New USA coach Gregg Berhalter wants his country to qualify for, and then star at, the FIFA World Cup in Qatar. After a recent trip to Germany, the former Energie Cottbus and 1860 Munich captain thinks that Borussia Dortmund’s Christian Pulisic and his Bundesliga brethren will be central to that aim.
Berhalter was in Germany over the weekend to watch matches and to meet with players and club officials. Speaking exclusively to bundesliga.com, he ran the rule over his Bundesliga-based American stars and starlets, and how he plans to use them to get his nation towards the top of world football…
bundesliga.com: Christian Pulisic has become a key player for the USA in recent years. How to you rate his progress at Borussia Dortmund?
Gregg Berhalter: “I think it's been amazing, from where he came from a couple of years ago to where he is now. He's a legitimate international star. He's a real quality player, a player that can be the catalyst for our attack, can easily unbalance defenders, has a very good understanding of the game and it's been really nice watching him progress over the years.”
bundesliga.com: He tends to play wide right for Dortmund, but had a direct hand in 11 goals for the USA in World Cup qualifying, mostly from a central position…
Berhalter: “I'm not too concerned about where he's lining up. We want him affecting the game, we want him playing between the lines, taking on players one on one, and it will be up to the team to get him in, and find him in, those positions.”
bundesliga.com: Weston McKennie has also been making progress up the road at Schalke, and has played almost every outfield position. How is he best utilised?
Berhalter: “First of all, Weston McKennie is not a forward. I wouldn't even consider him playing a forward position; I would say central midfield. I think he's very good, [he has] a very good ability to win balls. That's [at] a high level, I think he's seen that at Champions League level, winning the ball and playing to his teammates.”
bundesliga.com: So McKennie is a player with a different profile from some of the others who have played in attack in the Bundesliga this season, like Haji Wright at Schalke and Josh Sargent at Werder Bremen?
Berhalter: “I think he's got a good tendency to arrive in the penalty box late, so when the ball's already deep in the opponent's defensive third, now he's coming in late at a surprise moment to get on the end of a cross. I think he does that really well. But for me I think he's a player who's very good at breaking up plays and I think we want to take advantage of those strengths."
bundesliga.com: And what about Wright and Sargent? They have recently made Bundesliga debuts, and the latter scored on his debut for the US…
Berhalter: "Haji came on in the second half and actually made a big difference [in Schalke’s 1-1 draw at Augsburg on Saturday]. He became a focal point that they can play into and hold the ball up and he was very active. You can see he's getting used to his teammates as he's still developing, as he plays more games, but overall he made a good impression."
“Haji is a guy who is young and starting to break into the team, Josh Sargent is in that same category. And now we're talking about two guys that need to keep playing for their progression. They're both players with a lot of talent but need to keep performing and they know that and I think they're in systems right now, they're in teams right now where hopefully they're going to keep playing.”
bundesliga.com: Bobby Wood’s position in the team isn’t under too much pressure yet, then?
Berhalter: "With Bobby, he's a veteran. He's been around a while and scored a lot of goals in his career. He's a guy that also needs to keep pushing to stay on the field and score. I think that's very difficult to continue to score in the Bundesliga, but for Bobby, that's his objective."
bundesliga.com: What about elsewhere in the team? John Brooks – a centre-back – kept a clean sheet for Wolfsburg against Nuremberg on Friday…
Berhalter: “In John's case, he had a good game, you know, a very important road win. He was active, he was winning balls and he was dominant as a centre-back. He had some good moments of very quick passing, breaking lines, very firm balls on the ground, very accurate passes.”
bundesliga.com: How important is it for you that these players are playing in Germany, as opposed to the MLS for example?
Berhalter: “The Bundesliga is a top league in the world so that’s taken into consideration when you consider a player’s performance. For us to be a top team in the world we need players performing in top leagues in the world, so that's one of the issues we're faced with. This is a high-level programme and if you can perform here that means you're a high-level player.”
bundesliga.com: What are your targets as the USMNT head coach, both in the shorter and longer term?
Berhalter: “Starting with the long term, it’s absolutely qualifying for the World Cup, and performing well at the World Cup. When I dial that back, to get there, we need to instil a style of play that players know and can execute; we need to create a team that the guys are together and playing together, and then we need to compete. In the short-term we're working on installing at a certain style of play and forming a team and setting that mind-set of being competitive.”
bundesliga.com: You led Columbus Crew to the MLS Cup final in 2015. How similar will your US team be to your Columbus one?
Berhalter: “The idea is that we want to be a possession-based team. We want to be a team that can disorganise the opponent with the ball and create goalscoring opportunities. So I don't think that philosophy is going to differ much. I believe we have players that can do that, we have players that want to do that, are excited to play that way so I can see that being similar. What I would say, like always, like in Columbus, we're going to take advantage of the strengths of our players. That's very important, that we utilise the players to the best of their abilities. The formation may look different at times; the personnel may be different at times but the philosophy remains the same.”