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With Copa América near, Gregg Berhalter keeps focus on 2026 World Cup

With Copa América near, Gregg Berhalter keeps focus on 2026 World Cup

<p>Players have started to arrive in Washington for the beginning of U.S. men’s national soccer team training camp – from clubs in England and Germany, the Netherlands and France. Many more will report this weekend, plus a straggler from Belgium early next week.</p> <p>A group that has grown close over the past five years – through highs and lows at the 2022 World Cup and mostly highs at several regional competitions – will reconstitute for an extended camp before an important summer.</p> <p>The immediate focus will be on friendlies against Colombia on June 8 at Commanders Field in Landover, Md., and Brazil four days later in Orlando, followed by Copa América, the fabled South American tournament sprinkled around the United States over four weeks.</p> <p>But for Coach Gregg Berhalter, the planning extends beyond this year and even next, to 2026, when the sport’s crown jewel, the World Cup, is staged in the United States, Mexico and Canada.</p> <p>Copa América is “a building block toward 2026,” Berhalter said Tuesday in a meeting with Washington Post reporters and editors.</p> <p>“How do we put in good performances [so] we’re confident that, when we get to 2026, we’re prepared?” he said. “It’s learning how to navigate through these games, adding that experience on from the 2022 World Cup and now to the 2026 World Cup. Hopefully when you get there, you feel like, ‘Okay, this team is ready.’ ”</p> <p>Copa América is an opportunity to not only prepare for the World Cup by applying ideas into another major tournament but to build confidence and momentum by making a deep run. “I think you can do both,” he said.</p> <p>The Americans are expected to advance out of group play, which features games against Bolivia in Arlington, Tex.; Panama in Atlanta; and group favorite Uruguay in Kansas City, Mo. (The top two secure passage.) If they do so, a quarterfinal against Colombia or Brazil probably would await. World Cup champion Argentina looms in the greater distance.</p> <p>“We’re looking at the data in these [Copa] games compared to the World Cup, and from a physical standpoint, it exceeds what the World Cup is in physicality, duels, fouls,” Berhalter said. “It’s a tournament that’s really challenging. So that’s going to really help our guys deal with that type of intensity” before the 2026 World Cup.</p> <p>Aside from right back Sergiño Dest, who is out with an ACL injury, the roster is at full strength. Captain Tyler Adams and forward Josh Sargent, though, will need the camp to regain top fitness after nursing ailments.</p> <p>Gio Reyna is a key figure in Berhalter’s summer plans and beyond. Both have said they have resolved their differences after their 2022 World Cup rift, which also involved Reyna’s parents.</p> <p>“We both used this time productively, to start to rebuild, to repair the relationship where we gain trust with each other again,” Berhalter said. “It did take time, but the relationship is in a much better spot.”</p> <p>Aside from Copa América, Berhalter sees this summer’s Paris Olympics as a way to prepare for 2026. The U.S. men qualified for the first time since 2008, an absence that cost opportunities to expose young players to consequential international matches. (Olympic men’s soccer is for under-23 squads, with three overage players allowed per team.)</p> <p>“When I look at the last World Cup, a number of guys were really just surprised – surprised about each and every moment of the games and how big they were,” he said. “To give guys international experience is the most important thing. To go to the Olympics and feel what it’s like to play France in France [in the Americans’ opener July 24 in Marseille] is a big game.”</p> <p>By the end of the summer, Berhalter said, “this whole player pool will have international experience.”</p> <p>Berhalter is working with under-23 coach Marko Mitrovic to select overage players. Among the candidates are defenders Walker Zimmerman, Miles Robinson and Auston Trusty as well as forward Brandon Vázquez, Berhalter said.</p> <p>Two players might end up on both the Copa América and Olympic rosters, Berhalter said, mentioning candidates such as Robinson, Reyna, defender Joe Scally and midfielder Malik Tillman. Because the Olympics are not a senior tournament, however, clubs are not required to release players.</p> <p>Berhalter has been balancing club demands with the needs of Mitrovic’s squad and the demands on players heading into a new European club season.</p> <p>“It’s a lot of information to triangulate over a short period of time,” Berhalter said.</p> <p>In 2025, Berhalter is planning to continue World Cup preparations by calling in top players for the Concacaf Gold Cup. In recent summers, because of multiple competitions, the United States has sent a B team to the Gold Cup.</p> <p>Without needing to qualify for the 2026 World Cup – the three host countries receive automatic berths – Berhalter sees opportunity to play friendlies against strong European teams next year.</p> <p>“It’s actually better for this group” without regional qualifying, Berhalter said. “It prepares the team mentally, because it’s a very grueling process, but tactically doesn’t prepare the team at all. It’s a mental exercise. So now if you take the qualifying away, you get to play friendlies against teams like Germany. We’re already playing top South American teams now, so it’s basically supplementing all the qualifying with better-level friendlies.”</p> <p>Further down the road, the World Cup presents an opportunity to launch the sport onto higher ground in the United States.</p> <p>“Success, broadly speaking, is inspiring the nation, really putting a type of performance that the entire nation is behind us,” Berhalter said. “It just becomes this catalyst for soccer in the United States. Our vision for this program is to change soccer in America forever. And that’s massive. To do something like that, you’re going to have to perform well.”</p>


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