Consistency, mobility, pace, pressure, the return of Christian Pulisic and the continued exclusion of John Brooks.
Those were some of the central themes as Gregg Berhalter spoke to media after unveiling the US men’s national team roster for their November World Cup qualifiers on Thursday morning, just over a week out from the first of those two Concacaf Octagonal clashes, the iconic US-Mexico showdown set for FC Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium on Nov. 12 (9:10 pm ET | ESPN, Univision, TUDN).
Sounding generally bullish on the current form of his player pool despite injury-enforced absences like Sergino Dest – a very late scratch due to back issues – and Gio Reyna (hamstring injury), Berhalter promised an up-tempo approach to the latest installment in the border rivalry.
“Regarding Mexico, I think it's a very strong team, very mature team. They're undefeated in qualifying thus far,” said the coach, later adding that the Yanks aim to displace El Tri from their early perch atop the Octagonal standings.
“They’ve got a very talented attack and very good midfielders, so it's going to be a difficult game for us. We want to continue to be aggressive. We want to continue to push them and see what comes; continue to high press and make it uncomfortable for them. We’re OK with playing a fast game, it's something that we have the athletes to be able to do that, and we want to put speed into the game.”
The USMNT will jet to Kingston to face Jamaica on Nov. 16, but given Mexico’s quality, focus will remain on the home match first and foremost. It’s the first window of this qualifying cycle to feature two games rather than three, providing Berhalter with fewer moving parts in terms of rest and rotation.
“It should be reasonable that if we're happy with the performance of the players in the first game, that they can continue on and play the second game, we won't need to rest them or rotate them,” he said, before noting that key mainstays Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and DeAndre Yedlin are carrying yellow cards and face suspension should they pick up another against Mexico.
“We needed backup in those positions. So that was critical to the window. And then it's luxury to have to be able to bring a guy like Christian into camp, even though he's not 90 minutes fit, to have him be able to make an impact in whichever way we choose.”
Ricardo Pepi – the USA’s breakout star in the Ocho so far – and Jesus Ferreira have been in strong form as an attacking combo for FC Dallas, earning the latter his first-ever World Cup qualifying call-up this time around. Based on Berhalter’s words, however, don’t expect to see them on the field much together for the USMNT, with Ferreira projected as a false 9 rather than an attacking midfielder.
“When you look at Jesus’ body of work with the national team, he's been playing No. 9, and we think in his performances, albeit against lesser opponents, we really liked what he did at the No. 9 position, really strong performances,” said the coach. “He's a guy that can link play, we know he’s a guy that arrives in the penalty box.
“We know he's a guy that leads the line defensively to build pressure, and he's been in outstanding form in Dallas. We know he's been playing more of an attacking midfield role, but Jesus has the type of intelligence, the game intelligence that makes him able to adapt to a position very easily. So he’ll fine be playing the No. 9.”
Berhalter said he plans to give Pepi the lion’s share of minutes up top this month, and also sees Tim Weah and Pulisic as options to lead the line. When asked about the absences of Daryl Dike, Jordan Pefok and Josh Sargent, he suggested that their skill sets are less useful for this window.
“We still want to be stretching the opponent, we still want to be getting behind the backline, we still want to be aggressive pressing the opponent, and when we're looking at the profiles of these guys saying, who really helps with that, who's going to give us the best chance for success in these areas?” said the former Columbus Crew boss.
“We want dynamic movement in the penalty box. These type of things are important. Daryl, I think is getting back to his form. I think he will have a role to play with the national team in the future, I think it's just not exactly where we need it to be right now. Jordan, similar, he's a strong, physical forward, more of a stationary type of forward, a hold-up player. And we're looking for guys that are running a little bit more.”
In defense, the big story is one Bundesliga-based snub and a first call-in for another. John Brooks has been passed over despite his improved performances for Wolfsburg, while 18-year-old New York City FC academy product Joe Scally’s outstanding start to his Borussia Monchengladbach career has earned him an invite.
“Regarding John Brooks, it was a really difficult decision and a lot of it was based on how we felt his performance was with the team the last time [in the September window],” said Berhalter, who took care to praise the “accountability” Brooks showed in his recent comments to FOX Sports’ Doug McIntyre about his exclusion.
“We saw him play midweek in the Champions League at Salzburg, he had a good game, and he's working his way back into form. I don't assume that this is going to be his last time in the national team. I'm sure he'll be back. And it's just about regaining your form and performing at a high level when you get the opportunity.”
Scally, meanwhile, has been a revelation in his first few months in Germany and Berhalter alluded to the fullback’s growing sample size of distinguished outings against elite adversaries.
“If you look at what's changed from month to month, he's played in another five Bundesliga games, a [German] Cup game, they beat Bayern Munich 5-0, he had an assist the other day, and this is what we're looking at,” explained the coach. “When we see him going against [Leroy] Sané or Alphonso Davies on the [flank], he’s being tested, and he's standing up to these tests, and for us it was just gathering enough information. He’s a young player, we want to see him performing consistently at a high level, and he's done that.”