Gregg Berhalter wasn’t suggesting that Weston McKennie is better than Cristiano Ronaldo.
But the United States men’s national team coach came away from McKennie’s hugely impressive first match with Italian titan Juventus last weekend convinced that the tireless box-to-box midfielder gives Juve an element that Ronaldo’s team was lacking before the Texan arrived from German club Schalke last month.
“Just the dynamic that he’s able to play with, even at that level, it looks like almost a different level to everyone else there in terms of his speed and his strength that he’s playing with,” Berhalter, in an interview Thursday with Sirius XM radio, said of McKennie’s debut, a 3-1 win over Sampdoria in which he showed off his defensive range and almost scored twice.
McKennie, 22, is among a cohort of young Americans beginning to establish themselves as difference-makers with some of the world’s most important clubs. Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic is on the Premier League’s preseason Player of the Year shortlist. Seventeen-year-old Giovanni Reyna has claimed a starting spot with Borussia Dortmund. RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams became the first U.S. player to score in the Champions League quarterfinals last month, and Barcelona and Bayern Munich are in a bidding war for Ajax’s 19-year-old fullback Sergiño Dest. Shortly before Berhalter’s interview aired, Zack Steffen won his debut with Manchester City.
After an aging USMNT spectacularly failed to qualify for the last World Cup, this new generation of top prospects couldn’t have come along at a better time for Berhalter, who was hired in late 2018.
“That’s how you start winning consistently — you need quality,” Berhalter said.
Berhalter played in the Bundesliga and was part of two U.S. World Cup squads, including the 2002 team that advanced to the quarterfinals. But he noted the difference between the USMNT sides he was a member of and this current group.
“When we used to play, you line up against [superstars like Francesco] Totti or Ronaldo or Christian Vieri, you want their uniforms after the game,” Berhalter said. “Now we have guys playing with these guys. They go back to the same club as these guys. It’s a different level. Now our job is to bring these guys together and get the most out of them.”
Asked by co-host (and former USMNT teammate) Tony Meola about Reyna, the son of U.S. great Claudio Reyna and women’s national teamer Danielle Egan who scored his first Bundesliga goal last weekend, Berhalter compared his quick rise to Pulisic’s. Pulisic also broke into Dortmund’s 11 as a teenager before moving to London last year for $73 million, a record transfer fee for a U.S. player.
“You look at Christian, it’s become very clear within the last year how he can make the biggest impact. And I think Gio is in the same boat,” Berhalter said. “What I like about him is his ability to score goals, I like his physicality, he’s very fluid on the ball, good turning in the pockets. So there’s a lot of positive things to his performances. Now it’s about a couple things: can he continue that on and can he see this as an opportunity to just keep getting better instead of just maintaining status quo. Can he keep improving?”
Berhalter has also been in frequent contact with Dest in recent days as Barca and Bayern duke it out for his signature.
“He’s got two great opportunities in front of him,” Berhalter said. “I don’t think you can go wrong with either option and hopefully something gets done soon. But he’s in a great frame of mind. He’s been in a great frame of mind for the last couple months. He hasn’t let it affect his performance, he hasn’t let it affect his mindset, and he just keeps working hard. And he showing a lot of maturity for young player.”
Finally, Berhalter was asked by co-host Brian Dunseth about youth national teamer Sebastian Soto, a dual-citizen who is reportedly being courted by Chile.
“There’s no way I’d be happy about him going to pay for Chile because we feel like he can be an important player for us in the future,” Berhalter said of Soto. “It’s about trying to create an environment the players want to be in.
“Sergiño was another guy who had options,” Berhalter said of Dest, who committed his international future to the U.S. over the Netherlands last year. “He could’ve easily played for Holland and he decided to play for us. So we try to do the work on our end that we can keep these players.”