The games—next Friday against Brazil and Sept. 11 and Mexico—will be about the men on the field. Sunday’s roster announcement, however, is as much about the man who’s missing.
Neither Christian Pulisic’s stature nor his potential is at risk. The 19-year-old Pennsylvania product—he’ll turn 20 in a couple weeks—remains the leading light of his generation and the player around whom the next era of the U.S. national team will revolve. But that era, at least as far as the Borussia Dortmund midfielder is concerned, is slow getting started.
Pulisic has played just once for the USA since last fall’s World Cup qualifying disaster in Trinidad—and it was a listless performance at the end of a long club season—and he’s out of the team again this week thanks to a muscular injury suffered while on Bundesliga duty. His next chance to play for country will come in the October friendlies against Colombia and Peru. That means that over the course of an entire calendar year, which amounts to more than a third of his pro career, he’ll have worn a U.S. jersey for only 89 minutes.
It’s far from scandalous, but it’s almost unheard of for such a key player to remain out of the international loop for so long. There are obvious explanations, from the lack of a summer tournament to Pulisic’s club commitment and injury. He’ll have missed only seven matches. But as coach Dave Sarachan begins to build up the national team’s next generation—once again, his roster is dominated by youth and features 15 men (of 25) who are 23 or younger—Pulisic is missing out on some of the chemistry and culture under development. When he’s ready, and if and when there’s a permanent coach, he’ll almost certainly and seamlessly slide right back in. But the wait is a bit frustrating and strange, and it’ll be worth watching how and where he fits once he’s ready.
"I was excited to have Christian be a part of these games in September,” Sarachan said Sunday. “As we all know too well, injuries happen and you can never predict timing. It’s disappointing that we won’t have Christian involved. I know that he wanted to be a part of things and we certainly wanted him here, but unfortunately he won’t be available.
“That said, we haven’t had Christian in with the group aside from one game in the past six friendlies, so I feel confident that this group will continue to build on what we have started.”
Sarachan has given 18 players their senior U.S. debuts since taking over on an interim basis last fall. Although he’s said on several occasions that re-integrating veterans will be important as next summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup approaches, this week isn’t that time. The USA will train at the New York Red Bulls’ facility in Morris County, NJ, as it prepares for Brazil, which is bringing the likes of Neymar, Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Arthur, Willian and Thiago Silva to the Meadowlands. There’s an imbalance on paper, but Sarachan said he has confidence in his young group. They’ve barely trailed during their 2-1-3 stretch, and showed well (without Pulisic) in a 1-1 draw with impending World Cup champion France in June.
"Over the course of the past friendlies we have established a core of players that I felt good about offering opportunities,” Sarachan said. “For these matches against Brazil and Mexico, the theme remains the same, in that we are using the opportunity against these high-powered opponents to continue building on the foundation that we’ve laid. We felt it was right to continue allowing this group to get valuable experience for the big picture that includes competitive matches in the future with the Gold Cup, Olympic qualifying and World Cup qualifying.”
So if all goes well, Pulisic will return to a team that’s developing a core and a sense of tactical and interpersonal identity, even if there’s a transition in management (GM Earnie Stewart has been on the job officially for a month). For now, here’s a look at the men who will be in New Jersey and Nashville (for the game against Mexico) this month.
Alex Bono (Toronto FC), Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew)
Steffen, 23, has emerged the clear No. 1 here, although there’s arguably more competition in the player pool than there will be in camp. Brad Guzan, 33, remains part of the long-term picture, and Bill Hamid, 27, soon may get consideration again now that he’s getting minutes in D.C.
Steffen has played 225 minutes across three games for the USA this year, yielding one goal.
John Brooks (VfL Wolfsburg), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Swansea City), Eric Lichaj (Hull City), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Matt Miazga (Nantes), Shaquell Moore (Reus Deportiu), Tim Parker (New York Red Bulls), Antonee Robinson (Wigan Athletic), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United)
The story in back is the return of Brooks, who was limited by injury to four caps last year. He missed the qualifying stretch run, and hasn’t been in with the national team since the November friendly against Portugal—Sarachan’s first match in charge. But he’s been a regular for Wolfsburg at the start of the German season and when healthy, seems a likely U.S. starter.
