The U.S. men's national team's awkward transition and purgatory period is nearing its end, and a trio of upcoming friendlies will expedite the process.
The USMNT will play Bolivia on May 28 at the Philadelphia Union's Talen Energy Stadium before heading to Europe for a June 2 date vs. Ireland and a June 9 clash with one of the World Cup favorites, France. It's not the pre-World Cup camp the U.S. was hoping for, of course. Instead of preparing for the competition in Russia, the Americans are preparing for the 2022 cycle–while acting as a tune-up opponent. It's far from ideal, but in embracing the reality of the situation, the U.S. will continue to turn the page while getting a look at the scope of its current player pool.
With the three friendlies spread across two continents over the course of two weeks, interim coach Dave Sarachan will need an expanded roster of players who won't necessarily be available for both legs of the trip. The matches don't fall on FIFA dates, so European teams aren't required to allow their players to travel overseas, nor do MLS teams need to part with their players before the brief break for the World Cup takes hold. That could well result in a selection of players picked only for the opening friendly, while another set takes on the European foes and only a subset plays in all three games–something Sarachan has hinted himself.
“It’s a delicate balance to be able to include players that have a pretty busy fixture [schedule] domestically,” Sarachan said at a press conference in Philadelphia last month to promote the Bolivia friendly. “I want to be cognizant of, and be sort of fair to, certain clubs with Major League Soccer. … For our match against Bolivia it [the roster] would maybe slightly tipped with more Major League Soccer players, and when we go to Europe maybe a little bit more tipped toward European-based players.”
Borussia Dortmund will already be in the USA for a friendly vs. LAFC, so Christian Pulisic will be available for the clash vs. Bolivia in his home state, which will be his first international appearance since the fateful night in Trinidad when the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup. In terms of other logistical conveniences, the first friendly benefits the American talent on the Philadelphia Union. It wouldn't be surprising, for example, to see the likes of Auston Trusty and CJ Sapong getting a run-out in the first friendly before being left behind for the European leg.
Sarachan has largely turned the page on all of the veterans that took part in the qualifying failure. It remains possible that he'll re-open the door to some despite a clear focus on giving younger, rising stars the chance to earn their stripes before a summer of uncertainty that is widely expected to result in a new, permanent coaching hire.
So with all of that said, here's who could be in frame, health permitting, for the three friendlies before the World Cup that the U.S. will watch from afar:
Alex Bono (Toronto FC), Bill Hamid (Midtjylland), Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew)
The rising core of goalkeepers seems pretty set. With the likes of Cody Cropper, Sean Johnson and William Yarbrough on the outskirts and Brad Guzan and Tim Howard seemingly all but done on the international stage, Bono, Hamid and Steffen have risen to the top of the USA's depth chart.
Hamid is just getting started with his life overseas and has begun to get run as a starter for Midtjylland, while the 23-year-old Steffen and 24-year-old Bono, who have not proven immune to costly mistakes recently, are still the next in line. Horvath committed a howler vs. Portugal in his one chance under Sarachan last November and hasn't made a club appearance since October, but at 22 is still in frame as an option and could benefit from the camp environment, especially if either Bono or Steffen is left behind for the European leg.
John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham), Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Vitesse), Shaq Moore (Levante), Erik Palmer-Brown (Kortrijk), Antonee Robinson (Bolton), Auston Trusty (Philadelphia Union), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle)
There's quite the diversity in this group, between young and old, experienced and inexperienced and domestic-based and abroad-based. Since 2014, Brooks should have been penciled in as a center back starter for the next decade, but injuries have severely impeded his progress. He's still at the forefront of a young center back corps that includes Miazga, Glad, Carter-Vickers and Palmer-Brown, all eager to cement their places in the lineup. The fullback situation is more veteran-heavy, with Villafaña and Yedlin the likely starters, though it'd be great to see what the untested likes of Moore and Robinson could provide after their growth on the club level this past year.
Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Marky Delgado (Toronto FC), Weston McKennie (Schalke), Keaton Parks (Benfica), Christian Pulisic (Dortmund), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Kenny Saief (Anderlecht), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew), Tim Weah (PSG)
We know Pulisic will take part vs. Bolivia, thanks to Sarachan's press conference revelation, and given the USA's lack of a playmaking force under Sarachan in his time as manager, that'll be a welcome sight. McKennie, who is fit again, should join, as will Trapp, who has emerged as a leader in the midfield. Weah, 18, will ideally see more than just a few-minute cameo off the bench during this camp. The only potential new splash would be the inclusion of Parks, a 20-year-old Texas native who has earned some first-team minutes at Benfica this season while scoring seven goals for its reserves.
As for the older crowd, Danny Williams would likely have been included in this group, but the Huddersfield midfield cog suffered a season-ending broken leg and is out for the foreseeable future. Then there's the matter of other veterans like Bedoya and Michael Bradley. With Bedoya being local for the opening game, it wouldn't be a surprise to see him at the start of camp as a veteran presence. Reintegrating Bradley wouldn't be a total shock, but given TFC's need to stockpile points and its defensive crisis that has forced Bradley into the back, Greg Vanney would likely appreciate holding onto his captain–especially if he'll lose Delgado. The midfield cabinet is stocked with young stars on the rise, and it's clear who will be part of the foundation for the future, but there remains room for a veteran or two to guide the transition period.
Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Dom Dwyer (Orlando City), Andrija Novakovich (Telstar), Rubio Rubin (Tijuana), CJ Sapong (Philadelphia Union), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Bobby Wood (Hamburg), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)
Like with Pulisic, Sarachan tipped his hand and revealed that the 18-year-old Sargent, who is eligible to debut for Werder Bremen's first team next season, will be called in. From there, it's a balance of in-form players and those with potential. Dwyer has been on fire for Orlando City with six goals in six games, while Sapong has had a mixed start for the Union. His past showings under Sarachan–not to mention proximity for the first part of camp–make him a likely call-up, at least for the opener. Seeing what the USA has in Novakovich, the 21-year-old who has 20 goals in all competitions in Netherlands' second division this season, should be a top camp priority.