- Who should take part in the U.S. men's national team's first match since failing to qualify for the World Cup? Here are the players interim manager Dave Sarachan may call upon for an atypical affair in Portugal.
The page will begin to turn in Portugal. There, beginning next week and culminating with a Nov. 14 friendly, the U.S. national team—such as it is—will take its first few steps into a new era.
The game against Portugal in Leiria will be the Americans' first since their cataclysmic elimination from the World Cup, and their only one during the upcoming international break. A potential matchup with Wales fell through. The November window opens at a somewhat awkward time in American soccer, halfway through the MLS Cup playoffs. But it’s even stranger now.
While Portugal, the reigning European champion, begins looking ahead toward the World Cup, the USA is preparing for nothing. It has no meaningful matches for nearly two years. Veterans who would make the trip in normal circumstances now might be left behind because their international careers will end before the games matter again. There are men in their primes who still have something to offer, but whose long-term national team future—meaning 2022—is uncertain. And there are players with little or no senior international experience at all. Instead of lifting off after next summer’s World Cup, their U.S. careers will get going a lot earlier than anyone expected (and many wanted).
The man charged with putting all that together in time for the Portugal game is interim coach Dave Sarachan, the former Chicago Fire manager and long-time assistant to the departed Bruce Arena with the LA Galaxy and USA. He’ll almost certainly never shed the interim label and so isn’t going to burden himself with long-term team building or the laying of a tactical foundation. Sarachan’s job over the next two weeks simply is to begin turning that page. Get some younger players a taste of the national team environment, from training and logistics to stepping onto the field in their country’s colors. Facilitate some familiarity among a refreshed player pool, much of which will have had nothing to do with this year’s qualifying debacle. And then try not to get thumped by the third-ranked team in the world (which will be missing Cristiano Ronaldo, it was announced Friday).
Sarachan plans to unveil his roster Tuesday, and the invitees will begin practicing Wednesday in Lisbon. Members of the four clubs still involved in the MLS Cup playoffs almost certainly won’t be considered. That leaves everyone else available, and watching how Sarachan sifts through the aforementioned cohorts will be interesting. This Portugal friendly isn’t important. In fact, it’s arguably the least important game the USA has played in decades. But it is interesting, in part because of the potential dawn it represents and in part because it’ll be fun to see a few young, talented players take a shot at the European champs. No one will make or break their international careers in Portugal. But a few might get their start.
Here’s a look at the potential player pool:
At 33, Brad Guzan still has some time left and now that Atlanta United’s season is over, he may be called in to help stem the Portuguese tide or continue to mentor his potential successors. Some of those vying for the No. 1 jersey, however, already have a bit of international experience. Among the most prominent are Club Brugge’s Ethan Horvath and Midtjylland signing Bill Hamid, who won’t be eligible to play for his new Danish team until January. They should both get a look from Sarachan.
If Guzan stays home, other options include FC Dallas’s Jesse Gonzalez or Sporting Kansas City’s Tim Melia. And if New York City FC can stage an historic MLS Cup comeback Sunday against the Columbus Crew, that would make Zack Steffen available as well.
Geoff Cameron’s benching in Trinidad was one of several puzzling, ill-fated decisions made by Arena as qualifying concluded. Now 32, Cameron almost surely saw his last World Cup opportunity fade away that fateful evening. The question facing him—as well as players like Guzan, Michael Bradley, Matt Besler, Alejandro Bedoya and others of that generation—is how long they’re able or willing to hang on.
Cameron is close by and would be nice to have in Portugal if Sarachan wants a piece or two who can help make the game more competitive. But it also would make sense if the Stoke City man isn’t involved. Sarachan and his eventual replacement will know what Cameron offers. There are others with less-defined potential.
European options abound. The recently-returned John Brooks, as well as DeAndre Yedlin, Matt Miazga and Eric Lichaj, all have national team experience and remain young enough to be contribute during the 2022 cycle. Behind them are the likes of Sheffield United center back Cameron Carter-Vickers, Manchester United right back Matthew Olosunde, Levante right back Shaquell Moore and rising MLS prospects Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake), Erik Palmer-Brown (Sporting Kansas City), Danny Acosta (RSL), Brandon Vincent (Chicago Fire) and Matt Polster (Chicago). MLS defender of the year nominee Ike Opara (Sporting Kansas City) remains uncapped at 28 and Santos Laguna left back Jorge Villafaña, a frequent starter under Arena, could remain a key part of the transition.
With nothing much happening between the USA and Mexico until, perhaps, the 2019 Gold Cup, the primary battle between the two rivals may be over Monterrey’s Jonathan Gonzalez. The 18-year-old Californian is a regular starter for the Liga MX leaders and he’s represented his native country at the youth level. But he also remains eligible to play for El Tri thanks to family connections.
FMF director of national teams Dennis te Kloese told ESPN this week that Gonzalez remains in the federations sights. And the USSF shouldn’t discount that, even though the Dutchman admitted that Gonzalez’s “desire has always been to play for the United States.” Mexico has a World Cup to offer, after all.
"We know Jonathan and we've honestly tried to invite and involve him,” Te Kloese said. “Our duty is to keep trying. He’s a player with a bright future. In the end it is a personal and family decision.”
There’s other young midfield talent that requires no recruitment. From here on out, the U.S. national team will revolve around Christian Pulisic. The 19-year-old was perhaps the one player who escaped Trinidad with his reputation fully intact. Sarachan surely will bring him to Portugal, and may also want a look at European midfielders Danny Williams and Fabian Johnson, along with prospects like Weston McKennie, Lynden Gooch, Luca de la Torre and Kenny Saief.
MLS playoff results will shape the rest of the Sarachan’s potential pool. Even if Toronto FC goes down, there’s little point in bringing Bradley across the ocean after such a long year. If the Reds win as expected, however, that’ll make versatile New York Red Bulls teenager Tyler Adams available. He has potential in several roles. Seattle’s Cristian Roldan will stay behind thanks to the Sounders’ advancement, but D.C.’s Paul Arriola, Dallas’s Kellyn Acosta, and New England’s Kelyn Rowe are available.
If Sarachan desires a bit of veteran grit in midfield, he could call up Bedoya or Dax McCarty.
Bobby Wood is a short flight away in Hamburg and makes the most sense for a call-up among forward incumbents. From MLS, Juan Agudelo or Gyasi Zardes might be brought in thanks to their combination of energy and experience, even though neither is a long-term solution.
Otherwise, the Portugal game represents a chance to bring in a couple enticing prospects. Sandhausen’s Haji Wright (on loan from Schalke) and star teenagers Tim Weah (Paris Saint-Germain) and Josh Sargent (soon to be Werder Bremen) would add some intrigue during tough times for the U.S. program.