How a divided USMNT stayed united during a pandemic
Gregg Berhalter hasn't had his full-strength team in over a year, but his young core has stayed in communication despite the coronavirus pandemic.
In modern times, there is perhaps no place as sacred, and as deadly, as the group chat. For many, it is one of the only remaining connections to the outside world, a place where friends can remain in contact and, if you aren't careful, the jokes can turn on you at a moment's notice.
With the coronavirus still impacting everyday life all over the world, the group chat has taken on added importance. And, for a young U.S. men's national team still developing chemistry as World Cup qualifiers loom, it became a uniting force that gave players in different countries and on different continents the opportunity to do a little team building.
As things stand, the USMNT is, in some ways, a national team divided.
On one hand are the team's European-based stars, who built upon their rising Champions League pedigrees with two strong performances against Wales and Austria in November. And on the other hand sits a squad full of MLS regulars, who now have their chance to shine on Wednesday in a clash with El Salvador that represents their first national team chance since February.
Thanks to the pandemic, head coach Gregg Berhalter has not had his full-strength squad in over a year, robbing the U.S. of several chances to build much-needed chemistry. However, a WhatsApp chat started during the spring was able to keep the team together just enough for the players to feel like they remained part of the team.
"It's been a great year in terms of the communication between the national staff and players," defender Walker Zimmerman said. "We had a huge WhatsApp thread with a lot of players involved and it kept us in touch as a group, both from abroad and within the league in the U.S. and Canada.
"They did a great job facilitating conversations and riddles and trivia and ways to get everyone just to continue relating to one another.
"And so, I certainly took on a role in that. I ended up falling short, with a second-place finish to Matt Turner in our trivia tests, which lasted for a couple of months! But it was just good to be a part of that and to stay connected."
However, team bonding hasn't just been limited to text and trivia. Videogames are also a great unifier.
Christian Pulisic, an avid Fortnite player who played alongside some of the world's top streamers throughout the summer, says that he's played with several of his USMNT teammates during the pandemic.
Zimmerman, Christian Roldan and Weston McKennie are among the best, he says, although the Chelsea star says he also belongs in the mix. Richie Ledezma, who earned his first USMNT cap last month, admitted last year that Pulisic's advice over a game of Fortnite was vital to his own growth as a gamer.
For Pulisic, the last few years have been about building relationships with new international teammates, and that hasn't changed despite the fact that he hasn't been able to play for the USMNT in over a year.
"We definitely keep in touch," he told CBS Sports in October. "Obviously, I know some better than others. I've played with Weston and Tyler [Adams] a lot, Josh [Sargent]. I stay in touch with those guys, try to game together. Do stuff like that. So that's always fun.
"It's cool because a lot of us have those relationships with each other, then when we get into camp and it's almost normal. The more guys we can get into camps, especially these American guys playing with big European clubs, it'll be really good. The chemistry will be there. We'll just gel."
For players like Pulisic and Zimmerman, the communication during the pandemic was certainly comforting but, for someone like Paul Arriola, it took on a whole different meaning.
With 33 caps to his name, Arriola is the most experienced player in the young squad assembled in Florida right now. But the D.C. United winger is in camp fresh off the most difficult season of his career, as Arriola suffered a torn ACL in February, missing nearly the entire MLS season.
"With this injury we were thinking he was going to miss the first six games of World Cup qualifying," Berhalter said. "And now with everything that's happened in the world, it's fortunate that he didn't."
During those early months of the pandemic, as his teammates looked to gear up for a return to play, Arriola was stuck rehabbing. But, during that time, he was made to feel involved with both club and country.
"It was uplifting to see the support that I received," he said. "Post-injury, which was obviously a very difficult time for me, the guys, we had a couple of group messages and I had multiple conversations with players and staff. Just coming to camp, right away you get back into the mentality.
He added: "For pretty much the whole year, I was injured and coming back so, physically, I was only able to do so much. But now that I'm in camp, the mentality again switches back to being a part of this team, trying to continue to grow what we're trying to do here and get better."
While the North American-based players are making up for lost time, their European-based counterparts are now the ones looking on from the sidelines as they continue on with their clubs.
Prior to their own game last month, the USMNT squad started their own group chat in an effort to get to know one another. For many, it had been a long time since they'd seen each other and, for someone like Yunus Musah, it was the first time in a USMNT camp.
Musah, a dual-national that is very much a target of England, shined during his first USMNT camp, with Berhalter saying that the young Valencia star instantly felt like part of the team . And Tyler Adams, one of the leaders of this young USMNT core, says that Musah remains active and involved in the team chat.
“We’ve stayed in touch,” Adams recently said of Musah . “We’re all young guys and that made it so fun. My first national team camp, I didn’t necessarily have guys to relate to.
"I have stayed in contact [with Yunus]. It was his birthday a few days ago and I reached out to him then. He seems to be doing well back at Valencia, no surprise he hit the ground running. He’s a great kid and a great player.”
Looking ahead, it appears highly unlikely Berhalter will have a full-strength USMNT squad until next summer. At that point, the U.S. will be gearing up for the World Cup qualifiers, the Gold Cup, the Nations League and, hopefully, the Olympics. There's a lot of ground to makeup, a lot of trust to build for a team that just hasn't been on the field together nearly enough.
But, despite that, when the team does eventually come together again, they won't be total strangers as the USMNT has found their own way to stay united during what has been a chaotic 2020.
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