SAN JOSE, Calif. — As the final whistle sounded, marking a 2-0 win against Costa Rica and heralding a new era in U.S. Soccer, Sebastian Lletget could hardly contain his emotions at what had transpired, both on the field at Avaya Stadium and throughout the men’s team’s annual January training camp.
The LA Galaxy midfielder had entered the game as a substitute, like he did the weekend before as part of a 3-0 victory over Panama, and scored the game-winning goal to defeat Costa Rica. On one rain-soaked afternoon in his native Bay Area, in front of family and friends and a nation watching on television, he had conquered his USMNT demons.
“Everything that happened since last time I was in this stadium, to overcome a great injury that put me out for a long time, getting back to where I am at now, it’s definitely overwhelming and very emotional,”Lletget said after the game. “But moving forward, I can’t wait to keep going.”
Nearly two years ago on the same field, Lletget scored the first of six goals against Honduras during one of the few bright spots in the U.S.’s failed campaign to qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. But he suffered a devastating foot injury and had to be assisted off the field. Now, after fighting his way back into the national team picture, he triumphantly walked off on his power as the Man of the Match against the Ticos.
His second international goal did not carry the same competitive cachet as his first, but for Lletget, it meant much more personally, especially given the near career-ending nature of his injury. Most importantly, it marked the end of a painful past and the beginning of a promising future for the aspiring USMNT player.
“People don’t realize what it’s like for an athlete when you get injured like that,” Lletget explained. “I had goosebumps, but I had to put it in the back of my mind. That’s what comes with being a professional, you can’t let those things get in the way. You just have to focus on your job and I am glad I could do it today.”
Lletget entered the U.S. camp as part of a roster full of domestic MLS players with something to prove to new head coach Gregg Berhalter. The 26-year-old was a bit slow to adapt to Berhalter’s newly installed tactical system initially, but as the camp wore on, he showed the coaching staff that he belonged as part of the setup.
“Sebastian is an interesting one because he has a load of ability, a very good skillset,” Berhalter said following the game. “He will be the first to say he struggled with the structure of what we are looking for. Part of a strong mentality is to hang in there, to keep going and keep learning, keep pushing himself to get himself into these positions.”
And while Lletget wouldn’t get a starting nod in either of the friendlies that concluded the camp, he was an important contributor off the bench in both victories. Following his performance against Costa Rica, Berhalter awarded Lletget the game ball, which he cradled carefully in his arm as he left Avaya Stadium and boarded the team bus. It was a much deserved accolade, one Berhalter did not hesitate to bestow, and it will make it difficult for the rookie coach not to include him future call-ups to the team.
“If you look at the Panama game, coming off the bench and making an impact, and then today doing the same thing, all the credit goes to Sebastian and how well he plays within the structure, and how his skillset can take over and make him very effective,” Berhalter said.
From anxiety the morning before, to his first steps back on the Avaya Stadium pitch since the injury, to the nerves as he entered as a substitute with the U.S. still in a scoreless deadlock with Costa Rica, to his tears at the final whistle, to his beaming smile as he departed the facility, Lletget was ready for whatever challenge the USMNT will throw at him next. And he hopes to be part of the roster moving forward.
“I have a brand new memory of this place, and now every time I come back, it will be brighter and much more positive,” Lletget said. “This is only the start for me. It’s going to be a great era.”
January camp conclusions
In addition to Lleget, there were other players during the annual January camp who saw their stock rise in Berhalter’s eyes. Notable performances in the two camp-concluding friendlies included those from Columbus Crew SC goalkeeper Zach Steffen, defenders Nick Lima of the San Jose Earthquakes and Aaron Long of the New York Red Bulls, as well as D.C. United midfielder Paul Arriola. Gyasi Zardes and Wil Trapp, two players Berhalter coached with the Crew, also played well in both games, and LAFC centerback Walker Zimmerman continued to show his nose for the ball, especially on set pieces.
In all, more than half the players in camp earned their way onto the field against Panama and Costa Rica, and a half dozen will certainly be under consideration for invitations to the next national team match on March 21 friendly against Ecuador.
“Every player in camp impressed me, with their work ethic, with their openness, with their ability to take in information and keep pushing to train hard and be a good teammate,” Berhalter said. “When I look back at this January camp, it was successful in the fact that we met our benchmarks. There were three items we were looking to address: team-building, style of play, and competing. And each and every one of them met that criteria.”
Since the Ecuador game falls during a FIFA-sanctioned break from club play, Berhalter will have all U.S. eligible players available for selection, including the many European-based players that his new system in some ways is designed around. However, fresh off the heels of four weeks with his domestic players, and considered the foundation they were able to build in January, Berhalter wasn’t willing to reveal who’s in or out just yet.
“It’s a work in progress,” Berhalter said. “When you integrate new players into camp, and we expect do that in March, it will be another process. What we learned in this camp is how to effectively teach parts of how we want to play in a short period of time. We’ll evaluate our training sessions and how well players were able to learn, and we’ll hit the ground running in March. Hopefully, it will be tighter, much more concise, and hopefully we will see some improvement in that group as well.”
Berhalter and his coaching staff are already hard at work to make sure the players in Europe can also learn from the January camp experience. Through video and other review tools, he plans to have them get a head start on preparations for the Ecuador friendly even before they step on the training field and kick a ball under Berhalter’s leadership for the first time.
