Heading into the slight unknown of a brand new competition (just how intense, useful, informative and popular will these Concacaf Nations League games be?), U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter is counting on continuity.
With the USA’s first taste of the new tournament set for Oct. 11 against Cuba (in Washington, D.C.) and Oct. 15 at Canada (in Toronto), Berhalter is going with what he knows and said he is playing to win. The 26-man team announced Wednesday morning features 20 players who took part in last month’s camp and friendlies, and includes only one new player—Philadelphia Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson.
There is a notable absence, however. Defender Sergiño Dest, who started at left back against both Mexico and Uruguay last month, was left off the squad as he contemplates the most important decision of his young career. The 18-year-old was born and raised in the Netherlands, and has broken into the starting lineup at Dutch champion Ajax. But thanks to his American father, Dest was U.S.-eligible. He was integrated into the youth national team system and has played in both the U-17 and U-20 World Cups for the USA.
A Nations League appearance would tie him permanently to the U.S. So in recent weeks the KNVB, the Dutch federation, has stepped up its recruiting efforts, putting Dest in position to choose between his homeland and the country that offered him his first international opportunity. It’s apparently a decision Dest isn’t quite ready to make.
“I understand there is going to be a lot of attention surrounding the availability of Sergiño in this next camp,” Berhalter said in a Q&A released Wednesday. “I’ve had conversations with Sergiño. The conversations were positive, and the content of these conversations is going to remain private.”
The USA will have another chance to cap-tie Dest in November’s Nations League return matches. The Netherlands is playing Euro 2020 qualifiers in each of the next two windows.
The rest of Berhalter’s choices are relatively straightforward.
“Entering this competitive phase, one thing that’s important is we continue some of the younger guys along, integrate some new players into camp, but also have a familiar base. Most of the guys have been in camp before, understand how we want to play, and we think that continuity will help in our performance,” the manager said. “This is competitive soccer. For us, it’s playing away games and playing home games that leads to a result in a tournament format which is important. World Cup qualifying is an absolutely crucial event, and these games will help prepare us. Any time there is a trophy on the line and in the inaugural Nations League tournament [there is], we want to put ourselves in a position to win.”
Here’s a closer look at the USA’s first Concacaf Nations League squad:
Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Zack Steffen (Fortuna Düsseldorf)
Guzan and Steffen are in camp together again, and while last month the plan was to give each a game, this time—with competitive considerations—a genuine joust for the starting role could take place.
Steffen is 11 years younger than Guzan and almost certainly is the national team’s future. But he also struggled with his role in the build-up in the September loss to Mexico. It wouldn’t be a shock if either started both matches this month.
Steffen currently leads the Bundesliga in saves with 34. Düsseldorf (1-4-1) is at Hertha Berlin on Friday, meaning Steffen should be ready to go when the USA begins training Sunday in the Washington suburbs. Guzan’s Atlanta United and Johnson’s NYCFC play their regular season finales Sunday afternoon.
Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Daniel Lovitz (Montreal Impact), Matt Miazga (Reading), Tim Ream (Fulham), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United), Walker Zimmerman (Los Angeles FC)
As Dest exits, at least temporarily, Yedlin returns. The USA’s most experienced outside back has been unlucky with injuries and hasn’t played for Berhalter since the March friendly against Chile. Groin surgery knocked Yedlin out of this summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup, and he finally made his 2019-20 Premier League debut with Newcastle last weekend. Cannon also is an option at right back.
On the left, where Dest played last month, Berhalter could go with Lima or Lovitz, or he could push Ream out to the flank like in the Gold Cup. Each offers a different look, with Ream more adept at picking out longer, line-breaking passes.
In the center, John Brooks is out again, this time with a pulled hamstring that’s caused him to miss Wolfsburg’s last four matches. But Gold Cup starter Miazga is back after missing last month’s friendlies. He and Long featured in both the semifinal and final and are a decent bet to be the first-choice tandem in the Nations League.
