The crescendo comes in six weeks when, after almost four years of ups and downs, Berhalter will invite 26 players onto the stage in Qatar.
“It’s going to be close,” he said on Thursday. “I mean you can see it. Some players are a little nervous, which is completely natural. … Considering that in two months time we’re going to face really impressive opponents at the World Cup and we’re trying to develop and have a great World Cup.”
Most of the squad is unofficially fixed. A young core led by Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams have been playing together for years and barring injuries will carry the squad into the Group B opener against Wales on November 21. The Americans also meet group favorites England and Iran.
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Some positions have been competitive for some time and on top of that seven injured regulars were unavailable for this camp which opened the door to others.
“We’re so much a family that we only want what’s best for the team and what’s best for each other,” said McKennie, a midfielder based in Italy. “There will be players who are disappointed. There will be players with their heads bowed. But at the end of the day we all support each other and support the bigger picture.”
By all indications, this is a tight group. The players strolled together on the Hohenzollern Bridge, which crosses the Rhine and connects the team hotel with the two-towered Gothic cathedral. Pre-workout interaction is light and playful, complete with scuffles and pranks. The fact that 17 of the 26 players here are 25 or younger plays into this.
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“We don’t have groups. We don’t have cliques,” McKennie said. “We do not have that [a divide between] Players who play in Europe and play in MLS. All are always intertwined.”
When players get back together after missing a camp or two, “it’s like having a best friend for a long time,” McKennie said. “You don’t really have to keep in touch, but when you get back together, it’s like you were never away.”
However, a trip to the World Cup is at stake. The keeper pool is realistically reduced to four players for three slots, but there’s no clear starter. The central defense remains uncertain. Two squad places for the strikers are up for grabs. The depth at most positions needs to be addressed.
The upcoming friendlies will not settle the matter. Berhalter will continue to monitor the players’ performances with their respective clubs in leagues, most of which are only suspended for a week before the World Cup opener between Qatar and Ecuador on November 20.
He will also continue to consider how individuals fit into his system and stay in touch with clubs about injuries and fitness levels.
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On Thursday, Berhalter was asked how he would rate the forward pool, although his answer could have applied to everyone.
“There’s the work that they’ve done with us, that they’re doing with us and then there’s what they’re doing with their clubs and what level they’re playing at their clubs,” he said. “Anyone is eligible.”
However, he conceded that “we might not get it right”.
“That’s part of it,” he said. “We are allowed to make mistakes”
Part of the process over the coming weeks will be evaluating those who were unavailable for this camp: goalkeeper Zack Steffen, left-back Antonee Robinson, centre-backs Cameron Carter-Vickers and Chris Richards, midfielders Yunus Musah and Cristian Roldan, and forward Tim Weah.
If they are healthy Steffen, Robinson, Richards, Musah and Weah seem safe to make the final list.
Berhalter said he is also considering players who have not been invited to this camp, particularly Germany-based striker Jordan Pefok.
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As camp accelerated and friendlies drew near, Berhalter felt some nervousness.
“There’s a slight hint of it,” he said. “It’s not something you can feel, but you can see that a couple of guys are tense on some exercises. The message is: “Go do your thing – and drop the chips where they will.”
Among the players embracing this message is Sam Vines, a 23-year-old left-back who was last at camp almost a year ago. “Gregg knows our qualities,” he said, “and we know what’s at stake.”
Berhalter plans to use most, if not all, of the players in these friendlies. He was often willing to reveal starters the day before a friendly, but offered just four ahead of Friday’s game: Vines (Antwerp), Arsenal keeper Matt Turner and central defenders Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls) and Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC ).
“We are a brotherhood. We’re a family, but we’re also here to compete,” McKennie said. “They can be friends off the field, but when it comes to the field, you aspire to my position, I aspire to your position. Even the players who may be her close friends will not make the list.”