US men’s soccer finding its identity after January camp

MacDill Air Force Base /Courtesy

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It’s been just over a year since head coach Bruce Arena and his United States men’s national soccer team capitulated into the dark side of the history books after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

The roster under Arena was a confused mixture of unproven young talent and aging veterans that ultimately failed under his leadership. Arena was eventually sacked for the second time by U.S. Soccer — the first time was after underperforming in the 2006 World Cup.

What transpired after this second firing was a full-scale restructuring of U.S. Soccer as a whole. From the reformatting of youth soccer to the election of a new U.S. Soccer president, the federation has made decent strides in righting the wrongs of the past few years. The successful bid to host the 2026 World Cup in North America did little to win back the fans, as there was an apparent identity crisis looming.

Newly elected president Carlos Cordeiro and his front-office buddies needed to find a new coach, one who would stamp his philosophy and plan of action with authority. After a year of searching, former Columbus Crew manager Gregg Berhalter was called upon Dec. 2 to fulfill the wishes of the front office.

Fast-forward to the conclusion of the U.S. men’s team’s annual January camp Saturday: Berhalter earned two commanding victories while enduring a host of vital training sessions that his team can grow from. Contrary to last year’s display, this camp was a surprising success after the Yanks beat Panama 3-0 and Costa Rica 2-0 with a brand-new coaching staff and evolving player pool.

There was an obvious lack of cohesion with passing sequences and attacking play over the two games, but the U.S. showed a shocking level of organization in three of the four halves. Taking into account the lack of quality of the two opponents and the fact that a third of the U.S. starters are in Europe playing with their respective club teams, Berhalter was able to show clear signs of the system he hopes to implement and eventually perfect.

San Jose Earthquakes right back Nick Lima was a standout performer over the two games, adding to his solid defensive performances by swinging a deadly cross to defender Walker Zimmerman for the second goal against Panama.

Lima’s energy was infectious; he played well enough to appear in both matches and allow the backline to comfortably earn two shutouts, while also letting the attack to flow freely. D.C. United winger Paul Arriola and LA Galaxy attacker Sebastian Lletget both scored impressive goals to reinvigorate what was a subpar attacking performance from the U.S. in the first half against Costa Rica.

For the first time since the World Cup catastrophe, there is a sense of optimism among the fans, who were able to see a number of players stake their claims for spots in the starting 11, in addition to a clear sense of purpose perpetuated by Berhalter and his staff.

There are still a lot of miles to cover, however, on the road to the Qatar World Cup in 2022, where the success of Berhalter’s reign will ultimately be determined. Although it was a productive month for the federation, the Yanks still have a lot to prove.

The U.S. will return for two more friendlies in March against substantially better competition, facing Equador on March 21 and Chile on March 26. Berhalter will have access to his European exports and will hope to trim the squad to his liking in time for his first competitive tournament, the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup, which will kick off in June.

A small sense of direction is a lot better than no direction. Berhalter seems to have a stark grasp of the style he plans to execute moving forward, and with the best crop of young talent the U.S. has ever had at his disposal, we should be excited for what’s to come.

Spencer Golanka covers softball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @sgolanka.