Gregg Berhalter: “We’ll be really looking for form. We have a deep pool and then it will be about taking the guys that are in the best form if they’re on the margins.” (Mayela Lopez/Reuters via USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

With a World Cup berth secured, the U.S. men’s national team will switch its focus to the tournament itself.

Over the next several months, there will be great speculation on who will make the squad.

Outside of the core of key players – Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Sergino Dest are among that group – there will be a battle for the remaining spots.

Of course, they must remain healthy and in form to be part of the team.

For most players, it will come down to form, head coach Gregg Berhalter said.

“It will be difficult, because there’s going to be the culmination of the European season in June and then it starts up again in September,” he said during a Thursday morning Zoom call from JFK Airport before departing for the World Cup draw in Doha, Qatar. “We’ll be really looking for form. We have a deep pool and then it will be about taking the guys that are in the best form if they’re on the margins.

“So we’re going to have to be patient with that. The MLS season we’ll be wrapping up, European season we’ll be starting off and it’s just continuing to monitor the players. I think that will be probably the toughest thing we’ll have to do is tell a guy that’s been with the program for a while that he’s not going to be selected for the World Cup. Those conversations are never easy. But we’ll try to pick the best roster possible to do Well in the World Cup.”

Berhalter’s selection process will be helped a bit if FIFA raises the roster limit from 23 to 26 players.

“We definitely support that,” he said. “I think that’s a great call. To be able to choose from 26 players for 23-man rosters for the game day, that makes a lot of sense, particularly given we don’t know where COVID will be at the time of the World Cup. And given the fact that the World Cups are in the middle of the [European] season, or guys can be banged up a little bit, I think that’s a strong idea.”

And if a player emerges between now and the fall, Berhalter will certainly consider him.

There is precedent for that. In 2001, Landon Donovan saw very limited action during the USA’s qualifying run for the 2002 World Cup but was selected for the team that competed at Korea/Japan.

“We’re open to any player that emerges we’re open to looking at them and given them an opportunity,” Berhalter said. “That’s been our stance since day one. If you’re performing at a high level, you’ll get an opportunity. If guys haven’t been involved in a while, they still have opportunities based on what they’re doing. We don’t close the door on anyone. … We want to have the best possible roster that we can.”

After surviving the Concacaf Octagonal and playing in various weather conditions and venues and sometimes raucous crowds, Berhalter felt that experience would go a long way in preparing for adversity in Qatar.

“It’s helped us understand and deal with challenges and accept them as they come in and face them head on,” he said.

Berhalter brought up the example of Dest, who plays for one of the legendary clubs, Barcelona in Spain.

“He’s playing with [Lionel] Messi is playing with all these great players, and we were going down to El Salvador we’re playing on a submaximal pitch and in front of a crazy crowd and everything’s crazy about the game and what you can see is guys had a really difficult time processing that type of game.

“The ref lets a lot more games [get] a lot more physical, a lot more hectic. We’ve seen the group grow throughout qualifying. That’s been the most enjoyable thing to see this young group that is mostly used to European type of football, adapt to Concacaf and still be successful. It’s been fun and certainly helped stretch the group and help them grow up.”

On Friday, the Americans will discover who they will play in Qatar in December. The USA was placed in Pot 2, thanks to its No. 15 ranking in the latest FIFA rankings. The team knows it can’t play seven other teams in the Pot, including Mexico, Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Uruguay, Switzerland and Croatia.

Berhalter doesn’t care who the opponents will be.

“We will take whoever we get,” he said. “It’s a random draw. So, we’ll deal with whatever we’re drawn.”

Regardless of who they play in the group stage, the first priority is to reach the knockout rounds.

“The starting point is definitely getting out of the group,” Berhalter said. “Even without having seen the group and we may get a very difficult group but that’s part of it. Once you get in that in that stage, anything can happen.”

After the draw, Berhalter will set his sights comes on preparing. The USMNT will have four games in June – two Concacaf Nations League matches and two friendlies. Two more games are slated for September.

Because the World Cup will be held during right smack in the middle of the European season, there won’t be much time for training or pre-tournament friendlies.

“The June window is going to be an important part of our preparation,” Berhalter said. “We’re trying to try to get games in Europe in September, but that’s not finalized yet. Then looking forward, I think there’ll be an opportunity to get domestic based players together for a training camp before we go to Qatar and meet the rest of the group there. It’s less than ideal preparation, in terms of the time we’re going to have. But every team is going to be doing the same thing, so we’ll be able to deal with it, just like everybody else.”