Brenden Aaronson (Philadelphia Union), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Schalke 04), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)
Bradley returns to the fold after being allowed to stay with TFC last month. It’ll could be compelling to see the American veteran lead his country out against Canada at BMO Field, his home stadium. The 32-year-old remains the best defensive midfielder at Berhalter’s disposal, in large part because of his passing.
Next week’s training time will be invaluable for McKennie and Pulisic, both of whom were sent home midway through last month’s international window. McKennie’s role as the more box-to-box player in Berhalter’s three-man midfield is complex, and the more time he spends on it, the better. We saw in the Gold Cup final what can happen when McKennie faces additional pressure or duress in that role.
Pulisic, of course, returned to Chelsea only to be benched by coach Frank Lampard. The playmaker’s only action since the USA-Mexico game was last week’s EFL Cup walkthrough against fourth-tier Grimsby Town. Whatever needs boosting, whether it's Pulisic's match sharpness or confidence, will be addressed next week in Washington.
"In terms of our team, his status hasn’t changed one bit," Berhalter said during a Wednesday conference call. "He's a very important player for our team. He’s a catalyst for our attack. He’s a guy that can make plays and make things happen on an international level. When you look at his situation with Chelsea, it's not uncommon for a player to take some time to get settled and to adapt."
Berhalter added that he sent Pulisic back to London "with no strings attached," and that he actually visited the club last week and spent time speaking with Lampard and others.
"We believe in the long run he's going to be fine," Berhalter said.
It may be worth noting that Berhalter lists Pulisic as a midfielder, as he did for the Gold Cup. Pulisic featured as one of the two more advanced central midfielders in Berhalter’s 4-3-3 during the tournament. Last month, Pulisic was listed as a forward and played in the wide left attacking role. Naturally, past rosters and lineup decisions are no guarantees of future plans. Berhalter has depth in the middle with the likes of Lletget, Roldan and Yueill and additional options out wide in Jordan Morris and Tyler Boyd (see below). Tyler Adams and Tim Weah remain sidelined.
One name from last month’s squad missing is Paxton Pomykal, the dynamic FC Dallas midfielder. Pomykal likely is headed to camp with the U.S. U-23 team coached by Jason Kreis, which is preparing for next year’s Olympic qualifiers. That squad is expected to be announced by the end of this week. While Pomykal trains with his peers, Philadelphia’s Aaronson gets a somewhat surprising look with the senior team. The Union academy graduate has three goals and two assists in MLS play.
Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Corey Baird (Real Salt Lake), Tyler Boyd (Besiktas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)
Like Bradley, Altidore returns after missing out last month. He also took some time to warm up and get fit during the Gold Cup, meaning these Nations League games represent an opportunity to demonstrate that he’s still the USA’s first-choice center forward. Altidore broke a four-game, MLS scoreless streak last weekend and already has goals against Canada and Cuba on his resume.
“I think it’s very important to have veterans in the team—for them to share the heritage of what it means to be a United States men’s national team player,” Berhalter said. “For [Bradley and Altidore] in particular to go back to Toronto and play a game of this magnitude is special. We know they will be familiar with their surroundings. We know they will be familiar with the opponent—playing with some of the Canadian guys at TFC—so we think it’s a great opportunity for them.”
Sargent and Zardes are the other options up front. Morris has been in good form for both the USA and Seattle, while Boyd showed flashes of his skill and attacking verve during the Gold Cup and remains an intriguing player. Arriola’s versatility and work ethic has endeared him to Berhalter, who said the DCU linchpin “has had an excellent year.”
It’ll be a short ride to the Virginia suburbs for Arriola, who finishes out the MLS regular season Sunday at Audi Field. The remaining 17 MLS players will be flying in after their Decision Day games, meaning Berhalter may not have a complete, rested and ready squad until Tuesday.
“The preparation window is shorter. With a majority of guys playing on Sunday, it’s a challenge, but it’s one we’re prepared for,” Berhalter said. “It’s a challenge we embrace, because we can’t change it. We just deal with it, having to be more specific with our training times and the training content. But we’ll get to a good place to be able to perform on Friday.”