Gregg Berhalter had two objectives for the US men’s national team’s December camp in Carson, Calif. – expand the player pool and get some of the squad’s regulars back to match fitness ahead of the next World Cup Qualifying window in late January and early February.
The USMNT coach expects to be pleased on both fronts when they take on Bosnia and Herzegovina Saturday night in an international friendly at Dignity Health Sports Park, home of the LA Galaxy (8 pm ET | FS1, UniMas, TUDN).
"It's a nice challenge for the guys," Berhalter said in a media conference call Friday. "You aspire to something your whole career and then you get the opportunity, it's nice to see how the players embrace that. I talked to them before the camp about wanting to expand the player pool. And that's our want. But it's up to them to show that we need to do it and take advantage of their opportunity.”
“You can tell he’s played the amount of games in Major League Soccer that he has. He has that experience to him, even though he’s a young player. That’s fun to see in the fullback position,” Berhalter said. “I think he’s a solid fullback, he’s done a good job in camp, really embracing the ideas and concepts. He’s done a good job with that. He’s going to start in the game tomorrow and I'm really excited to see how he performs.”
Opposite Lennon Saturday night will be ATLUTD teammate George Bello, with the 19-year-old left back continuing his upward trajectory during camp.
“George has done a good job,” Berhalter said. “He’s been strong in training and he’ll start the game tomorrow as well. He’s a guy that has really developed over this last year.”
“I think they both had excellent seasons,” Berhalter said. “Auston was rock solid in the back and Cole, a very interesting player, arriving in the box, getting his goals, getting his assists, technically very good player. It was nice to come and see them at our level and I think they’ve done well. They’re both not going to start the game tomorrow, but we can potentially get them on the field and see what they can do in action in a full international.”
The camp also presented a chance for several regulars to return to the fold after long injury layoffs. New York Red Bulls defender Aaron Long isn’t quite ready for extended minutes in a match, but Berhalter has been impressed by the timeline of his extensive rehab after suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon last May.
“I‘m not sure he’d be able to play fully in the game tomorrow, but he’s certainly well on the way to playing in a game and that’s great news, Berhalter said.
“He’s looked sharp the entire time,” Berhalter said. “He had a long layoff, got back into it with Seattle and they’ve done a great job getting him back to a good point. He looks fit, he looks sharp and really looking forward to him performing tomorrow.”
Berhalter also said Nashville SC defender Walker Zimmerman will make his starting XI as part of having an eye toward the Concacaf Octagonal's next three-match window. The same is true of FC Dallas forward Ricardo Pepi, who went from an Olympic qualifying snub to full national team regular in the span of 12 months.
And while transfer rumors swirl around Pepi, his focus is squarely on Saturday’s friendly and what he hopes is a quick return to match sharpness.
“I haven’t been playing, haven’t had a game in about 3-4 weeks so this will be my first game,” Pepi said. “Obviously we have World Cup qualifiers coming soon and I want to be part of that group. So I want to be able to get my rhythm back, get on the ball again and be able to play a game.”