In no way will it be an entirely new 23-man roster come March, and those players who shined in January camp have been singing the praises of Berhalter and his staff in terms of what they’ve done to ensure successful implementation of a new system. Long, who served as captain in both friendlies, guiding the defense to two shutout victories, leaves camp encouraged by the entire group’s accomplishments.
“It’s unbelievable,” Long said following the Costa Rica game. “To come in here with this group of guys and get to know each other and have two great results, at the end of the day, that’s what we were going for. The fans want to see the style of play we plan to implement, and it showed today.”
Arriola, who came off the bench against Panama, put in a full shift against Costa Rica. After a slow first half from him and the entire team, he excelled as past of the U.S.’s dominant second-half performance, scoring the clinching goal following Lletget’s expert assist. And while this wasn’t his first training camp, it did mark Arriola’s most successful, and Berhalter indicated the D.C. United midfielder could be in line for a much coveted call-up in March.
“He had an excellent game,” Berhalter said. “He was sharp tonight. What we ask of our wingers is to be dynamic, to be aggressive, to take players on one-v-one, to get behind the back line, and from a roles and responsibility standpoint, he certainly met all that. His work rate was excellent. Overall, he had a very positive performance.”
Lima, who was tasked to play a new role by Berhalter, seized his opportunity from the beginning of camp. Lima’s experience playing as a forward in college enhanced a skillset that allowed him to play both facing and with his back to goal. For the U.S. he played as a hybrid fullback and defensive midfielder, providing an internal link in the formation between the back line and the attacking players. He was the best player on the field against Panama and followed that up with another solid performance against Costa Rica.
Perhaps his own harshest critic, Lima would not rest on his laurels following the conclusion of camp, and he looked forward to joining up with his Quakes teammates, already in full preparation mode for the coming start of the MLS season. It is with his club, both in practice and in games, that he hopes to continue to show Berhalter he is deserving a more national team appearances.
“I think it’s going to back to being consistent,” Lima said. “The league is about to start, and we have a lot to prove, and I’m going to have to prove I can get it done on a daily basis once again. It’s going to be hard work, and when you play at a higher level it obviously takes more mental strength, but also quality, and to keep that up will be hard work.”
Berhalter bullish on player pool
The January camp was certainly a proving ground for the majority of invited players, but it was also a test for Berhalter and his coaching staff as to what they can realistically do to lift the USMNT from its doldrums. The wound from World Cup qualifying failure from two years ago is still fresh, from the fans to the players, and the new coach will have his hands full in trying to establish a winning attitude in the team.
“I don’t think the word is daunting, I think the word is exciting,” Berhalter said in the week leading up to the Costa Rica game. “When you look at some of the quality, both domestic and abroad, it’s exciting to imagine where this group can go in four years’ time. Our job as a coaching staff is to clearly lay out our plan and be able to train and communicate in a way that the players have a shared vision of what we want to accomplish on the field. When you have quality players, for coaching staffs, that’s always exciting.”
A standout in the win against Panama, Corey Baird had less of an impact versus Costa Rica, but overall he had a solid camp. The former NCAA champion at Stanford University and current MLS Rookie of the Year with Real Salt Lake took to the challenge of his first national team camp, and he leaves encouraged the program is in good hands with Berhalter in charge.
“It’s been tough at times, but when it’s worked out, it’s gone really good for us,” Baird said midweek. “He’s definitely asking a lot, in that there’s new things, new components to the way he wants us playing, but we can see over the last three weeks the improvements in the games we’ve played, and just being on the same page as the other guys. Everyone is starting to understand the system more and more as we go.”
Another two-game starter for Berhalter was Seattle Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan, who earned his place for the two friendlies, but will asked to contribute much more to stay in the upper echelon of Berhalter’s preferred call-ups. He looked confident throughout the week of training leading up to the Costa Rica game, though he realizes no one should expect a free pass onto the U.S. roster in March.
“One thing we try to establish is our system, and guys have bought into it,” Roldan said from the Avaya Stadium training ground last week. “It’s a fresh start for almost everybody, and everybody is expected to showcase what they have, and if we’re able to buy into the system and play our parts, the team is only going to get better. But we understand it’s a process, and everybody will not get it from the get-go, but we’re being judged by that.”
The player with the most to prove in camp may have been Trapp, who was also competing for playing time consideration with veteran Michael Bradley of Toronto FC. The Crew captain has had previous opportunities with the national team, and with Berhalter now in charge, it seemed the set-up was perfect for the youngster to take on a bigger role for the U.S.
“It’s been great, honestly,” said Trapp last week. “I’ve been fortunate now to know his personality and just what he expects of his players. He really is a players’ coach. He likes to connect with his players, he likes to talk, he likes to have conversations and for me that’s great. It’s fun for me now to see how the rest of the group is taking to that as well.”
Trapp is not taking his connection with Berhalter for granted. Rather, he knows he has to prove himself even more for a coach that knows every aspect of his game. Still, Trapp is confident the USMNT is in great hands, and the team will always be fully prepared for it’s games, no matter the competition.
“The last three and a half weeks together has been excellent,” Trapp continued. “Guys learning, guys implementing, obviously now getting to play games. We want to learn, and we want to improve.”
The Ecuador game on March 21, and the roster Berhalter calls in for the contest, will mark the next checkpoint on his master plan. It is clear that Berhalter knows what he wants from his players, and it is evident those that can handle its rigors will remain in the mix. It will now be up to the European-based players to see how they manage the expectations, and together with those that impressed in January, continue the evolution of the program.