Gregg Berhalter: “You never know who’s going to be available to play each game. You have to be willing to adapt.” (Photo courtesy of MLS)
By Michael Lewis
When it comes to World Cup qualifying, nothing is ever concrete.
Not with injuries, COVID-19, yellow and red cards and a few other surprising intangibles lurking around the corner.
“We’ve learned is expect the unexpected,” U.S. men’s head coach Gregg Berhalter said during a Zoom call with the media on Monday. “You never know who’s going to be available to play each game. You have to be willing to adapt. You have to take one game at a time.”
The second-place U.S. (4-1-3, 15 points) has played slightly more than half the Concacaf Octagonal, entering its final six-game run. So, the Americans know the opponents, but there are some wrinkles thrown in there, even the second time around.
“Although we might be more familiar with the opponent, there’s still the aspect that now you’re playing them either home or away, and that makes a huge difference as we all know in Concacaf,” Berhalter said. “All I would say is that we’re looking forward to this January window. We’re looking forward to the first game against El Salvador. We’re using this camp to get one group ready and the other the European guys are doing their thing. We’ll be prepared and we’ll be ready to go.”
The USMNT will welcome El Salvador in Columbus, Ohio on Jan. 27, travel to play Canada in Hamilton, Ontario on Jan. 30, before returning to home soil to host Honduras in St. Paul, Minn. on Feb. 2.
Berhalter liked where the team is right now. The Americans, who trail Canada (4-0-4, 16) by a point, is a point ahead of Mexico (4-2-2, 14) and Panama (4-2-2, 14). The top three teams earn automatic bids to Qatar this November, with the fourth-place country meeting the Oceania representative in Qatar this June in a one-shot deal to reach the 32-team field.
The USA is averaging just under two points a game at 1.87.
“I know if we continue with [these] points per game, we’ll qualify for the World Cup,” Berhalter said. “We know that. It’s about closing this out. We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. I think one important lesson we learned from the September qualifying window is taking one game at a time and things change very quickly. We’re just over halfway there. After this window, I think will be 78 percent there so we’re getting closer. But for us it’s about steady; take one game at a time and prepare to win that next game.”