USMNT begins camp in Germany ahead of World Cup

COLOGNE, Germany — If this were normal preparation for a World Cup — and rest assured, there is absolutely nothing normal about the preparations or the tournament itself in Qatar starting in November — Gregg Berhalter would countdown to a four-week training camp for his US men’s national soccer team.

Looking ahead to the group opener, he would hone tactics, speed up the fitness of those who haven’t clocked up regular minutes for their clubs and allow those injured to get back in shape. He would even have the flexibility to announce the list until he had one last look at the candidates.

However, the timing of this World Cup changed normal planning for Berhalter and the other 31 coaches.

To avoid the scorching Middle East summer, the tournament was pushed back to November and December – right in the middle of most leagues around the world. With a tighter timeframe, the runway to the start of the World Cup is just a week.

Antonee Robinson, Berhalter’s first-choice left-back from Premier League club Fulham, is a prime example of the compressed calendar that awaits. He is scheduled to play against Manchester United on November 13 and take on Wales eight days later in the Group B opener at the Al Rayyan Stadium.

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Qatar’s spot-on running schedule is why the US camp, which opened here Monday morning, carries greater weight than a regular gathering in the months leading up to a major competition.

Berhalter and his young team will remain together for nine days, highlighted by Friday’s friendlies against Japan in nearby Dusseldorf and on September 27 against Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain. All that remains is until the team regroups in Qatar on 14 November – five days after the 26-man squad was announced and seven before the Wales test.

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“It would be different if we had a month’s notice and we had three preseason games and we could say, ‘Okay, it really doesn’t matter what form this guy is in because we’re going to have time to get them where we are gotta make them do it,'” Berhalter said. “If someone doesn’t play at all from now until the World Cup, that will be a challenge for us.”

Speaking at another US camp, Berhalter said he will remain in regular contact with the clubs that employ US players – “to understand what their training load is, sometimes to supplement their training load when they’re not playing games, and around really understanding where the player is is from a fitness perspective.”

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Fitness will be an issue for players with MLS teams that don’t make the playoffs. With the regular season ending on October 9, Berhalter said he will be practicing at home next month.

Players from clubs across Europe, MLS and a late replacement from Brazil have all come to Cologne for this camp.

Forward Gio Reyna from Borussia Dortmund met with Mönchengladbach right-back Joe Scally after the respective Bundesliga games on Saturday and drove together 30 minutes to the US team’s hotel the next day. Left-back Sam Vines was driven from his home in Antwerp, Belgium for more than two hours.

Due to club and personal reasons, only half of the 26 conscripts took part in training on the grounds of Bundesliga club 1. FC Köln on Monday, where the club’s mascot, the billy goat Hennes, adorns the walls and signage in the forest setting.

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All but three (players, no billy goats) are scheduled to train Tuesday and the entire group is scheduled to be on the field Wednesday.

Due to matches, logistical details and a rest day, Berhalter will only have four sessions available with everyone.

The fact that the core of the squad has grown together since Berhalter’s appointment at the end of 2018 has eased internal concerns about the lack of preparation time immediately before the World Cup.

“What I want to see at this camp is the continued growth and understanding that Gregg has been able to achieve with this group,” said Brian McBride, a former US World Cup forward who is now the team’s general manager. “The players get his ideas very clearly – Gregg went through the process in great detail – and they all get it pretty quickly. They know what to expect and what to expect for Gregg.”

Just like he prepares for in the World Cup prep, Berhalter had to make roster changes here before the camp opened. Since the list was announced on Wednesday, midfielder Yunus Musah and centre-backs Chris Richards and Cameron Carter-Vickers have all retired injured. (Robinson, goalkeeper Zack Steffen, midfielder Cristian Roldan and forward Tim Weah were dropped from the original squad due to complaints.)

These changes opened up slots – and new ways to make a late impression. Midfielder Johnny Cardoso has been called up by Brazilian club Internacional and defenders Mark McKenzie and Erik Palmer-Brown have been called up by Belgium’s Genk and France’s Troyes respectively.

According to the players, the camaraderie that the coaches and team captains cultivate remains constant, regardless of the personnel.

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“Coming here feels a little bit like brotherly love,” said Vines, whose last call-up was last November. “We’re fighting for squad spots, but at the same time we’re all aiming for one goal and that’s winning the World Cup.”

Arsenal goalkeeper Matt Turner said: “Even though we’re not in the USA, it’s like a piece of home.”

“We don’t get tired of each other,” Reyna said. “We have a great time when we all hang out together.”

Personal mood has given way to serious business. Berhalter still has to agree on a first-choice goalkeeper. Turner is employed by the most prestigious club, where he has only played once since joining from MLS’s New England Revolution this summer. Ethan Horvath (Englands Luton Town) and Sean Johnson (New York City FC) play regularly and if he is healthy Steffen will fight for the job.

Jesús Ferreira is the main striker based on his form as top scorer at FC Dallas and the performances of the national team over the past year. But for the first time in a long time, Berhalter also called up Josh Sargent and Ricardo Pepi.

They came at the expense of Jordan Pefok, who got off to a brilliant start at Bundesliga leaders Union Berlin. Berhalter reiterated last week that Pefok remains in the game and he needed the opportunity to take a close look at Sargent and Pepi.

“The good thing is that Gregg has had a large core of this group for an extended period of time,” McBride said. “There’s a good understanding of his principles and how he wants to play. It’s definitely different without a camp just before the World Cup. There are some challenges but this team has good momentum.”

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