PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — When it comes to team building, U.S. men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter is not above thinking out of the box. Or in a recent case, out of the pan.
With some free time ahead of the Americans’ Gold Cup group-stage match against Trinidad and Tobago in Minneapolis, former U.S. international Tony Sanneh was sought out for some ideas on potential activities in the Twin Cities. Through his Sanneh Foundation, the former defender has long worked in areas of leadership and community engagement around the world.
In this instance, he partnered with the culinary school at St. Paul College and local chef David Fhima to set up their own version of the TV show, “Iron Chef”. The U.S. players were divided into four teams and, with the help of other local culinary experts, were charged with preparing a meal.
“Some guys had no clue about cooking,” said midfielder Cristian Roldan. “Other guys were chefs in their own ways. I was in the middle, but Omar Gonzalez, he was pretty detail-oriented when it comes to cooking.”
The team of Gonzalez, Jozy Altidore, Nick Lima, Daniel Lovitz and Tyler Boyd prevailed, though defender Tim Ream was not impressed, insisting the scales were tipped against his side.
“When it’s Wagyu steak against a piece of salmon, we all know who’s going to win that battle,” he said with a wry smile on his face.
But as with most team-building endeavors, there was a broader message to be driven home, with Gonzalez acknowledging the bigger takeaways of preparation and collaboration.
“This was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done with the national team; the fact that we all had to work together,” he said following Wednesday’s 1-0 win over Panama. “Gregg and his staff talk about preparation a lot and he finds ways to bring that into play. We talked to the chef and he explained what his daily life is like and how preparation is key to what he does.”
Berhalter’s detail-oriented approach means he leaves nothing to chance. When first pondering doing the cooking activity, for example, he spoke with Fhima for 30 minutes to make sure the respective messages were aligned. The same was true earlier this year when the team was in Houston and visited NASA.
“It’s building understanding with your teammates,” Berhalter told ESPN FC. “It’s not only fun activities. We’ve done strenuous activities as a group outside of the field where you have to really bond with each other, really fight for each other, you have to dig for each other. Then there’s others where you have to communicate with each other and work collaboratively. If we talk about our game being a collective game model where we need everyone working together, activities like this bring us closer together.
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“We think it’s very important for us to build the team culture and build togetherness,” the U.S. coach continued. “We know that because we don’t have a lot time together we have to take advantage of the time we do have. It’s programming things like that and giving the guys the ability to be together outside of the field. We know that as we build this cohesion we’re going to be stronger on the field.”
By the time of the Gold Cup final on July 7 — assuming the U.S. makes it that far — some members of the team will have been in camp for six weeks. As such, there seems to be a concerted effort by players to interact, beyond any generational or positional divide. Crossword puzzles are still a thing and video games have even begun to creep their way into some older elements of the squad.
“It’s just been natural. It’s not been anything that we’ve tried to do,” said Ream about the way the team has come together. “Everyone is easy, everyone is easygoing. It’s a good mix of personalities, and it’s just kind of happened organically. Guys are into their video games, the older guys are not, so we’re kind of interested in how all that works. Omar and myself have watched it a little bit. But it’s just sitting at tables and at meals and just hanging out.”
That cohesion appears to be manifesting itself on the field, where all three group games were won, with 11 goals scored and zero conceded. While it is easy to dismiss matches against Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and Panama as a series of glorified scrimmages, in terms of the eye test, the U.S. looks like it is coming to grips with the system Berhalter has been implementing since his first camp in January.
The next test is a tricky, if unlikely, quarterfinal encounter in Philadelphia on Sunday. Curacao’s national team was only formed in 2011, after the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles, and is ranked 79th by FIFA, but its roster is full of players with experience in the Dutch first and second tiers. Some, like Cardiff City’s Leandro Bacuna and Everton defender Cuco Martina have played at even higher levels.
“[Curacao] are a dangerous team,” said Berhalter in his pre-match press conference. “They make a lot of flexible movements offensively. They get into high positions with their fullbacks. The wingers are tucking inside overloading the field. They have good players.”
The U.S. can have no excuses and enter the match as heavy favorites. Berhalter’s side is in good form, as well as being healthy and rested after the entire starting XI was rested for against Panama, but its first official competition since failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, is not in a position where it can look past any team.
With three games standing between them and Gold Cup glory, it is time for the U.S. players to find a trophy-winning winning recipe.
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