In late November, Fire defender/midfielder Mauricio Pineda was driving with his girlfriend and got a call from a number he didn’t recognize, letting it go to voicemail. When Pineda checked his phone a bit later, he was greeted by a text from U.S. men’s national-team coach Gregg Berhalter.
Pineda quickly returned the call, and Berhalter told Pineda he was getting summoned to camp ahead of the team’s Dec. 9 game against El Salvador.
“That was obviously a really exciting moment,” Pineda said.
Pineda, who now has Berhalter’s number saved, spent time with the senior national team on two occasions this winter, though he has yet to play in a match. Regardless, he’s on the radar entering an extremely busy year for the U.S. program.
A 23-and-under team will take part in the Olympic qualifying tournament in March, and if the group advances and there’s no cancellation because of the pandemic, the Olympics in Tokyo. The U.S. also will get a chance to compete for the Gold Cup, the CONCACAF Nations League and later this year will begin the final round of qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup.
Clearly, the depth of the U.S. program will be tested in the next year on multiple fronts. And though there will be plenty of minutes available, there are no guarantees for any of the pool players.
Pineda is aware of the competition ahead and knows the winter was a key part of the jockeying for space.
“I think that’s something that we talked about as a group, just that this camp was the last thing before all the competitions start to ramp up,” said Pineda, who’s eligible for the Olympic team and trained with the under-23 group his winter. “It was up to all the players to show everything they can do and leave it all out on the field, and I think I, for the most part, did a pretty good job of that.
“I think the rest of it is in their hands and hopefully I do get to be a part of it because it is a really busy and exciting year for U.S. soccer.”
No matter what happens with the national team, those experiences can only help Pineda as he prepares for his second MLS season after a strong 2020, when he became one of the Fire’s most prominent players.
“I think the level is probably the most important thing,” Pineda said. “This has been my offseason, but it’s probably the best way to spend the offseason: just training at the highest level possible, so that was obviously really good. There’s so many players there to learn from; obviously there’s a lot of young players too. It’s a really good mix of guys who know the system and have been there for a while, and a lot of young guys who are eager to earn their spot on the team and make the most of their opportunity.”