As coronavirus wipes away key opportunities for USMNT, Gregg Berhalter keeps things in perspective

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Two March friendlies were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. The CONCACAF Nations League semifinals and final have been postponed. The start of World Cup qualifying could be pushed back next.

Gregg Berhalter, coach of the United States men’s national team, hasn’t seen his first-choice squad since November. And he’s not sure when he’ll see them again.

Not that he’s complaining about it.

“Life,” Berhalter said in an interview with Yahoo Sports, “comes way before soccer.”

As it is for most coaches, though, Berhalter’s life is soccer. So in the absence of club games to analyze, training sessions to plan for and scouting trips to schedule, he’s been even busier than usual when it comes to keeping tabs on his players, who are scattered in countries around the world.

“The most important thing for us is just getting an understanding of how they’re doing, their mental state, the current situation they’re in,” he said. “The clubs have been doing a good job supporting them, and we want to supplement that and help in any way we can. Any questions we can answer, we’d like to be able to do that.

“And the other side of it is having some fun.”

Gregg Berhalter missed out on some important opportunities with the USMNT thanks to the coronavirus, but he knows where the biggest priorities lie. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Gregg Berhalter missed out on some important opportunities with the USMNT thanks to the coronavirus, but he knows where the biggest priorities lie. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

To that end, the national team staff created a WhatsApp group chat in which players can try to recreate locker room banter remotely. They crack jokes. They share silly videos or embarrassing pictures. Three times a week, to keep the competitive juices flowing, Berhalter or one of his assistants will send out a new riddle for them to solve. Christian Pulisic was the early leader, but he’s since fallen back with the rest of the pack.

“There’s a spreadsheet with standings, and you get one point if you’re the first to answer the question correctly,” said defender Walker Zimmerman. “It’s a great way for everyone to stay in touch.”

Everyone is in a different situation. Since last week, German-based USMNT regulars such as Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Josh Sargent and Zack Steffen have been involved in full trainings with their clubs, as the Bundesliga aims to resume its season — sans fans — next month. MLS said Tuesday in a statement that its previous mid-May target to return was “extremely unlikely.” Other circuits remain shuttered indefinitely.

“Basically, we’re going to be reacting off the leagues,” Berhalter said. “Once they know the schedule for this year, they’re gonna know the schedule for next year. And then I’m sure FIFA is going to come in and say where the international [games] are going to fit in. Whatever happens, we’ll be in the same situation as everyone else.”

There is a bright side. Players who had been nursing bothersome injuries — like Pulisic — should be healthy or at least closer to returning when the matches finally resume.

“Guys like Paul Arriola won’t be that far behind,” Berhalter said of the D.C. United midfielder who tore his ACL in February. “In some some instances — Christian is an example — guys may benefit from this.”

Still, some opportunities are lost forever. The March exhibitions presented a rare opportunity to face European foes on their own turf, and also would likely have marked the U.S. debut of 17-year-old Borussia Dortmund prodigy Giovanni Reyna. But Berhalter said he was also considering inviting a pair of little-known teenagers in Brazilian-based midfielder Johnny Cardoso and Nicholas Gioacchini, a forward who plays for Caen in France’s second tier. It’s far less likely that those players would be summoned, sight unseen, for a World Cup qualifier.

A decision on how to prioritize the Olympics, which have been moved to 2021 and could conflict with the Gold Cup and/or World Cup qualifying, will have to be made should the U.S. under-23 team eventually qualify.

“It's certainly not ideal,” Berhalter said. “We would have liked to have had these games in Holland and Wales to really test what we’re about. We would love to have the pressure of having to win the Nations League. Those are great events that build the group and build the team.

“But in the same sense, we’ve had 20 games together since I’ve been the coach and as a coaching staff,” he added. “We really feel like we understand the player pool, we understand the strengths of the player pool and the weaknesses. And again, the most important thing is that collectively we get through this, not only as soccer players but as a society.”

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