SAN JOSE, Calif. — After nearly four weeks of training, the U.S. men’s soccer team concludes it’s annual winter camp with a friendly against Costa Rica, as the Concacaf rivals meet in the Bay Area at Avaya Stadium.
New head coach Gregg Berhalter, who’s assembled a squad made up of MLS players, has used the camp to institute a new tactical set-up for the national team. The former manager of the Columbus Crew, appointed to the position last December, was successful in his debut, leading the team to a 3-0 victory last weekend in Glendale, Arizona. He’ll be looking to making it a perfect two for two against the Ticos at 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday.
“It’s clearly going to be an improved opponent, and it will be a good test for this group,” Berhalter said in his pregame press conference. “I’m really happy with the progression of the group so far, and this is just a test for us, increased competition and a good test for this group at this time.”
The Panama game featured seven players earning their first caps with the U.S., including Bay Area native Nick Lima, who was named Man of the Match. The San Jose Earthquakes defender is expected to start again on Saturday, this time in front of plenty of family and friends at his home stadium.
“It’s another game day,” Lima said this week. “I try to treat them all the same. At the end of the day, I’ve been here a hundred times, watching and playing, so we’ll go out there and execute the game plan like we did the other day and hopefully take it to another level.”
Lima played more than just his usual right back position against Panama, as the former college forward was thrust into a hybrid role, shifting into a second defensive midfielder position alongside long-time national teamer Michael Bradley. The tactic was a big part of Berhalter’s strategy from the beginning of camp, and while it worked against Panama, Bradley warned that it’s still early days in it’s implementation.
“It’s January. So it’s impossible to know what you’re getting from any opponent, Bradley said. “Everybody comes in in different modes, so we’ll prepare for a very difficult game, just like we did last week. It’s a team that over the last few years has had a lot of success.”
Bradley, who has more caps than the rest of the roster combined, has had a big influence on the rest of the squad throughout the January training camp, but he has yielded many leadership responsibilities to the up and coming players that are looking for their own lengthy careers with the national team
Aaron Long, who last season was named the MLS Defender of the Year, is one of those rising stars. His command of the field as a centerback lead Berhalter to name him captain for the game against Panama. He appreciates the support Bradley has provided, but also credits the lengthy work put into game preparations made by Berhalter and his staff.
“I think tactically, he’s a very good coach,” Long said. “The way he and his staff prepares is unbelievable. The amount of work they put in and the amount they study on the opponents we will play so that we have a very good game plan and can change our style depending on what they are going to do.”
Those preparations have been more daunting for Berhalter, as Costa Rica is also welcoming in a new head coach, former Urugyuan international Gustavo Matosas. While not a newcomer to the Concacaf region, as he has spent many season managing in Mexico, Matosas has not lead Costa Rica yet in a game, leaving the U.S. little to scout heading into Saturday’s friendly.
“Let’s not forget it’s a rival, so we’re going to learn,” Berhalter said. “We’re going to learn about them. It’s a good position for us to learn about their coach. We have very little body of work on this new coach.”
That doesn’t concerns the players too much, as the training camp has been more about learning Berhalter’s new system, the nuances of which should allow them to adapt to gameday situations. More importantly for the young group of players has been the opportunity to show the coach and his staff what contributions they can provide to the national team moving forward. Those that have embraced the challenge, like Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, are the same players that can expect more call-ups in the future.
“The energy has been fantastic,” Roldan said. “From day one, everyone has bought into the system we have been implementing in practice and the games. Culturally, every player has had a blast, and we are looking to get a result against Costa Rica, we know it’s going to be difficult, and that is why we have been practicing so hard.”
The month-long camp ends following the Costa Rica game, and the players will all return to their respective MLS clubs, all already deep into their preseasons. The next U.S. international friendly is scheduled for March 21, as Berhalter will have his entire pool of players available to face Ecuador in Orlando, Florida.
U.S. Men’s National Team vs. Costa Rica Match Information:
When: Feb. 2, 12:30 p.m. PT
Where: Avaya Stadium, San Jose, CA.
Broadcast: FOX, UniMas and UDN.