SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — When United States midfielder Tyler Adams arrived just late to a ball in the second half of Tuesday’s CONCACAF Nations League match against El Salvador, the game had already descended into chaos. Just earlier, American winger Paul Arriola had been sent off following a questionable slide tackle and El Salvador had been doing everything within its power to hold on to a 1-0 lead.
When Darwin Ceren shielded the ball away from Adams, he made no attempt to win the ball back. Instead, Adams dragged Ceren down to the mud, earning a deserved yellow card. For El Salvador, it provided an obvious opportunity to try to wind down the clock, as players justifiably swarmed the area. Pushing and shoving ensued before the referee calmed things down and the game resumed.
Asked about the game’s peak CONCACAF moment a few hours later at the team hotel, Adams beamed.
“I took someone out, and then Weston [McKennie] took someone out, and then Christian [Pulisic] took someone out,” Adams said. “It’s just brothers, man. We just back each other up. It’s good to have to have guys like that on the team who are running at you — and it’s every single person on the team. There’s not that one guy on our team who is gonna stay away or something like that. Everyone’s supporting everyone.”
It was easier to smile about after the U.S. salvaged a draw on a stoppage-time header from Jordan Morris, but the fracas might have been the most instructive moment of the match. Here was a team playing on the road in a low-stakes match, in terrible conditions, and a fighting spirit still emerged.
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“Gregg [Berhalter] said that after the game, he was like, ‘I’m very happy that we had that emotional capacity to our game and that aspect of the game, because in the biggest games you need to be backing each other up,'” Adams said. “You need to make sure that when someone gets stuck in or something like that, you’re there, or if someone gets fouled you’re running over there. Those are important moments.”
The past three weeks were perhaps the most important the team has shared during this World Cup cycle. Not necessarily from an on-field standpoint, but certainly off the field. When the team gathered throughout the past two years, stringent COVID-19 procedures reduced players’ time together into regimented, often stressful, occasions. There was joy at times, sure, but being restricted to a team bubble and the rigors that included was draining.
“It was like, ‘When can I leave camp and kind of get back in the normal flow of my life?” Adams said.
This camp was different. Players could come and go from their hotels as they pleased. They found more ways to bond and spend time away from soccer. Friends and family could visit. Those factors made a difference.
“You’re able to just relax and turn off and then when it’s training, it’s training time,” Adams said. “But after that, we were able to regenerate and recharge in our own way — and I think that showed in the games. You felt the freshness to the team and an enjoyment to every time we had training.
“What’s amazing about this group is we love being around each other. When you’re kind of forced to do that, then it feels unnatural. I think it felt finally like a natural setting again and that was important for the guys.”
It’s impossible to quantify what kind of an impact the return to normalcy had on the team, but the four-game window included mostly positive on-field performances. In a 3-0 win against Morocco, the U.S. showed it could dictate a game against a World Cup-quality opponent. A 0-0 draw against a heavily rotated — but still very talented — Uruguay side showed even a mix-and-match backline could stand tall beyond what they encountered in the region during qualifying.
Playing Grenada was never going to reveal much, but it provided a stage for striker Jesus Ferreira to equal the team’s single-game goal record (four) and for midfielder Luca de la Torre to continue his ascension into what seems like a solid place on the World Cup roster.
“[De la Torre is] a guy that is really fitting in nicely to what we’re doing and really is carving out his role,” Berhalter said. “Whether that’s as a starter or a guy that can come in and impact the game from an offensive standpoint. I think Luca had an excellent camp. Good carryover from a disappointing end to his season [when his club team, Heracles, was relegated], but he really picked up and performed well.”
Then there was Tuesday’s game against El Salvador, which left the team in good spirits as it prepares to scatter around the world. While the Major League Soccer-based players return immediately to their clubs, the European-based players have a shortened offseason before they report to their club teams in early July.
“It’s not as long as I’d like, but I love coming here and playing for my country, so it’s fine,” midfielder Yunus Musah said. “It’s just really nice to bond with guys, and when camp is over you kind of miss them. And when it’s time to come back to camp, you’re looking forward to it because it’s great vibes coming here.”
How the transfer market could dictate Berhalter’s squad
Berhalter plans to dial back the communication with the players for the next few weeks, giving himself and them an opportunity to recharge. The team won’t meet again until September, when it’s scheduled to participate in a pair of friendlies, but that doesn’t mean the next couple of months won’t be incredibly important for World Cup preparation.
Multiple players are in varying degrees of flux with their club teams, and as much as that always matters, those situations will be magnified in the upcoming window. With only two international games between now and the World Cup, club form will be an even larger determining factor for rosters and playing time than in past editions.
Brenden Aaronson’s transfer from FC Salzburg in Austria to Leeds United in the Premier League was the first of what could be multiple high-profile moves. Then again, there could be little movement at all.
After seeing his playing time with RB Leipzig decrease as the season progressed, Adams is player who might benefit from a change of scenery. He’s at a point in his career when he wants to be able to contribute while continuing to develop and isn’t married to the idea that it has to be with Leipzig.
