COLOGNE, Germany — If this were a normal buildup to a World Cup — and rest assured, there is positively nothing normal about the preparations or the tournament itself in Qatar starting in November — Gregg Berhalter would conduct a four-week countdown with a training camp for his US men’s national soccer team.
USMNT begins camp in Germany ahead of World Cup
With an eye on the group opener, he would fine-tune tactics, accelerate fitness levels for those who haven’t been logging regular minutes for their clubs and allow the injured to work themselves back into condition. He would even have the flexibility to announce the roster until after he’s taken one last look at the candidates.
The timing of this World Cup, though, has changed normal planning for Berhalter and the other 31 coaches.
To avoid the Middle East’s searing summer, the tournament was moved to winter — smack in the middle of most leagues worldwide. With a tighter time frame, the runway to the start of the World Cup is just a week.
Antonee Robinson, Berhalter’s first-choice left back from Premier League club Fulham, is a prime example of the compressed calendar that awaits. He is slated to play Nov. 13 against Manchester United, and eight days later, start against Wales in the Group B opener at Al-Rayyan Stadium.
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The hit-the-ground-running schedule in Qatar is why the US camp that opened here Monday morning carries greater weight than a regular assembly in the months before major competition.
Berhalter and his young squad will remain together for nine days, highlighted by friendlies Friday vs. Japan in nearby Düsseldorf and next Tuesday vs. Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain. It’s all that remains before the team reconstitutes in Qatar on Nov. 14 — five days after the 26-man roster is announced and seven before the Wales test.
“It would be different if we had a month lead-up and had three preparation games and we could say, ‘Okay, it really doesn’t matter what type of form this guy is in because we will have time to get them where we need to get them to,’ ” Berhalter said. “If a guy’s not playing at all from now until the World Cup, it’s going to be a challenge for us.”
In lieu of another US camp, Berhalter said he will remain in regular contact with the clubs that employ US players — “understanding what their training load is, sometimes supplementing their training load if they’re not playing games and to really understand where the player is from a fitness standpoint.”
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Fitness will be an issue for players with MLS teams that fail to make the playoffs. With the regular season ending Oct. 9, Berhalter said he will conduct domestic workouts next month.
For this camp, players have been arriving in Cologne from clubs across Europe, from MLS, plus one late replacement from Brazil.
Borussia Dortmund attacker Gio Reyna met up with Mönchengladbach right back Joe Scally after their respective Bundesliga matches Saturday and rode 30 minutes together the next day to the US team hotel. Left back Sam Vines got a two-plus hour ride from his home in Antwerp, Belgium.
Because of club and personal schedules, though, only half of the 26 call-ups participated in training Monday at the grounds of the Bundesliga’s FC Köln, where the club’s mascot, Hennes the billy goat, adorns the walls and signage of the forested setting.
All but three (players, not billy goats) are slated to train Tuesday and the entire group is scheduled to be on the field Wednesday.
Because of games, logistical details and a rest day, Berhalter will have only four sessions with everyone available.
That the core of the squad has grown together since Berhalter’s appointment in late 2018 eased internal concerns about the lack of preparation time immediately before the World Cup.
“What I’d like to see in this camp is the continual build and understanding that Gregg has been able to achieve with this group,” said Brian McBride, a former US World Cup striker who is now the team’s general manager. “The players understand his ideas very clearly — Gregg’s very detailed through the process — and they all grasp them pretty quickly. They know what to expect and what Gregg is expecting.”
Just as he is bracing to do in the World Cup lead-up, Berhalter had to make roster changes before opening camp here. Since the list was unveiled last Wednesday, midfielder Yunus Musah and center backs Chris Richards and Cameron Carter-Vickers have withdrawn with injuries. (Robinson, goalkeeper Zack Steffen, midfielder Cristian Roldan and forward Tim Weah were omitted from the initial roster with ailments.)
Those changes opened slots — and fresh opportunities to make a late impression. Midfielder Johnny Cardoso was summoned from Brazilian club Internacional, and defenders Mark McKenzie and Erik Palmer-Brown from Belgium’s Genk and France’s Troyes, respectively.
The players say that what remains constant, regardless of personnel, is the camaraderie fostered by Berhalter and the team leaders.
“To come here, you feel kind of like brotherly love,” said Vines, whose previous call-up was last November. “We’re fighting for roster spots, but at the same time, we’re all going for one goal, and that’s to win in the World Cup.”
Arsenal goalkeeper Matt Turner said, “even though we’re not in the US, it’s like a little bit of a slice of home.”
“We don’t get sick of each other,” Reyna said. “We have a great time all hanging out together.”
Personal vibes have given way to serious business. Berhalter has yet to settle on a starting goalkeeper. Turner is employed by the most notable club, where he has made just one appearance since transferring from MLS’s New England Revolution this summer. Ethan Horvath (England’s Luton Town) and Sean Johnson (New York City FC) play regularly, and if healthy, Steffen will contend for the job.
Based on his high-scoring form with FC Dallas and national team performances the past year, Jesús Ferreira is the primary striker. But, for the first time in a while, Berhalter also called in Josh Sargent and Ricardo Pepi.
They came at the expense of Jordan Pefok, who is off to a roaring start with Bundesliga leader Union Berlin. Berhalter reiterated last week that Pefok remains in the mix and he needed the opportunity to take a close look at Sargent and Pepi.
“The good thing is Gregg has had a large core of this group over a longer period of time,” McBride said. “There is a good grasp of his principles and how he wants to play. Without a camp right before the World Cup, it’s definitely different. There are some challenges, but there’s a good dynamic with this team.”