United States coach Gregg Berhalter defended his decision to send Italy-based star Weston McKennie home for Covid-19 protocol breaches on Tuesday ahead of his team’s crucial 2022 World Cup qualifier against Honduras.
Juventus midfielder McKennie was dropped for Sunday’s 1-1 draw with Canada before being expelled from the squad altogether, as the United States traveled to Honduras for Wednesday’s CONCACAF qualifier in San Pedro Sula.
ESPN reported on Tuesday that McKennie had been kicked out of the squad after spending a night outside the team’s Covid-19 bubble in Nashville last week, as well as allowing an unauthorized person into his hotel room on a separate occasion.
Berhalter, whose team have started the final round of qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup by taking just two out of a possible six points, declined to go into the details surrounding McKennie’s case on Tuesday.
However, he emphasized that it had been necessary to take a stand, even though it meant depriving the US squad of one of their most accomplished players.
«When you talk about team policies and team rules and what we’re trying to accomplish as a team, the team absolutely comes first,» Berhalter told reporters on a video call.
«We made this decision not only for the short-term but for the long-term health of the program. It’s not an easy decision, trust me. But we did it for what we think is the good of the group.»
– Door still open –
Berhalter said McKennie had apologized following the incident that led to his dismissal, and emphasized that the 23-year-old still had a future with the US team.
«Me and Weston have had long conversations, he’s a guy I care for deeply,» Berhalter said. «He’s a big part of the team, and when he’s performing well, he’ll be back in the team.
«We’re going to be missing Weston on Wednesday, but it doesn’t rule him out of the future. People make mistakes. Weston apologized to the group, and apologized to me. Things happen.»
The United States are looking to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, four years after their shock failure to reach the 2018 finals in Russia. Berhalter said the decision to send home McKennie came out of his desire to «enforce standards.»
«The most important message we’re trying to get through to players is that we’re here in camp for seven days. And we need everyone’s single-minded focus in what we’re trying to accomplish,» he said.
«Sometimes you have to have a talk with someone, and sometimes you have to enforce standards. It is upsetting to me as a coach, it’s upsetting to Weston, it’s upsetting to players and staff, but it is what it is and we’ll be ready to go.»
Berhalter meanwhile said he empathized with US fans who have been sharply critical of the team’s opening two performances in qualifiers — a 0-0 draw in El Salvador last week, followed by Sunday’s 1-1 stalemate with Canada.
However, he insisted that with 12 more games of the qualifying campaign remaining, there was still plenty of time to engineer a reversal of fortune.
«What I would say is that if I’m a fan, I’m not happy with two points from two games,» Berhalter said. «I can understand the frustration, and that’s completely normal.
«But you have to look at the big picture and (see) that this is a marathon not a sprint. You don’t qualify in one window. The thing is, we haven’t lost a game in qualifying yet. Sometimes you have to remind people of that.»