On his first day working with the full U.S. national team, Gregg Berhalter took his players out on a field behind their resort hotel outside Orlando and had them visualize some of the motions that are central to his style of play.
It didn’t go well.
“I could tell the players didn’t have the context to the movements that we were asking. Because they had never done it against an opponent,” Berhalter said Wednesday. “So that was an interesting learning experience.”
The biggest lesson, though, was one the coach already knew: the job of rebuilding the U.S. soccer team and teaching it to play the fast-paced, possession-oriented game he preaches is going to take time. So Thursday’s first dress rehearsal, a friendly with Ecuador before a cozy crowd at Orlando City Stadium, figures to be rough at times. Yet, it’s all part of the process.
“We’ve been together two days,” Berhalter cautioned. “We hope to see some of the things we’re talking about. But we also know it’s not going to be perfect. We will lack fluidity at times. It’s natural.
“The players, we’ve been giving them a lot of information the last couple of days. All we want is material to evaluate. That’s really important.”
Thirteen of the 24 players Berhalter called into this month’s 10-day training camp were introduced to his ideas in January. For the other 11, this week has been a crash course in a complicated system. And while many players have given the coaching staff high marks for organization and ambition, the amount of information they’ve been asked to process during video sessions and meetings has left their heads spinning.
“It’s a challenge for all of us, especially for guys that are just hearing about it and learning and looking at the drawing board and seeing movements and fluidity and creativity,” said Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget, a holdover from the January camp. “You can’t just switch off when you walk off the field. You’ve got to keep thinking about it and keep talking to your teammates and figure how can we make this work?”
Thursday’s game could be the first in which the core of the team’s future — Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, who are all 20 — start together. The three were on the field with one another for 14 minutes of a November game under interim coach Dave Sarachan, who used Adams as a midfielder, the position he plays for his club team in Germany.
In his first camp under Berhalter, Adams is playing right back with McKennie and Pulisic playing side-by-side in the midfield.
“This is the beginning phases and we want to test it and we want to see how it looks,” the coach said.
Berhalter began preparing Adams for the move before camp started through phone calls, emailed videos and Skype chats.
“We’ve had Skype calls with tactics. Which I didn’t even know you can do,” Adams said. “He’s ahead of time in the technology phase. But it’s been good. There’s graphics and stuff like that so I can try to understand and grasp the role.”
Getting comfortable at a new position is only part of the equation though. The bigger challenge may be getting comfortable with one another, which is why virtually every player has repeated a similar mantra this week: We have to be on the same page.
“That’s the stress of getting it all in in a short period of time,” Berhalter said. “But it’s important to start. It’s important to begin implementing our ideas across the board. We spent some time between camps talking to the players, showing them video.
“But it’s one thing then to do it on the field.”
Berhalter isn’t the only one pleading for calm and patience though. Michael Bradley has seen this all before, having played for five coaches with the U.S. national team. Each one brought his own style and while some of it worked, some of it didn’t.
But it took more than one game to separate one from the other.
“When you look at the big picture it’s still important for everybody to realize that this is one of the first steps along the way,” Bradley said. “There’s positive signs every single day. There’s a lot to feel good about. There’s a lot to be excited about. ...