with the Rapids, a resurgence that earned warm praise from Berhalter on Wednesday.

“He, to me, is a really great example of a guy just plugging away and continuing to improve, continuing to stay focused,” said the coach. “He went about it by playing really well for his club. And then when he got into our environment, he carried that on. And, it's a good example of, if you don't succeed at first, keep trying. Sebastian Lletget, Paul Arriola are other examples of that. I think about them in our first January camp, they weren’t starters, and now they've worked their way into important parts of this team.

“So Kellyn can do that as well, I'm excited for him in this camp. I called him and spoke to him, wanted to see where he was at fitness-wise, and he's been focused. After the January camp he’s been working really hard, so I think this is a great opportunity for him, and it just shows his resiliency and his ability to keep plugging away. A good example for other players.”