“Is it the right time to move on? I mean, we’ll see,” Adams told ESPN. “I think that for me, it needs to be the right plan, the right development structure, the right team that I fit. A lot of factors go into that decision. So, if I’m presented with a good opportunity, then of course I’ll take it. For me, I’m also not rushed to go out there and say, ‘Oh, I’m, I’m ready to leave RB Leipzig,’ or anything like that.
“Football is interesting. For me, I wanted a little bit more fluidity coming into to the season. At the start of the season, I was playing every game and obviously, coaches change, and that’s football and I didn’t have as many opportunities towards the end of the season. What I was happy about was my performances didn’t waiver. I was still playing good football when I had my opportunities. I was able to win a trophy, which I was proud of.”
Posed with the obvious question about a possible reunion at Leeds with Jesse Marsch, who coached him with the New York Red Bulls in MLS and at Leipzig prior to being dismissed after a slow start last season, Adams was quick to shoot down the idea their relationship would be an outsized factor.
“Of course, I know Jesse very well. He has helped me a lot in my career, but in terms of moving there just because he’s there, I don’t know if that necessarily makes sense,” Adams said. “I’m focused on whatever coach wants me and wants to develop me into a better player. And that I fit into the team and their style of play.”
De la Torre is the only player who has come out to explicitly say that he is actively seeking a move, telling ESPN he has an agreement with Heracles Almelo for a summer move. Others have hinted at the possibility.
Prior to his start against El Salvador, goalkeeper Ethan Horvath said his priority — after serving primarily as a backup for several seasons — is to play consistently. Whether that comes at newly promoted Nottingham Forest in the Premier League remains to be seen. ESPN’s Rob Dawson reported on Wednesday the club was interested in bringing in Dean Henderson on loan from Manchester United, which would seemingly block Horvath’s path to the starting role despite the likely departure of current No. 1 Brice Samba.
“I don’t 100% know what will go on,” Horvath said, “but I think mine and everyone’s main focus going into these last couple months [before the World Cup] is playing time and getting as many games as possible before Gregg makes the final decisions.”
It’s likely that of the four goalkeepers Berhalter has consistently called into camp — Manchester City’s Zack Steffen, soon-to-be Arsenal’s Matt Turner, New York City FC’s Sean Johnson and Horvath — only Johnson will be the No. 1 keeper for his club team. And if NYCFC bow out early in the MLS playoffs, he could be looking at monthlong gap between his final game and the start of the World Cup. That dynamic leaves Berhalter in a tough spot.
“I’ve had a couple conversations with him in the past and of course playing time is very important for myself and everybody else,” Horvath said. “But at the same time, we’re all at good clubs, we’re all training at very high levels, but I would assume [playing time] will be a deciding factor.”
Playing time is not a factor for players like Pulisic and Weston McKennie as far as their inclusion on the roster is concerned, but to have both of them playing at a high level in the fall would represent a major boost for the team’s chances at progressing out of the group in Qatar. While moves away from Chelsea or Juventus don’t seem likely at this stage, that could change depending on how preseason goes for each player.
One of the most interesting players to monitor will be center-back Chris Richards. He missed this camp with a thigh injury and is slated to return to Bayern Munich to compete for a role during preseason after spending the past season and a half on loan at TSG Hoffenheim. A return to Bayern, though, might not be ideal. If one of the best clubs in the world believes he’s worthy of a roster spot and some kind of role, it reflects well on his development and ability, but if that role isn’t getting him consistent playing time, that could hamper his chances at earning a starting job at a position that remains in flux for the U.S.
Richards was one of five potential starters who weren’t with the team in June for varying reasons, along with Giovanni Reyna (injury rehab), Sergino Dest (hamstring injury), Ricardo Pepi (rest) and Steffen (family reasons). Dest should slot back into the starting lineup immediately, but the path is less clear for the others.
When qualifying began, Reyna was probably one of the first players on Berhalter’s team sheet on the right wing, but after getting hurt in the first match of qualifying and missing most of the 2021-22 season, his role is to be determined. His slaloming run at the Azteca against Mexico was without question the finest display of skill by a U.S. player in the past year, but in his absence, Aaronson and Timothy Weah both delivered memorable performances.
“When Gio’s fit, he’s a top, top player,” Adams said. “The start to his season at Dortmund obviously came to an abrupt end and he just had these lingering injuries, but every player faces those throughout their career. I’m happy that I think he’s coming to the end of that now, but when he is healthy and in our team, he makes a huge difference.”
Taking a step back, these are all good issues to have. It’s an unprecedented situation for the United States to potentially need to choose between multiple players playing in best leagues in the world at multiple positions. The unfortunate reality is that no one should expect the health issues that have plagued the team to, all of a sudden, go away with the World Cup approaching. Miles Robinson was taken off the board when he ruptured his Achilles tendon in May, and there is a sense of inevitability not everyone will be fit come November.
“Overall, [we’re] coming out of the window in a positive way,” Berhalter said. “We still have work to do to get World Cup-ready, and we’re gonna use the September window to finalize things, but excited to see what this group can do at the World Cup.”
The wait is on.