Christian Pulisic has progressed, earned the trust of Chelsea teammates, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter says

United States coach Gregg Berhalter (left) lauded the progress Christian Pulisic (right) has made during his first season with English Premier League titan Chelsea. (Nick Tre. Smith/Getty Images)
United States coach Gregg Berhalter (left) lauded the progress Christian Pulisic (right) has made during his first season with English Premier League titan Chelsea. (Nick Tre. Smith/Getty Images)

As it turns out, even United States men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter has to remind himself not to get carried away when evaluating his players’ performances over only a few games.

On a conference call from Orlando, where he has been embedded in the MLS is Back Tournament bubble since the event kicked off two weeks ago, Berhalter said that that goes equally for players, from USMNT and Chelsea headliner Christian Pulisic to the young MLS players who are hoping to use the one-off tournament in Central Florida to make a lasting impression on the U.S. boss.

“If we would’ve made the final judgement on Christian in the fall, we would’ve said, ‘Well, he’s not performing’,” Berhalter said of Pulisic, who got off to slow start in the Premier League before emerging as one its best players after play resumed last month. “Seven months later, we’re staying it’s the best signing ever.”

Pulisic has scored three goals and set up four others in seven Prem matches since the Blues’ June 21 restart. That’s a far cry from his early days in London, during which he dealt with a series of nagging leg injures and an accompanying fluctuation in form that saw him in and out of manager Frank Lampard’s lineup.

“He’s made progress,” Berhalter said. “Players have difficult times adapting to new countries, and I think there was that adaptation period that he needed to get over.”

Now that he has, Pulisic’s confidence — and his Chelsea colleagues’ confidence in him — has grown.

“You see now that he’s picking the ball up in space, in pockets, and just being really aggressive going at defenders,” Berhalter said. “If you watch the games, you can see the dramatic shift in how his teammates relate to him now. They actually look to him, whereas at times in the beginning you’re thinking, ‘Why aren’t they passing him this ball?’ Now, they get the ball, their first glance is to him. He’s really grown to be an an important part of that team. And it’s been fun to watch.”

After months of being holed up at his home in Chicago, Berhalter is also having fun watching the MLS tournament up close. He’s been a fixture on the sidelines at every match — which has made for an unusual yet interesting viewing experience.

“I get to hear the communication of the defenders with the goalkeeper. I get to always hear the communication of the goalkeeper; which goalies in the league are communicating a lot, which have good presence in the goal, which goalies are giving good information; what center backs are loud; how the fullbacks are connecting to the back line, how their one-on-one defending is; wingers, how aggressive they are taking players on in wide areas,” Berhalter said. “You get to see that really clearly. But it’s strange.”

MLS players catching Gregg Berhalter’s eye

So far, the coach has been impressed by the play of USMNT regulars and hopefuls alike, singling out the likes of Columbus Crew veterans Gyasi Zardes and Darlington Nagbe and youngsters Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC), Chris Mueller (Orlando City) and Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union) for praise.

He’s spoken to Akinola, a 20-year-old dual American-Canadian national whose five goals in the group stage have fans north of the border hoping he’ll choose to represent Canada at the senior international level instead. “He was raised in our national team program,” Berhalter said of the Ontario-born, Detroit-raised striker who played for U.S. youth teams, most notably at the 2017 FIFA U-17 World Cup. ”We consider him part of our program.”

Steffen being Man City backup next season ‘would be worth it’

Berhalter also discussed more established European-based players like goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who appears set for the backup role with mighty Manchester City next season after spending the 2019-20 campaign on loan to German side Fortuna Dusseldorf.

“To gain that experience for a year, to be in that training environment and to have the opportunity to potentially break into that team is exciting,” he said. “I think it would be worth it. To me, that opportunity alone is something special. Not too many players in the world get a chance to play for a club like that.”

And he was happy, mostly, to see 20-year-old Werder Bremen striker Josh Sargent remain in the Bundesliga after helping the club win Germany’s promotion/relegation playoff. “For a young player to get that experience, and that battle for relegation, is amazing,” he said. “For Josh, and I put this on the club: They need to be able to find a way to create chances in an efficient way ... he needs to get more service.”

No fans on road in CONCACAF could help USMNT

Berhalter was unsure about when qualifying games for the 2022 World Cup would start. But he said he doesn’t see any matches happening before November. If they take place without fans in attendance because of health concerns, that could benefit the U.S team, which typically faces a hostile reception from home supporters whenever it travels the CONCACAF region.

“If we go to qualifying in empty stadiums that’s going to change the dynamic considerably,” he said. Either way, he expects his talented but largely unproven young roster to more than just make it to Qatar after the embarrassment of missing out on Russia 2018.

“I think there’s a lot of potential,” Berhalter said. “The public doesn’t know this group yet. But as we go through qualifying, and when we qualify and go to the World Cup, this group can make an impact.”

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