March Friendlies: What To Watch For

By Ryan Rosenblatt / VOAO

The process of hiring a new coach for the MNT took so long, and was so frustrating, that simply having Gregg Berhalter in charge makes it feel like we’ve reaching the end. A point where we can finally see what the national team looks like and how good they are.

But really, hiring Berhalter was just the start of his process. A very long one that will take us to the 2022 World Cup.

When the U.S. square off against Ecuador on Thursday and then Chile on Tuesday, it will be the first time we have the chance to see Berhalter with a full strength squad, as part of a 10-day camp that makes Berhalter’s first chance to spend time with a lot of his players.

It really is just the beginning. And beginnings require patience.

Berhalter has already thrown us a eyebrow-raising but of news – Tyler Adams* will play right back and DeAndre Yedlin will be in front of him on the wing. It’s an experiment, moving both players out of position, and one that will spark flashbacks to Jurgen Klinsmann’s habit of moving players away from their best spots.

(* Quick sidebar: Adams has been so good for RB Leipzig. Like, so, so good. His tackle and interception numbers per game are equal with the best midfielders in the Bundesliga and he’s been both tidy with his passing, while also functioning as the spark in their offensive transition. The kid has walked into one of the best leagues in the world and full-on run the midfield right from the jump. It’s a small sample size, but it’s really difficult to overstate how good he has been.)

Obviously, that did not end well, but the comparisons to Klinsmann don’t really hold up because Berhalter already has started working on a clear system that the players are buying into. The experiments are part of a long-term vision too. And while Klinsmann never stopped experimenting, Berhalter is just getting going.

Berhalter deserves time to experiment, and this one isn’t entirely without merit. What we saw from the U.S. in January was a system that asked its right back to move into the center of the midfield with the ball and if Berhalter is going to continue doing that, he’s going to need a right back who can both defend on the right and be rangey passer. Adams fits the bill, and using Yedlin and a lung-busting winger who eats up the right side, complements that.

There’s an easy argument that Adams is too good to have his role minimized on the right, especially because you’d lose his transition play in the attack. And that may prove to be true. In fact, it will probably true, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the experiment because there’s only one way to find out how many ways Adams and Yedlin can impact the team and the expanse of the system.

Right now he’s just trying to see what pieces he has for the long run and if this doesn’t work out – or if players grow and evolve and the combinations of who has has available to him change – then he has to adjust. But the reason for these friendlies, especially at the start of a coach’s tenure, is to find out what he has. If it doesn’t work out then that’s fine. Everyone will learn a lot whether it works or not, and the team will be better off as a result.

This is about Berhalter checking out the squad, which is also what we get to do.

How does Adams look at right back, or what does the right back position look like? Who is going to be next in line to challenge Zack Steffen at goalkeeper now that the Columbus Crew man is out with an injury? What roles do Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie play?

That’s just the start of the list of questions that Berhalter will try to find answers for, and we can see play out. These friendlies are about answering those, and then also seeing how the system and players are tested so that when the next string of matches come around in June, Berhalter (and us) have a fresh set of questions for the team.

It’s been a long and trying road to get here from October 2017, and that burning pile of wrecking in our rearview mirror, understandably, has tried our patience. Now we want answers. But Berhalter is still just getting going. This time is more about asking the right questions then putting together the final pieces. So take a deep breath, enjoy the process and, remember, we’ve got 44 months until the World Cup and that’s where we truly get our redemption.

Find your local AO chapter bar to watch the MNT Thursday, March 21st vs. Ecuador from Orlando at 8pm ET on ESPN2 and Tuesday March 26th vs. Chile from Houston at 8pm ET on ESPN2: