- Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC.
CINCINNATI — U.S. men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter says he’ll make “compromises” in terms of playing his core group of players versus testing newcomers in a quartet of upcoming games.
The U.S. will begin its four-game run on Wednesday against Morocco at Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium. That will be followed four days later with a match against Uruguay at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas. Then come a pair of CONCACAF Nations League encounters, first against Grenada at Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas, on June 10, then a road tilt against El Salvador four days later.
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The four games mark one of the last times the U.S. will be able to get together before the start of the 2022 World Cup in November, and they should give Berhalter plenty of opportunities to try out different combinations. Against Morocco, he mentioned he’ll try Brenden Aaronson in a central midfield role; Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long will be the two starting center backs, and Matt Turner will start in goal. Weston McKennie, recently recovered from a broken foot, is expected to play about 20 minutes.
“The experience of playing against two World Cup opponents is going to be important for us,” Berhalter told reporters via a Zoom call on Tuesday. “So we’re going to really have to value that and really compete in those games and see where we stack up.
“But within that, there’s going to be time periods in those games where we have to test players, so we’re gonna make substitutes no matter what the score line is. We’re not going to play everyone 90 minutes to hang on to a 1-0 lead. You know, it’s just unrealistic at this stage. We can’t do that. We don’t have enough time on the back end to be able to do that. So that’s, I think, one of the compromises.”
The U.S. received some good news on the day with the announcement that Bayern Munich midfielder Malik Tillman is now eligible to play for the U.S. after filing a one-time switch with FIFA. He had previously represented Germany at youth level.
“We’re really excited that [Tillman] got cleared by FIFA to play. He’s shown a lot of quality in training, very good understanding of the game, very good first touch and awareness around the penalty box, so that’s been great to see.”
One area of concern continues to be the playing time of the top three keepers on the team; Manchester City’s Zack Steffen, soon-to-be Arsenal keeper Turner and Nottingham Forest’s Ethan Horvath. All three are expected to be backups on their club teams next season, leading to worries over how much sharpness they’ll carry into the World Cup. But Berhalter said it’s too soon to be worried about such things.
“A lot can change,” he said. “We have Ethan going into the Premier League. We have Zack in the Premier League. We have Matt go into the Premier League. We have [NYCFC’s] Sean Johnson having an excellent season. And I think it’s time to just let all this play out.”
Turner isn’t the only player set to switch clubs. Aaronson just completed a $30m move to Premier League side Leeds United, and there is concern about how much playing time he’ll get and how that will affect his World Cup performance. But Berhalter said as long as players know what they’re getting into, he’s OK with it.
“I think the most important thing is that players move into situations that they know what the expectations are, and what their role is going to be, and that they fit into the playing style of the club,” he said. “That’s the most important thing, and then things are going to work out. So for me, as long as it’s a fit in those regards, I’m OK with it.”
One player Berhalter won’t be able to call upon in the next four games is in-form CF Montreal midfielder Djordje Mihailovic, who was forced to withdraw from the camp on Monday with an ankle injury.
“Our heart goes out to Djordje, and, you know, the timing of this is very unfortunate for him,” Berhalter said. “He’s been having a great season. We were really looking forward to working with him in this camp. But what I told him is just focus on getting better and continue to do what you’ve been doing. And if you do that, there’ll be other opportunities for you down the road.”
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