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Gregg Berhalter is looking to fine-tune, not reshape, USMNT roster

Gregg Berhalter and his young U.S. national team will prepare for the World Cup with four matches in June and two in September. (Rick Bowmer/Associated Press)
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The World Cup is still 6½ months away, but for Coach Gregg Berhalter, the windows of opportunity to prepare his U.S. men’s national soccer team are scarce. He has a three-week camp with four matches in June and a nine-day camp with two games in September, and that’s about it until players scramble from their clubs to Qatar for a brief buildup to the Nov. 21 opener.

But after revamping the program following the failed qualifying campaign in 2018 and guiding a young squad through the pitfalls of World Cup qualifying and regional tournaments, Berhalter believes the team has taken shape.

“We’ve done a lot,” he said in an interview Wednesday while in Washington for the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Summit. “Right now, it’s not about reinventing the wheel. It’s just fine-tuning. That’s all it is. We’d be crazy to think that now until November there is going to be a complete 180.”

The June camp, in essence, will be the final opportunity for borderline players to make an impression. By September, he said, most of the roster is “going to be [unofficially] picked and won’t be a tryout period.”

“I think we’ll have a lot of answers,” he continued. “Is that largely the team? I think so.”

A few weeks from naming the June roster, Berhalter said he plans to invite two players who weren’t part of the qualifying effort: forward Haji Wright and center back Cameron Carter-Vickers. Both are 24, both have been away from the U.S. squad since 2019, and both are enjoying fine seasons in Europe.

Wright is among the top American scorers abroad with 12 goals in 29 matches, including seven in his past seven games, for Turkey’s Antalyaspor, while Carter-Vickers is a full-time starter for Scottish club Celtic.

Wright will have the opportunity to fill a glaring U.S. void: a striker who can score consistently. Over the past year, Berhalter has used Josh Sargent, Ricardo Pepi, Gyasi Zardes, Jesús Ferreira and Jordan Pefok. In the 14 qualifiers, only Pepi (three goals) and Ferreira (one) scored.

Pepi hasn’t scored for either the United States or German club Augsburg since an October qualifier against Jamaica.

Wright is a “different player now” than in U.S. camp three years ago, Berhalter said. The past two years, in Denmark then Turkey, Wright has scored 23 goals.

Berhalter said Pepi, 19, might not receive an invitation to the June matches because he “may need more of a mental break.”

Players who aren’t called up in June — but have been in camps — aren’t out of the running for the World Cup, Berhalter said. That group could include center back John Brooks. Berhalter didn’t say with certainty whether the 2014 World Cup player and Bundesliga mainstay would return to the squad after a long absence.

But he did say: “I would rather look at a guy like [Carter-Vickers] to see what he can do because I know what John can do.”

Berhalter also said he is looking to extend a first-time invitation to a young dual national who has yet to play at the senior level. He declined to identify the player or position.

Aside from the aforementioned players, Berhalter is expected to draw his World Cup squad from the player pool that fueled the qualifying campaign. He added, though, “there are some spots still up for grabs. It’s not locked in.”

The World Cup roster deadline is not until Nov. 14. Berhalter said he expects FIFA to expand rosters by three to 26, the same number allowed at the European Championship last year.

Injuries are sure to impact personnel decisions, right up to the World Cup, which, because it’s being played in the middle of most club seasons and not the usual summer months, won’t afford a proper rest period, training camp and tuneup matches. Berhalter said he might not announce his roster until seven to 12 days before the World Cup begins.

Of the four European-based regulars who are injured, Berhalter said Sergiño Dest and Gio Reyna probably won’t be involved in U.S. activities this summer, while midfielder Weston McKennie and defender Chris Richards might be healthy enough.

The United States will play friendlies against World Cup-bound teams next month — Morocco on June 1 in Cincinnati and Uruguay on June 5 in Kansas City, Kan. — and mandatory Concacaf Nations League matches against Grenada in Austin on June 10 and at El Salvador on June 14.

Berhalter requested early releases from MLS for players to prepare for the June 1 match, but he said there has been “some pushback” from individual teams. He would not reveal the resistant clubs. Such players would miss one MLS match.

The September friendlies are scheduled to take place at venues in Germany and Spain, Berhalter said, but because European teams are preoccupied with their own Nations League games, the U.S. opponents will come from the Asian confederation.

Later in the fall, players from MLS teams that fail to qualify for the playoffs or are eliminated in the first round will report to a domestic camp that probably will include at least one closed-door friendly against a national team.

Though his personnel will remain largely unchanged, Berhalter said he would use some of the June matches to work on a three-man back line instead of the usual four-man setup.

“Just so the guys are familiar with it,” he said. “At a World Cup, you want that in your pocket.”

Looking ahead to Qatar, Berhalter said he is eager to see how his squad — which will be one of if not the youngest teams at the tournament — responds to pressure and expectations.

“It’s a group with a ton of potential, and it’s a group with a bright future,” he said. “The goal is to get out of the group. Once you get out of the group, we have players who are used to playing in knockout games [for big European clubs]. They are used to playing where the expectation is to win.

“The question I want to ask the guys is, ‘Do you think we’re capable of beating any team when we play our best game?’ If the answer is yes, then why can’t we go for it?”