Imagine the excitement, or perhaps even the euphoria, that washed over Christian Pulisic as he raced across the Stamford Bridge field as he concluded this week’s UEFA Champions League round of 16 decider against Atlético de Madrid. The American attacker had been confined to the Chelsea bench for weeks through no apparent fault of his own – an ambitious, talented, high-profile athlete relegated to the bench by a coach he had previously played for and trusted.
It had to be harrowing. Pulisic had started just two of 13 games since his former Borussia Dortmund manager Thomas Tuchel took over at Chelsea in late January. And his late-game entrances as a substitute hadn’t been very important until Wednesday, when he came in in the 77th minute and, in injury time, picked up a fumble outside the Chelsea penalty area.
Pulisic had room to run, and for a few seconds he finally returned to his element, with the ball at his feet and the opponent at his mercy. He kept his balance and composure as he dribbled towards Atlético’s goal and then threw a perfect pass to a wide-spread Emerson down the left. It was Pulisic’s first assist in the Champions League this season.
Tuchel hugged Pulisic after the whistle. The smile on Pulisic’s face revealed a lot of relief, and probably a bit of “I told you so.” It has been a difficult section. And that makes for a perfect time for a change of pace.
The coach of the United States men’s team, Gregg Berhalter, would certainly prefer that his young European players, who are key members of his team, had the same level of responsibility as usual in their historic clubs. But that is not realistic.
At the highest level, European football is relentless and fierce. The big clubs employ several world-class players who compete by the minute and, especially during this season, the schedule and the demands have been onerous. It can be exhausting both physically and emotionally, and it won’t always turn out well. Progress is not linear. Some, like Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna and Fulham’s Antonee Robinson, have seen playing time decrease. Others, like Tyler Adams of RB Leipzig, Weston McKennie of Juventus and Sergiño Dest of Barcelona, have just suffered elimination from the Champions League.
“There is a little momentum to the downside,” Berhalter said. Illustrated Sports In the past week. “That’s the ebb and flow of a career and seasons and everything, and what I’d say is that I’ve never seen so much soccer play in such a short time. I mean, no one has. It’s crazy what these guys are going through.
“So it’s completely normal,” he said of those facing recent adversity. “Especially when you talk about younger players and having that burden and having to go through that, I think it’s completely normal.”
Because it’s normal, it’s something Berhalter takes into account when he and his staff plan camps and training sessions, and when they come up with ways to enliven a team culture. The United States will meet this weekend and early next in Austria, where they will face Jamaica in a friendly on March 25 before traveling to Belfast for a match against Northern Ireland three days later. Berhalter wants the national team camp to be a place where players want to be. You want them to be excited about participating and eager to tap into their potential. For that to happen, camp needs to be a place where they can leave the stresses of the club behind and immerse themselves in a different kind of environment. For several players, including Pulisic, that’s what next week will be all about.
“Having these guys at camp should be a pleasure for them – to be together and just enjoy it and play our games,” Berhalter said. “And we are eager to create that environment for sure.”
Berhalter has practical experience in the field. He also left home as a young player and moved to the Netherlands after his third year in North Carolina. His first club, PEC Zwolle, was not exactly a Champions League contender. But this was also an era in which American players had a much lower reputation than they do now, and there was much less institutional support. He spent 15 seasons in the Dutch, English and German leagues, and said he valued the opportunities he had to try home when he joined the United States.
“I remember when I played for the national team and I went back and joined the team and saw all your friends again, and then I went out on the field and started competing with them, that was the best part.” he said during a conference call this week.
Therefore, he is aware of how that same opportunity could be a useful boost for players who could use one. While the routine has removed McKennie from national team consideration this time, Dest and Adams will arrive in Austria dealing with the blow of the Champions League defeat. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen will have the opportunity to feel like number one, rather than the understudy he is at Manchester City. Defenders Reggie Cannon (Boavista), Tim Ream and Robinson (Fulham) will take a break from stressful relegation battles in Portugal and England respectively. Bryan Reynolds (AS Roma), Brenden Aaronson (Red Bull Salzburg) and Daryl Dike (Barnsley) have just moved from MLS to Europe in January and will likely welcome a few days surrounded by familiar faces.
Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah, who has just handed over his international future to the United States, will receive a warm welcome during a stretch in which his minutes in Spain have been contradictory. He has spent only an hour on the field in the last four La Liga games in Valencia. Midfielder Owen Otasowie rarely sees the field for Wolverhampton Wanderers and Nicholas Gioacchini has been in and out of the starting lineup in Caen. And then there are Reyna and Pulisic, who for a variety of reasons simply haven’t been able to keep something the way they enjoyed last year.
Berhalter referred to Pulisic’s return to the US fold this week (he hasn’t been an international since October 2019), but he could have been talking about any number of his players. There will be a group looking for a breath of fresh air.
“I think we can conceptualize what the players are going through, but really understanding it and empathizing with what the players have been going through during this time of COVID in Europe is a different story,” said the coach. “I can’t tell you enough about the players who have to go from training ground to their apartment, and then they are locked in complete isolation. They are playing on Saturdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays, Wednesdays, for months without fans. I mean, it’s a lot for these guys and I think you can see that it’s taking its toll on everyone.
“And for Christian in particular, I think this will be a great opportunity for them to get together with their friends and get to know the group,” Berhalter continued. “I’m sure he’s excited about it. It will be great to have it at camp, great to have it on the field, really wanting to use it in a couple of different ways and see how it can be more effective, but really great to have it at camp. “
Berhalter referred to “ebb and flow,” and not everything is ebb. Others who may have had more difficult times in 2020 are now enjoying a bit of fluency. Chief among them is Josh Sargent, who scored a Bundesliga goal in Werder Bremen’s first four months of the season and now has four since January 23, including three in his last four league games. Central defender John Brooks has been a daily force for Wolfsburg, who have risen to third place in the Bundesliga. Chris Richards, on loan from Bayern Munich, is gaining valuable top-tier experience at Hoffenheim, and Tim Weah appears to have gotten over his injury woes and has been winning a few starts for Lille, which is the surprising leader of Ligue 1. .
For them, the national team camp can be a springboard and a testing ground. It’s an opportunity to build on that momentum and climb the Berhalter depth chart, or solidify your place. Berhalter said he wants his team to “play with intensity and a lot of pressure” and is likely to give opportunities to players in a way that they can deliver.
Sargent, for example, will be challenged to replicate his current club form with the United States. He will almost certainly start against Jamaica, and he has the opportunity to make a powerful statement about his intention to be the favorite forward when qualifying for the World Cup begins in September.
“We want goals from him. It’s very simple,” Berhalter said. “We really want him to have the mentality to put the ball in the back of the net. I challenged him in the Cayman Islands against Cuba. [in November 2019] score goals and have that mindset, and he scored a couple of goals. I think it was the last time he was with the team and hopefully against a difficult rival from Jamaica he will have the same mentality.
Expectations and demands will be tailored to the individual player, his physical condition and his form.
“Our sports science and medical staff do a great job of sharing data with clubs so that we know everything the players have been up to over the past four weeks. We know their loads, so that will allow us to safely dose their loads and prepare them for performance, ”said Berhalter.
What is vital is that the national team camp is a place that works for everyone who has been called up, whether they are playing 90 minutes three times a week or training every day only to find themselves on the bench at the initial beep. It has to be a place that motivates and pushes American players to reach a higher level, but also serves as a refuge or a home away from home during a tough and exhausting season. That has rarely been more apparent than this month.
“There are a number of considerations and this is an integral part of what international football is, isn’t it? Balancing all these factors,” Berhalter said.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.