COLOGNE, Germany — On the southwest edge of this striking city, in a training center tucked behind a thick veil of trees and linked by trails to Beethoven Park, a symphony of activity and emotion involving the U.S. men’s national soccer team has played out all week.
The crescendo comes in six weeks, when after almost four years of high and low notes, Berhalter will invite 26 players onstage in Qatar.
“It’s getting close,” he said Thursday. “I mean, you can see it. There’s a little bit of anxiousness in some of the players, which is completely natural. … To think, in two months we’re going to be competing in the World Cup against really formidable opponents and trying to thrive and have a great World Cup.”
Most of the roster is unofficially set. A young core, headed by Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, has played together for years and, barring injury, will carry the squad into the Group B opener Nov. 21 against Wales. The Americans will also face group favorite England and Iran.
Some positions have remained competitive for some time, and on top of that, seven injured regulars were unavailable for this camp, opening the door to others.
“We’re so much of a family that we just want what’s best for the team and we want what’s best for each other,” said McKennie, an Italy-based midfielder. “There’s going to be players that are disappointed. There’s going to be players with their heads down. But at the end of the day, we all support each other and support the bigger picture.”
From all indications, it’s a close group. Players strolled together on the Hohenzollern Bridge, which crosses the Rhine and links the team hotel to the twin-spired Gothic cathedral. Interaction before training is light and playful, complete with roughhousing and pranks. That 17 of the 26 players here are 25 or younger plays into it.
“We don’t have groups. We don’t have cliques,” McKennie said. “We don’t have [a divide between] players that play in Europe and play in MLS. Everyone’s always intertwined.”
When players reunite after missing a camp or two, “It’s like having a best friend for a long time,” McKennie said. “You don’t really have to keep in contact, but when you get back together, it’s like you never left.”
That said, a trip to the World Cup is at stake. The goalkeeping pool is realistically down to four players for three slots, but there’s no clear starter. The central defense remains unsettled. Two roster spots for the strikers are up for grabs. Depth at most positions must be addressed.
The upcoming friendlies will not settle matters. Berhalter will continue monitoring player performances with their respective clubs in leagues that, for the most part, will not pause for the World Cup until a week before the Qatar vs. Ecuador opener Nov. 20.
He’ll also continue weighing how individuals fit into his system and keep in contact with clubs about injuries and fitness levels.
On Thursday, Berhalter was asked how he will evaluate the pool of strikers, though his answer could have applied to everyone.
“There’s the body of work that they’ve done with us, that they’re doing with us, and then there’s what they’re doing with their clubs and what level they’re playing at their clubs,” he said. “All of those come into consideration.”
He conceded, though, “we may not get it right.”
“That’s part of it,” he said. “We may make mistakes.”
Part of the process in the coming weeks will be assessing those who weren’t available for this camp: goalkeeper Zack Steffen, left back Antonee Robinson, center backs Cameron Carter-Vickers and Chris Richards, midfielders Yunus Musah and Cristian Roldan, and forward Tim Weah.
If healthy, Steffen, Robinson, Richards, Musah and Weah seem sure to make the final list.
Berhalter said he is also considering players who weren’t invited to this camp, most notably Germany-based striker Jordan Pefok.
As camp accelerated and the friendlies neared, Berhalter detected some nerves.
“There’s a slight hint of it,” he said. “It’s not something that’s palpable, that you can feel, but you see a couple guys are tight in some of the exercises. The message is: ‘Go and do your thing — and let the chips fall where they may.’ ”
Among the players embracing that message is Sam Vines, a 23-year-old left back who last was in camp almost a year ago. “Gregg knows our qualities,” he said, “and we know what’s at stake.”
Berhalter plans to use most, if not all, of the players in these friendlies. Often agreeable to revealing starters the day before a friendly, he offered just four before Friday’s game: Vines (Antwerp), Arsenal keeper Matt Turner and center backs Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls) and Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC).
“We’re a brotherhood. We’re a family, but we’re also here to compete,” McKennie said. “You can be friends off the field, but when it comes to on the field, you’re going for my position, I’m going for your position. Even the players that may be their close friend won’t make it onto the roster.”