MURCIA, Spain — US men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter said Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and FC Groningen forward Ricardo Pepi will both start in Tuesday’s friendly against Saudi Arabia.
Neither player featured in last Friday’s 2-0 defeat to Japan. Pulisic sat out the match due to a knock picked up in training, while Pepi was an unused substitute. Now, both will get a look against the Saudis.
Pepi was something of a surprise inclusion to the roster for this international window given that FC Union Berlin striker Jordan Pefok has been in excellent form with four goals in eight league and cup appearances. But Berhalter has been keen to get Pepi back on track after the forward completed his loan move to Groningen from FC Augsburg.
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« This is a great opportunity to look at Ricardo, » Berhalter told reporters. « Jordan, you know what he’s doing. But Rico, he’s just gotten to Groningen. This is a great opportunity for us to look at him. A guy who scored three goals for us in qualifying, it’s important for us to get him in the group. »
Berhalter was asked for further analysis of the Japan defeat, and he didn’t hold back in his criticism of the team or himself.
« I’m really glad the game happened when it did, » he said. « I think it was poor coaching, poor execution, poor training beforehand, a lot of everything. It’s just one of those games and we were very bad. »
When asked to provide more details on how he erred as a coach, Berhalter said the team’s preparation was off because he and the staff thought the players would be able to take on more tactical details, even though it had been three-and-a- half 3½ months since they were last together.
He added he could sympathize with the stress for some players that comes with trying to clinch a spot on the final World Cup roster. But that still didn’t excuse the performance.
« As coaches we took for granted that they understood what we wanted, » he said. « So, when we trained during the week, we were training details. ‘You know this, now we’re going to go into detail.’ And we took for granted that the players were competent in this. But they didn’t understand. They didn’t know it. That’s what it was. »
He added, « We thought it was going to be easier to switch gears than it turned out to be. »
As a result, the US failed to cope with what Berhalter said « wasn’t a complicated press » by Japan and that « we didn’t solve it at all. » He added that it was on both him and the team to identify solutions quicker during the game and make adjustments from there.
Berhalter said he expects his side to get back up to speed against Saudi Arabia. But the Japan match is also a lesson he will factor in when the players arrive in Qatar and begin their final preparations ahead of the 2022 World Cup.
« I think it’s the mindset of preparing the guys ahead of time a little bit, » he said. « And then when they’re in camp, right from the beginning, focusing on the big picture rather than details again, which is usually a national team thing anyway. »
Berhalter finds himself down several key players in this camp, with Lille forward Tim Weah, Fulham left-back Antonee Robinson, Crystal Palace center-back Chris Richards and Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah all absent due to injury. But Berhalter insisted he wouldn’t be changing his system if a similar scenario plays out in Qatar.
« It doesn’t matter, because [when we arrive on] Nov. 14, guess what? A different five could be missing. So, we need to deal. That’s a great message to the team. ‘Guys, forget about guys that aren’t here. We’ve got to focus on who is here and still try to be successful.’ Because that’s the reality of national team soccer. And we’re going to be anxiously waiting on Nov. 13 to see who actually shows up after the weekend. »
In the meantime, Berhalter is hoping that the contingent of injured players gets back to full health.
« Fitness is going to be a factor, » he said in relation to his final roster selections. « I mean, I would love if you told me Chris Richards is going to be a part of the team right now, he’s going to be fit by November. I would say, ‘You know, he’ll make the team.’ I just don’t know that though. It’s really hard, and it’s frustrating. »