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Do the U.S. and Mexico care about the Gold Cup anymore?

Gold Cup
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Gold Cup will measure first real results of Berhalter's influence on U.S.

Walker Zimmerman joins the Heineken ESPN FC Boot Room to talk of his future with the USMNT and where he fits in Gregg Berhalter's plans.
 

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Few training venues are as picturesque as the one the U.S. men's team has graced over the past week.

The Americans have been practicing at the Glenn Warner Soccer Facility on the campus of the U.S. Naval Academy. The field overlooks the Severn River. As such, there are any number of boats nearby, including a pair of Navy training vessels docked within hailing distance of the facility.

One can feel the history oozing from every pore of the place and the fact that the players began the current camp on Memorial Day helped set the proper tone.

"To be training here at the U.S. Naval Academy, it's really amazing," defender Omar Gonzalez said. "It just really makes me proud to wear the jersey, to see these servicemen and women, doing what they do for our country, and here we are about to step on a soccer field to represent our country."

Gonzalez's sentiments were echoed by goalkeeper Zack Steffen, though the former Maryland Terrapin was having some unpleasant flashbacks as well.

"I remember we came here my sophomore year and we lost 2-1," Steffen said. "But other than that it's great to be back in Maryland in a familiar part of town. Annapolis is a beautiful city and the Naval Yard is fantastic. We're on the water, it's a beautiful day, you can't complain."

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Yet as unique as the facility is, it has plenty in common with venues that manager Gregg Berhalter has chosen in previous camps, namely a locale that is a bit off the beaten path, and where little time is spent shuttling from hotel to practice and back.

Back in January, Berhalter opted for the relative seclusion of the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, California, instead of the usual drill of using the facilities at Dignity Health Sports Park up the road in Carson. Last March, the team convened at the Champions Gate facility that is 30 miles southwest of Orlando City Stadium, where the U.S. played Ecuador.

In this instance, prying eyes have been kept to a minimum as well. With parking at a premium, and security tight, attending practice as a media member required taking a 10-minute shuttle ride from the USNA's football stadium.

All of this is precisely how Berhalter likes it. Even the routine for the run-up to the game has been altered. Previous U.S. coaches followed the norm of practicing in the game venue on the day before the match, the better to familiarize the team with the surroundings. Not so under Berhalter. Prior to both the Ecuador and Chile games back two months ago, Berhalter eschewed practicing in the stadium, opting instead for the greater efficiency of a quick jaunt to the practice field.

None of this is a surprise to Steffen, who played under Berhalter for two seasons with the Columbus Crew.

"He's just a true professional," Steffen said about Berhalter. "He wants little distraction, he knows what we're here for. I think being secluded and closer to the guys, where the guys have to interact more with each other, I think that just builds the chemistry of the team. We don't have a lot of time together, so I think this is his way of team bonding. He's very much into team bonding."

That team-building process, both on and off the field, is now poised to accelerate. The previous two weeks served as an "integration camp" that involved taking a look at Gold Cup players, players from the U23 team, as well as some other fringe performers. Now the camp has moved to the next phase, with more of the Gold Cup provisional roster -- from MLS and from overseas -- having arrived.

Progress is no doubt needed. While Berhalter has been in charge since December, this is only the third camp he has held. Such is the plight of national team coaches given the club commitments of the players. There has been an air of expectation surrounding the two previous camps. What style would Berhalter adopt? What players would get called in? With the Gold Cup approaching, the stakes are rising. The U.S. will not only be expected to win, but win well. And given the number of no-shows and injuries within the ranks of rivals Mexico, an argument could be made that the U.S. is the favorite to take the trophy.

Of course, first up are a pair of friendlies against Jamaica on Wednesday, followed by a match against Venezuela on June 9. Based on Berhalter's comments at the start of training camp, the Jamaica match will see more experimentation, and as a reward for those players who have survived the first week of camp. The Venezuela game, "should look more like the Gold Cup roster," he said.

The second friendly, and the subsequent Gold Cup, will be the real test in determining if Berhalter's methods are taking root.

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