National Writer: Charles Boehm

What shaped USMNT's latest Octagonal roster? Gregg Berhalter on fitness, conditions & COVID

The US men’s national team are about to immerse themselves in deep-winter conditions for three massive World Cup qualifiers as a global pandemic continues to rage, and their head coach has picked a large squad he believes can embrace that environment and push the program to the doorstep of Qatar 2022.

Hosting El Salvador in Columbus (Jan. 27) and Honduras in St. Paul, Minnesota (Feb. 2) on either side of a top-of-the-table clash with Canada in Hamilton, Ontario (Jan. 30), the USMNT will spend the next week and a half in what’s forecast to be bone-chilling cold. But for Gregg Berhalter, that’s something to celebrate, not dread.

“Thinking about the weather conditions, this is when I think about historic World Cup qualifiers in our history. And certainly the two that come to mind are the game in 2001 against Mexico in Columbus [dubbed “La Guerra Fria”], and then the [2013 “Snow Clasico”] game in Denver against Costa Rica, where the weather is playing a key role in really giving us the upper hand,” said Berhalter on Friday afternoon as he named his 28-player roster for the Concacaf Octagonal matches.

“So we expect to embrace the conditions, enjoy the conditions and really be able to take it to our opponents in this.”

The former center back continues to wave off concerns about dangerously low temperatures, preferring to emphasize the home-field advantage it can offer against adversaries from tropical locales.

“It's a mindset, it really is,” Berhalter declared. “I played in Germany when it was -15 Celsius, -20 Celsius, and I played with short sleeves. And the reason why I did that is because it's a mindset. It's mind over matter in this case, once you get running, once you get sweating, I think you're good to go.

“Just as all the times we go down to Central America and we're playing in the humidity and the heat and sometimes the smog and the altitude at times, this is an opportunity for us to gain an advantage on our opponents. They're all coming from the equator, and it's going to be really difficult for them to deal with these conditions.”

COVID concerns loom

Despite US and Canadian leagues being in their offseason, nearly half of the rostered players (13, to be precise) are MLS-based standouts already in the January camp that just concluded in Phoenix, Arizona. That decision reflects the coaching staff’s confidence in the work that group has put in, as well as concerns about others being exposed to the highly-infectious Omicron variant of COVID-19 on their trans-Atlantic travels.

Berhalter revealed that one player, Venezia midfielder Gianluca Busio, has already had to bow out of this month’s action due to a case of COVID, and he says he expects more positive tests to crop up in the coming days; additional players are on standby to join the team in mid-window if needed. Further, regular starters Tyler Adams, Zack Steffen and DeAndre Yedlin are carrying yellow cards that mean their next such caution will trigger a one-game suspension.

“When I look at the threat of COVID and how quickly this new variant has been spreading, we can expect guys to come into camp and test positive, that's just the nature of it,” said the coach. “So we need some protection on that. When we think about the potential of playing three games in seven days, that's enough right there to need a bigger squad. We think about yellow-card accumulation, we can be missing some guys from that; potential for injuries.

“And then finally, any potential wear and tear that the [artificial] turf in Hamilton can bring. So that's exactly why we increased the roster size a little bit and we feel that we'll have enough cover no matter what happens in this window … We think fitness won't be an issue in this camp.”

Rotation calculation

Berhalter offered nuanced answers on the topic of lineup rotation, noting that the roster is heavy in certain areas, namely winger and right back, in order to provide ample options where key contributors may not be at maximum fitness.

“There's some positions that we purposely are loaded in for,” he said, “that we don't expect the players to be 90 minutes fit, we expect to be approaching it in a platoon type of method where we put guys on, we take guys off and we work that way. As long as they can go, they can play, when they can't give any more, then sub them out. When I look at the winger position in particular, we have Christian [Pulisic], Brenden [Aaronson], Timmy [Weah], Paul [Arriola] and Jordan Morris, who are more than capable of playing that position.”

Yet he also contended that the circumstances allow for key players to log heavy minutes in all three games. And he confirmed that the entire group is eligible to travel to the Canada match, a signal that everyone is fully vaccinated and able to pass border regulations.

“I'm not sure you can’t play all three games. If you think about this, our travel’s minimized, we have a 50-minute flight up into Canada, then another two-hour flight to Minnesota,” said Berhalter. “It's no different than a player performing for his club three games in a week, so I'm not ruling out a guy being able to play three games in a week.”

Should the USMNT boss’ words prove decisive, they could move atop the Octagonal this window. The Yanks sit second 15 points from eight games, a chance to prove adverse conditions can provide an upper hand.