“John Brooks had a difficult season with an extended injury last season with Wolfsburg,” Sarachan said. “To his credit, he put in a lot of work in the offseason, had a strong preseason and has also started off well in their opening game, contributing with a goal and playing 90 minutes in their win against Schalke. Given all that, I’m pleased that he’s able to be back with the group. Center back is an important position and he’s proven that he’s very capable at this level.”
Sarachan’s best XI almost certainly features Ligue 1 newcomer Miazga alongside Brooks, with Yedlin (who scored his first Premier League goal this weekend) at right back. It’s a bit more uncertain at left back. Robinson, 21, got the start against France and has been ever-present so far this season for Wigan. He’ll likely feature in the friendlies. Lichaj is primarily a right-side player, but can switch and did so against Portugal last November. The first-choice left back for much of 2017 was Jorge Villafaña, who just returned to the Portland Timbers and wasn't brought in by Sarachan.
Long is the only one of the 25 call-ups making his senior camp debut. Long and Parker, who made his U.S. debut before the World Cup, have been key contributors this season at Red Bull Arena.
Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Marky Delgado (Toronto FC), Julian Green (Greuther Fürth), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Schalke 04), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew), Tim Weah (Paris Saint-Germain)
The midfield is this team’s strength, even in Pulisic’s absence, and it gets better with Acosta’s apparent return to form. His move to the Colorado Rapids, even though it involved a precipitous slide down the standings, has provided a spark, and Acosta is in camp for the first time this year.
It’ll be interesting to see how he looks with McKennie, another FC Dallas product. The pair played together at the center of a 4-1-4-1 against Portugal last fall. In a similar alignment, which Sarachan has often preferred, Trapp likely would be the defensive midfielder (it was Danny Williams in Portugal). Roldan can play there as well (or McKennie could slide back).
“He has worked his way back to good form,” Sarachan said of Acosta. “The change of scenery to Colorado seems to have worked out in that he’s a consistent starter, logging 90 minutes and back to the strong form that we remember seeing during qualifying and the Gold Cup last year. We’re happy to have him back with us.”
The wide options are enticing, starting with Weah and Adams (who can play anywhere), and now including Lletget, another player returning to the U.S. fold after a significant layoff. The creative, hard-working midfielder’s international ascendance was derailed by an injury suffered against Honduras in March 2017. The 18-year-old Weah, meanwhile, already has two goals for PSG.
Speaking of Lletget, Sarachan said, “He has put himself back at a level to help contribute to the national team. Having a guy like Sebastian gives us different options and he offers a unique skill set to us in midfield.”
And regarding Weah, the manager said, “[He] has logged a lot of first-team minutes and already has a [league] goal to his name this season. … Timmy has earned the right to be called in.”
Andrija Novakovich (Fotuna Sittard), Bobby Wood (Hannover 96), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)
The U.S. is thinner up front, and Sarachan has deployed the team primarily in a 4-1-4-1 to compensate, in part. Jozy Altidore will turn 29 in November and likely will get another crack down the road, while the likes of Pulisic, Weah, Green, and others can attack from more withdrawn positions. Meanwhile, Sarachan is continuing to give Wood the chance to get back on track while looking at a promising target forward prospect Novakovich
Wood, 25, scored in the friendlies against Paraguay (penalty) and Ireland and is getting his feet under him at Hannover. Novakovich also made a move, to Sittard in the Eredivisie, and already has two goals.
Zardes, meanwhile, has been brilliantly efficient in Columbus, where he leads all U.S.-eligible MLS players with 15 league goals. That’s as many as he scored in 2015-17 combined for the LA Galaxy.
Sarachan saw fit to address Josh Sargent’s absence. The 18-year-old just kicked off his senior club career at Werder Bremen, but he’s already got a senior international goal—he scored against Bolivia in May. Sargent has four goals in six games for Werder’s reserves, who play in Germany’s regionalized fourth tier.
“The decision to leave Josh Sargent off this roster was one made primarily because he is still getting integrated with Werder Bremen,” Sarachan said. “He’s working his way into the first team, but has yet to feature for them. The feeling is that he is getting valuable playing time with the club’s U-23 team, evidenced by the minutes he’s played and goals he has scored so far this season. I felt it was best to allow him to continue to train with the first team with the hope of getting minutes in friendlies during the international break.”
Like Pulisic, it would be intriguing to see Sargent in with the national team. But in both cases, there will have to be delayed gratification.