The 28 men Gregg Berhalter called into his first camp with the U.S. national team hadn’t even had a chance to break a sweat before they learned things under the new coach were going to be different.
In years past, the team stayed in a hotel during the monthlong January camp. But as players arrived at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center last weekend they were handed keys to spartan dorms, where they would sleep two to a room.
“It’s not like we don’t have a reason behind why we’re doing this,” Berhalter said after Monday’s first training session. “We mixed up the roommates on purpose. The guys are getting to know other people. And that’s all part of it.
“The most important thing we can focus on right now is building group cohesion and our style of play. And there’s no better place to do it than here.”
There may be some symbolism involved too because the last time Berhalter was at the 155-acre training complex was in 1998, when he was a young defender competing for a spot on that summer’s World Cup team. He didn’t make the cut that time, but he did play on the next two World Cup teams.
So now, as the coach tasked with getting the U.S. back to the World Cup, what better place to start than at the beginning, where his own national team journey began?
“We’re going to be together here,” he said. “It’s an intensive period but it’s a focused period. We’re really going to get quality time as a team.”
That’s important because Berhalter, a former Galaxy player and assistant coach, isn’t the only one new to the group. Thirteen of the 28 players called up have never played for the U.S.; nine others have six or fewer caps. And captain Michael Bradley’s 142 international appearances are five more than the rest of the roster has combined.
“The vibe is great,” said midfielder Paul Arriola, who along with Bradley is the only starter remaining from the team’s last competitive game in October 2017. “Any time new people come in, it’s obviously going to be different. Gregg is working on us to build the culture, to build this new fresh part for all of us.”
That camaraderie and team-building is so important, Berhalter told the players what happens on the field is only part of what they’re going to be evaluated on.
“It’s how they fit in culturally into what we’re doing. That is a big part of it,” he said. “We want them to get to know each other. We want them to enjoy this camp, enjoy the time they have together.”
The first practice was a brisk 90-minute session that was heavy on both conditioning and competition. Berhalter favors a short-passing, possession-oriented playing style so many of the early drills emphasized quick touches and ball control under pressure.
Berhalter is also an enthusiastic proponent of analytics, which have been slow to catch on in soccer when compared with sports like baseball and basketball. During Monday’s practice a drone hovered noisily overhead, recording the entire session for dissection later.
“It’s really going to help us get a better picture through data,” said Berhalter, who at 45 is the youngest coach to lead the national team since Steve Sampson, who was 38 when he took the job in 1995.
Everything about Monday’s session seemed familiar to former Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes, who had a breakout 19-goal season under Berhalter with the Columbus Crew last season. As a result, Zardes said teammates have been pulling him aside, seeking insight into the new coach.
“Coaches are different,” said Zardes, who is playing under his fourth national team manager. “But with Gregg he makes things simple. I know exactly what’s expected of me.”
When Earnie Stewart, the newly appointed general manager for the men’s national team, began his careful search for a new coach last summer – the U.S. had been without a permanent replacement for Bruce Arena for more than a year -- Berhalter’s age, comfort with analytics and the aggressive attacking style he prefers made him the early favorite. Nor did it hurt that he and Stewart were once teammates.
But when he took the field for the first time Monday, he said that resume became irrelevant. Now, as with his players, everything starts anew.
“I’m extremely humbled to have this position,” he said. “I never started coaching saying I want to be the national team coach. You just work hard. And every day you try to do your best and you try to develop your ideas.”