Sarachan Gives Pulisic a Breather, Calls on Experimental USA Squad vs. Portugal

Christian Pulisic won't take part in the USA's final match of a forgettable 2017, while a number of new and hardly tested players will face the European champions in Portugal.
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The first roster of a new U.S. national team era, unveiled by interim coach Dave Sarachan Tuesday morning, includes five uncapped players and a dozen aged 24 or younger. But the man expected to lead the way as the Americans turn the page following last month’s World Cup qualifying disaster, 19-year-old Christian Pulisic, has been left off the team that’ll face Portugal next week.

Pulisic was the silver lining of the USA’s failed Hexagonal campaign. He scored or helped set up 12 of the squad’s 17 goals across the 10 games, and he was the only one to find the net in the 2-1 loss to Trinidad & Tobago that knocked out the Americans. The photo of an exhausted, despondent Pulisic, squatting on the sodden Ato Boldon Stadium grass with his jersey pulled over his face and his head resting in his hand, arguably has become this cycle’s defining image.

Now, Sarachan said, as the national team reboots and as Borussia Dortmund slides down the Bundesliga standings, the prolific Pulisic needs a bit of a breather.

“Christian has had a very long year, not only with the national team but finding his way with Borussia Dortmund,” Sarachan said. “Between his contributions for the national team and his club, he has probably played more total games than almost anyone in our pool this year, and in doing that Christian has really pushed the limits mentally and physically. With those things in mind, this was an opportunity for Christian to get a break and recharge for the rest of an important campaign with Dortmund.”

Pulisic’s second year with the senior national team will end with nine appearances, a team-leading six goals and four assists.

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As a result of Pulisic’s absence, attention will turn toward other young players with less senior pedigree but perhaps just as much potential. Pulisic’s good friend on the other side of the Revierderby, Schalke 04 midfielder Weston McKennie, has earned his first call-up. Joining him will be new Werder Bremen signing Josh Sargent, a striker who’s still only 17, and New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams, who’s had a fantastic sophomore season in MLS.

They’ll take on Cristiano Ronaldo-less Portugal next Tuesday at the Estádio Dr. Magalhães Pessoa in Leiria alongside a collection of American players based on both sides of the Atlantic. Some have World Cup experience. Others are getting another shot because the USA won’t be playing in one next summer. Sarachan had just about every player at his disposal save those on the four teams preparing for the MLS Cup semifinals, and he chose a diverse group that offers a glimpse of the future—even if it’s missing the program’s brightest star.

Here’s a look at Sarachan’s 21-man squad, which is scheduled to begin practicing Wednesday in Lisbon:


Jesse Gonzalez (FC Dallas), Bill Hamid (FC Midtjylland), Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge)

With Tim Howard nearing—or at—the end of his glittering international career and Brad Guzan, 33, unlikely to hang on for another five years, the future is now for the American goalkeeping corps. And Sarachan has brought the three players who appear to have the best shot of staking an early claim to the No. 1 jersey.

They’ve earned only four combined caps, yet all three have been mentioned as possible successors. Gonzalez, 22, was born in North Carolina and raised in Texas and eventually chose the USA over Mexico after representing his parents’ homeland at the 2015 U-20 World Cup. He was a reserve at this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Hamid’s nascent national team career has been limited by untimely injuries, but he signaled his ambition with last month’s decision to leave boyhood club D.C. United for Denmark. Horvath has made only one senior international appearance, but he’s the most experienced camper of the group and probably is the early favorite to start in Leiria.

The young standout of the MLS playoffs, 22-year-old Zack Steffen, won’t get his chance this time thanks to the Columbus Crew’s stirring run to the Eastern Conference finals.

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John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Sheffield United), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Vitesse Arnhem), Tim Ream (Fulham), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United)

There’s depth in the American defense. That’s obviously a luxury as Sarachan prepares for the European champs, but it’s also a frustrating thing to ponder as misplays against Costa Rica and Trinidad are remembered and regretted. Perhaps the right players were injured or ignored.

