SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- With roughly five months until his team will assemble for the World Cup, United States men's national team coach Gregg Berhalter is about to set off into uncharted territory.
Under normal circumstances, the tournament might already be going on, but Qatar's unbearable summer heat pushed the 2022 edition to the winter for the first time in the competition's history. It will be bizarre and, likely, problematic for a number of reasons, one of which is that it prevents any real pre-tournament training camp.
Eight years ago, in advance of the World Cup in Brazil, the United States gathered at Stanford University a month before the tournament began. The team had two weeks together before it played three domestic friendlies in the span of 11 days, which was followed by a nine-day layoff before its opener against Ghana.
The schedule was conducive to adequate preparation. It gave the team time to jell, get healthy, work on tactics and compete for the final roster spots on the same field. (Whether then-coach Jurgen Klinsmann took advantage properly is a discussion for another time.)
Berhalter will get none of those luxuries.
Instead, the final extended period he'll get with the players is almost over. And while the pair of friendlies against Morocco and Uruguay were valuable, the same can't be said of the team's mandated CONCACAF Nations League games against Grenada and El Salvador to close out this window. At least not to the same degree. The kind of impact playing against non-World Cup-caliber teams more than five months before the World Cup is minimal, at best.
That, however, is the reality.
The United States plays El Salvador on Tuesday at Estadio Cuscatlan in what will be its final game until a pair of European-based friendlies in September. After using a heavily rotated side against overmatched Grenada on Friday, Berhalter indicated he'll turn back to more of a first-choice lineup as the team returns to the site where it began World Cup qualifying with a 0-0 draw in September.
"It's a balancing act," Berhalter said. "Part of it was giving a group an extended period in the first two games and then we rotated and let other guys get the opportunity that we were talking about evaluating players in this camp. And then again [against El Salvador] we keep playing, we keep going."
After Jesus Ferreira scored four goals against Grenada, Berhalter said Haji Wright will get a turn to start at striker as part of a planned rotation. Ferreira has started all three games this window and was replaced in the first two by Wright, who scored a penalty in his national team debut against Morocco.
For Berhalter to properly evaluate how Wright could help the team at the World Cup, it makes sense he would want to see him playing as part of a front three that includes Christian Pulisic on the left and Timothy Weah on the right -- the two players who project as starters in Qatar.
While Ferreira's four-goal game was a feel-good performance, that it came against the No. 170-ranked team in the world while playing between Jordan Morris and Paul Arriola -- two players on the fringe of the World Cup roster -- it wasn't exactly an instructive exercise for World Cup purposes. Wright's chance against El Salvador is different. There's less data on him with the national team and a positive showing has the potential to significantly impact his place on the striker depth chart.
The other player with the most to gain is goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, who will get his first start with the U.S. since keeping a clean sheet in a friendly against Costa Rica last year. After moving to Nottingham Forest prior to the start of the 2021-22 season, Horvath started just 10 games for the club and has never started a competitive international match. The start against Costa Rica was his only appearance for the U.S. since coming on for an injured Zack Steffen in the Nations League final last summer, where he saved an Andres Guardado penalty in extra time to preserve a 3-2 win.
Beyond that, it will be interesting to see what lineup Berhalter rolls out. Does midfielder Luca de la Torre get another start after his impressive performance against Grenada? Again, the low level of competition needs to be noted, but even with that context De la Torre's display was worthy of praise. He's looking for a new club and a start with two of the Weston McKennie-Tyler Adams-Yunus Musah trio would be beneficial both in terms of evaluating the combination and building chemistry.
There are other questions -- center-back, right-back depth, etc. -- but none of these will have real answers for months. With only roughly a week before the pause to the European club schedule ahead of the World Cup, injuries, form and other to-be-determined factors will play major roles.