ORLANDO, Fla. — United States men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter has seen progress in the quality of play in Major League Soccer, which means the players coming to him from the league are better prepared.
“What I’d say is that MLS has grown significantly over the last five years,” Berhalter told Pro Soccer USA before Orlando City’s 3-1 loss to the Montreal Impact. He was at Orlando City Stadium for the match.
Berhalter coached the Columbus Crew for five seasons before he was named USMNT coach in December. The U.S. has friendlies coming up against Ecuador in Orlando and Chile in Houston. Berhalter was able to call in Americans currently playing for clubs abroad for his March camp.
Still, Berhalter said he was pleased with what MLS has done to develop American players. Of the 24 players called into camp, which starts this week, 15 are playing in MLS.
“When you think about the quality of players in the league now, what I would say is the games are at a good level and the players coming to us, specifically in January camp, are prepared and I see that,” Berhalter said. “I think that MLS is improving. I think that it’s made great strides and it’s exciting to see where it’s going to go in the future.”
Berhalter called this camp “step two” of his evaluation process of his talent pool. The U.S. plays Ecuador at Orlando City Stadium on Thursday.
“We’ve said all along, our focus is to play an attacking style of soccer,” Berhalter said. “We want to use the ball to disorganize the opponent and create goal-scoring opportunities. It’s going to take bravery. It’s going to take guys in the right positions. It’s going to take guys wanting to take the initiative in the game.
“We know it’s going to be a difficult game, but I would still expect to see some of those elements in game.”
While speaking to Pro Soccer USA, Berhalter mentioned three Orlando City players currently on the radar of the USMNT.
“The way I’m framing this, and I think this will apply to every player, is that this selection of players in this camp is a moment in time,” Berhalter said. “It’s reflecting what we’re looking to do in this camp. It doesn’t reflect anyone’s long-term standing or anyone’s short-term standing with the team.
“So, for players like Dom Dwyer, like Chris Mueller, like Danilo Acosta, these are guys that are all on our radar. We’ve evaluated them all. We’re watching all the games, so at any given moment, they have the opportunity to be part of the team.”
Berhalter said he doesn’t think the expansion of the league, which is expected to announce its 28th team by the end of the year, will dilute the quality of the product.
“What I’d say is that I think you’re using a traditional model of U.S. sports, and in soccer it doesn’t apply, because in soccer, we’re pulling from the whole world,” Berhalter said.
“We could have 100 teams and still fill [the league] with enough quality. Now, the next part would be, are Americans getting enough opportunities, especially young Americans? And that becomes more difficult as the quality of the league rises. What I’d say on that is the young Americans that are playing have quality and that’s good. Maybe there’s not as much as we like, but the ones that are playing are good.”
Berhalter said academies are doing their part in developing players, but as MLS continues to add talented foreign players, the opportunities for young American players in the league dwindle.
“The academies are developing players in a very good way right now and it just takes time,” he said. “I think we have to have some amount of patience. When you’re bringing top-quality foreign players into the league, some players are going to get squeezed out.
“What’s happening is some of the young domestic players aren’t playing as regularly, but the ones that are playing are good players. Eventually, we’re going to keep producing them. The academies are doing a great job. Eventually we’re going to keep producing players for the league to utilize.”