The national soccer team’s performance in last week’s scoreless draw with Wales, the first U.S. game since Feb. 1, was reassuring in many ways — especially given the long layoff caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But coach Gregg Berhalter sees a lot of ways his team, which is just beginning to jell, can get better Monday against Panama. And that would start with scoring a goal.
“When we have one shot on goal in a game, that’s not enough,” Berhalter said Sunday in a teleconference from Austria, where Monday’s game will be played. “So there is a lot of room to improve on the offensive end. We’re focused on competing to win the game and we want to score goals.”
“We want to end this experience with the group on a high note,” he added.
The game will close a brief weeklong training camp, the only gathering of his Europe-based player pool in 2020 year. Berhalter is hopeful of arranging a mid-December game but players called into that camp would likely come off MLS rosters, leaving Panama as the coaching staff’s last chance to get a look at the core of their young, talented roster this year.
Six players made their national team debuts against Wales and Berhalter could give as many as four others their first caps against Panama.
“We’re going to continue to kind of build on what we had last game,” the coach said. “So we’ll mostly look similar but with slightly different personnel.”
That will likely mean a traditional striker up front rather than the false nine Berhalter used to little success against Wales. He will also give outside back Reggie Cannon his first national team appearance since April 2019.
Just 22, Cannon, who left FC Dallas for Portugal’s Boavista two months ago, is already something of a veteran leader on a team that includes seven teenagers.
“We’re meshing really well. Guys are finally getting the energy and matching the energy of each other, getting the coordination of each other. Everything is coming together,” Cannon said of a team in which some are playing with one another for the first time. “People have to remember we’ve only been together for barely a week. It’s tough to get guys coming from all over the world situated with tactics and everything within a week.
“We’ve got guys with a lot of talent. Now we just have to figure out how to work as a team. It’s coming together. What’s going to make this team great is if we play for each other. And that’s something we’re figuring out as we go from game to game and training to training.”
Two players who could make their senior debut are defender Chris Richards, who trained briefly with Cannon at FC Dallas before moving to German power Bayern Munich, and versatile midfielder Richie Ledezma of Dutch club PSV Eindhoven. They are two of 13 players on the U.S. roster who are under 21.
Ledezma, who is still eligible to play for Mexico at the senior level, is one of a handful of dual nationals on the U.S. roster. Berhalter met him in person for the first time last week and came away impressed.
“One of the real highlights of this trip was meeting him and working with him. It’s been really positive,” he said. “Nice technical player. Good in between the lines. I think he’s got a nice future.”
Ledezma said Sunday if he gets an opportunity to play against Panama he hopes to do something memorable, improving his chances of getting called up in March, the next time the Europe-based core of the U.S. team gathers. Berhalter said he understands those emotions but with the start of World Cup qualifying less than a year away, he hopes to see a team on the field Monday, not just a collection of 11 individuals.
“One thing I’ve noticed, especially when you’re working with new players or a group that’s just forming, you go through different stages of team development,” he said. “With this group in particular, it is more of individuals looking for their position within the team. It’s completely natural what’s happening now. A guy wants to come into camp, he wants to make a good impression on the coaching staff, he wants to play really well and he’s focused more on himself.
“As he gets more comfortable, he’s focused more on his teammates. And we certainly want to get into that stage by qualifying. Because that’s going to be really important.”