The most controversial omission in that final fateful qualifier, center back Geoff Cameron, has been left off the squad entirely this time. He sat out last weekend’s draw with Leicester City with a reported concussion. But another Cameron will step in. Tottenham Hotspur product Carter-Vickers, a loanee who’s become a regular with Championship contenders Sheffield United, was born in England but has played for the USA at the U-20 and U-23 levels (his father is American). And he’s still just 19 years old.

Miazga is another center back on loan (from Chelsea) who’s been waiting for a sustained international opportunity. His three caps have been spread across the past two years, and his most recent was punctuated by a goal during the Gold Cup.

Brooks and Ream are the veteran center backs in camp—although they haven’t started together —and they’re accompanied by the experienced Yedlin and Villafaña, who typically were the first choice outside backs under former coach Bruce Arena. Lichaj, another Gold Cup contributor, rounds out the unit.

Newer players like Carter-Vickers and Miazga are starting regularly for teams in competitive European leagues. Sarachan obviously didn’t think Portugal was the right place to try out the likes of Justen Glad, Erik Palmer-Brown, Matthew Olosunde and other defensive prospects.

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Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Lynden Gooch (Sunderland), Weston McKennie (Schalke 04), Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution), Danny Williams (Huddersfield Town)

The USA needs to learn to play without Michael Bradley, in part because there’s no guarantee the 30-year-old will be around in 2022 and in part because both Arena and his predecessor, Jurgen Klinsmann, often heaped too much responsibility on the midfielder’s shoulders. Bradley, who will stay behind with Toronto FC, will remain an important national team contributor. But the amount of heavy lifting he was asked to do, most recently as the only connector in Arena’s 4-4-2, exposed the player’s limitations and the team’s over-reliance on their captain crutch. The future must be more flexible.

Enter McKennie, Adams, Acosta and Williams, who’ve taken very different paths to Portugal but who all offer versatility and possibility in a new American midfield. Adams can play wide and centrally, McKennie and Acosta have box-to-box potential and Williams has been an underused option in a No. 6 role. There's not much point reading into whatever formation and players Sarachan chooses against Portugal, but it certainly will be interesting to see who settles in and then emerges after a week of training.

Bedoya is the most experienced international on the squad. He’s not the most dynamic player, but his work-rate and intelligent distribution should help next week and probably would’ve been useful as the USA struggled to find its footing at the end of the Hex. Gooch and Rowe offer some skill on the ball and a bit of creativity going forward. Gooch, 21, is among the young players Klinsmann tried out toward the end of his tenure who then had to take a back seat as Arena attempted to rescue the qualifying campaign (and he also was hurt over the winter).

Fans hoping to see Monterrey holding midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez, an 18-year-old Californian, will be disappointed. D.C. United’s Paul Arriola was a likely call-up but has a fitness issue and Cristian Roldan remains in Seattle getting ready to defend the Sounders' Western Conference title. Darlington Nagbe and Fabian Johnson were among the veterans left out, leaving the USA somewhat thin on the flanks.

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Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Dom Dwyer (Orlando City), C.J. Sapong (Philadelphia Union), Josh Sargent (St. Louis Scott Gallagher)

This quartet certainly represents a refresh, but perhaps not the sort many wanted to see this week. Agudelo, Dwyer and Sapong are decent, veteran MLS forwards who’ve been stuck behind the U.S. incumbents and who, in Agudelo’s case (and Dwyer’s to a lesser extent), failed to take full and consistent advantage of limited international opportunities. Now they get another chance.

The four players boast a combined five senior international goals.

Sapong has been capped just twice—the most recent came in January 2012—but he was the leading MLS scorer among U.S. eligible players this season with 16 goals. Sargent already has played in two World Cups in 2017 (U-17 and U-20) and becomes the first American to appear in U-17, U-20 and senior camps in a single calendar year. Among the four, the 17-year-old likely is the only one with a decent chance to be part of the team at the end of the 2022 cycle. Sargent can sign with Werder officially when he turns 18 in February.

The four primary incumbents are unavailable. Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore are still pursuing MLS Cup, Jordan Morris (hamstring) is on his way back for Seattle and Bobby Wood will remain with Hamburger SV over the break while treating a lingering knee injury. They’re not missing an important game but at the same time, their incumbency now means less than ever before.