Amid managerial melee, USA launches new World Cup cycle with loss to Serbia

Amid managerial melee, USA launches new World Cup cycle with loss to Serbia

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Alexi Lalas, a television commentator who has represented the United States at two World Cups, succinctly described the setting surrounding the national team’s first camp since the World Cup in Qatar.

“January campouts are always a little weird,” Lalas told Sirius XM Satellite Radio, “but this is even more so because of the circumstances.”

In the midst of these circumstances, a young squad without the vast majority of its World Cup representatives lost its first game since returning from Qatar. An inexperienced Serbian team rallied for a 2-1 friendly victory on Wednesday night in front of 11,475 at BMO Stadium, the former Banc of California Stadium.

The circumstances involve the coach of the World Cup team, a talented young player, their respective families, physical abuse, possible blackmail, and an ongoing investigation. Taken together, all of those factors could play a critical role in determining the team’s future.

Related: Crazed soccer parents: behind the surprising family feud Reyna-Berhalter

As a reminder: Gregg Berhalter, who guided the Americans in Qatar, told Gio Reyna, the 20-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder, that he would play a minimal role during the tournament. Reyna’s parents, Claudio and Danielle, represented the United States internationally, with Claudio playing in three World Cups and for top division clubs in England, Scotland and Germany.

Both families had been close. Husbands were high school and World Cup teammates, and wives were college roommates.

But during the World Cup, Berhalter received a message from someone who claimed to have information that would “take me down,” he said.

After the World Cup, Berhalter spoke at a leadership conference Dec. 6, describing how he and the team disciplined a player for poor effort in training. Although Berhalter did not mention names, Gio Reyna was that player. Five days later, Danielle Reyna called US Soccer, the national federation, to reveal that Berhalter kicked his future wife in the legs outside a bar in 1991, when Berhalter was a freshman in North Carolina.

US Soccer is now investigating Berhalter, who admitted to the incident and whose contract expired after the World Cup.

Gio Reyna fueled the controversy on Sunday with a goal celebration that seemed to be directed at his parents, or US Soccer, or Berhalter… or all three. (He came off the bench to score another stoppage-time winner for Dortmund on Wednesday.)

Into this swamp entered Anthony Hudson, one of Berhalter’s assistants. The son of former Stoke City, Chelsea and England midfielder Alan Hudson has become the caretaker manager for this week’s friendlies against Serbia and Colombia.

“Really, there’s no coaching course or anything to guide you in times like this,” said Hudson, who managed the New Zealand and Bahrain national teams before joining Berhalter. “This is a really different situation.”

Complicating the situation is Hudson’s relationship with Berhalter.

“Listen, I’m close with Gregg,” Hudson said. “It has not been easy for me. We have been involved in exploration. We did many projects during that time. I have a lot of respect for Gregg. I have a lot to thank Gregg for giving me the opportunity. He is still a good man.”

Hudson’s friendship with Berhalter accentuates the angst that pervades the team.

“I think we all share the same sadness,” Hudson said. “Everyone is affected by it. You know, this is a real shame because a great job was done. It’s a shame for everyone involved: players, staff, Gregg. It is not a pleasant situation. When all this happened, all the attention was diverted from the good work and moved in another direction.

But preparing for a camp without most of those World Cup veterans, Hudson had to redirect the focus. The composition of the roster intensified the challenge: 13 members have never played in a senior international match and six were aged 20 or younger.

The squad, however, included five players from the World Cup squad: defenders Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long, midfielder Kellyn Acosta, forward Jesús Ferreira, and goalkeeper Sean Johnson. Another veteran, forward Paul Arriola, joined them.

“When they came in, we had a meeting with the leadership group.” Hudson said. “I shared a bit of my personal vision of the situation. I tried to be very honest. We talked about what the camp would be like. Then I said, ‘I’m going to lean on you even more in this camp. We have a younger team and we’re relying on you guys to keep the standards up, help the younger players, help the team culture, help teach some of the guys some of the little nuances of how we play.’”

The result?

“The vibe in the locker room is great,” forward Brandon Vasquez said. “Everyone gets along very well. Every time we step on the field, it shows. The team chemistry is really there even though we have a lot of new faces. Everyone who watches the US national team knows exactly their style of play and we’re stepping in and doing exactly that.”

“I think the vibes, the atmosphere, the energy of the group has been incredible, like nothing,” added Eintracht Frankfurt midfielder Paxten Aaronson. “A lot of it goes to the main guys, the guys who have had experience here, like Walker, Aaron, Paul. They’ve done a great job keeping the standards high and telling the new guys what to achieve, what to achieve.”

Hudson did not express surprise.

“That’s why we picked them to go in,” he said, “because we know the character of these guys.”

In Serbia, the United States faced an opponent with only three players competing for the national team, with the most experienced making only two appearances. None of the 18 played in the World Cup.

The United States took a 1-0 lead in the 29th minute on Vázquez’s nine-yard header from Julian Gressel’s cross from the right. But Serbian Luca Ilic converted a 21-yard free kick in the 43rd minute, then Veljko Simic scored from 13 yards after receiving a ball from Nikola Stulic, who dispossessed the Americans’ Jalen Neal.

“I’m disappointed with the result, obviously, but I’m very pleased with the performance,” Hudson said. “We created a lot of good chances. Individually, there were some very, very great performances. When we have a goal behind. I think we showed a lot of courage. I loved the fact that the players were really pushing forward and attacking the back line.”

The United States will end this month’s camp on Saturday with its friendly against Colombia in nearby Carson. Beyond that …

“Ultimately it’s out of our hands,” midfielder Paxton Pomykal said, “and there’s nothing we can say about it.”

Hudson expressed the same sentiment with a bit of personal eloquence.

“We played these two games,” he said. “So, I’m going to go home and check on my dogs and see what comes after that.”

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