U.S. vs. Panama: Three things to watch for in Berhalter's first game as manager
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- If a new era dawns and no one is there to see it, can you really call it a fresh beginning? New U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter and his players are determined to answer that in the affirmative.
Yes, some people will take in Sunday's friendly between the U.S. men's national team and Panama at State Farm Stadium in suburban Phoenix, but as it stands now, not that many. A U.S. Soccer spokesman told reporters that as of Saturday morning, just over 6,000 tickets had been sold. That isn't even one-tenth of State Farm Stadium's capacity of 63,400.
As much as fans might complain about ticket prices, the venue or the makeup of the roster, the reality is that until an indeterminate time in the future, the U.S. men will continue to be known as "The Team That Didn't Qualify For The World Cup." It doesn't matter that Berhalter wasn't the manager. It doesn't matter that the vast majority of players had nothing to do with the failed qualifying effort or "That Night in Couva" when the Americans somehow contrived to lose to Trinidad & Tobago. That qualifying campaign sits like an anvil on the shoulders of the USMNT program.
Yet neither Berhalter nor the players can do anything about that. As Michael Bradley said in Saturday's mixed zone, "You live in the moment. You live with the excitement of what you have today and what's in front of you." That means starting a new era regardless of who is -- or isn't -- watching. A win will generate some needed momentum, and while the U.S. won some games in 2018, a victory on Sunday will feel a bit different. The good vibes will be accompanied by more permanence given that Berhalter is now in charge.
With that in mind, here are three things to look for in Sunday's contest.
1. How much will Berhalter's style reveal itself?
This U.S. team has been in camp since Jan. 7. As such, one might expect a fair bit of cohesion from the players. Then again, for everyone involved this is essentially a preseason contest. No player will be fully game fit. There will be mistakes, and the hope is that some semblance of a style will emerge.
Berhalter himself has said his tactical approach will be different from what he implemented as manager of the Columbus Crew, although there will be similarities as well. The fullbacks will likely push forward. A central midfielder will likely drop in between the center-backs to initiate the attack, although that responsibility will likely be shared.
At minimum, Sunday's game will provide some data points, allowing Berhalter to move the team forward.
"I'm really excited for this," he said at his prematch news conference. "It's going to give us information. Right now, we have no body of work to go on. This is the start of our body of work."
2. How will the U.S. react when things break down?
Given that Berhalter's teams in Columbus played a style that was easy on the eyes, much of the focus will be on the attack and its ability to create goal-scoring chances. But as Wil Trapp so eloquently put it earlier this week, "I think the game is unpredictable, so to have these perfect plans, they'll be broken."
And how then will the U.S. react? Berhalter has preached more balance and given the athleticism of Panama's squad, the U.S. will need to recover quickly and as a team. That will put a premium on having good structure both with the ball and without.
"I've said all along that the strength of our group is in the collective," he said. "We're not going to be able to line up against Spain and Brazil and say we're going to have more quality than them. That's not going to happen in my lifetime. So, we're going to have to be better, and we're going to have to be better from a collective standpoint. The team-building things and team camaraderie, the system of play, all of that can help give us an advantage."
Granted, Panama isn't Spain or Brazil, but they've given the U.S. some tough moments in the past, and it's never too early to establish good habits. Sunday's game can be a start.
3. Bradley's role -- and performance
At the news conference, Berhalter defended the inclusion of midfielder Michael Bradley in his squad, a player who continues to draw the ire of some fans and whose role going forward remains uncertain. Friday's match should clear some of that up. Will Bradley start the match and if so, where? And how will he perform if he does see the field?
If those questions are answered positively, then it seems likely Bradley will continue to see the field. Berhalter said one point of emphasis over the next two games will be to establish a core and that not everyone currently on the roster will see the field over the two games, including next weekend's tilt against Costa Rica. But if Bradley doesn't perform well, then the calls for Berhalter to look at other options will grow louder and will give the new manager a heavy decision to make.