While the U.S. men's national team is preparing to open its 2020 slate against Costa Rica on Saturday, manager Gregg Berhalter is keeping tabs on a number of the players he doesn't presently have at his disposal.
As is customary during January camp, European-based players are largely unavailable for selection; yet they remain in focus for Berhalter, who knows he'll be counting on them for the important competitive matches that are to follow this year. The Concacaf Nations League semifinals will be held in June, where a potential final vs. Mexico could be looming. In September, 2022 World Cup qualifying begins, and after the horror that was the 2018 cycle, the U.S. can ill afford to start slowly.
One of the biggest problems outside of Berhalter's control has been the health of a number of key players. Midfield stars Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie have all battled various injuries over the last year-plus that have kept them out of key matches and camps and limited their availability for their respective clubs. No. 1 goalkeeper Zack Steffen has been a battling through a lingering knee injury of his own, one that has forced him to miss Fortuna Dusseldorf's first two games after the Bundesliga's winter break.
"He’s having knee issues, and it's something we're working together with the medical staff to figure out how we can help in any way," Berhalter said. "It's a priority of ours to have him back on the field, and I know that the club wants him back on the field so we’re working through those things now."
Two USMNT players who have recently returned to the field in the Bundesliga are Adams, after a months-long layoff for first-place RB Leipzig, and McKennie for Schalke. Both have been versatile players for their clubs, but when it comes to the U.S., it would appear that when both are healthy, they'll team together in central midfield. That's after Adams was first trotted out as a dynamic, hybrid-type right back in Berhalter's system. Some of that was due to the lack of other, healthy, qualified options at the position. The October commitment of Sergiño Dest, the rise of Reggie Cannon and the January inclusion of 18-year-old rising LA Galaxy talent Julian Araujo have served as a remedy.
"He's a good fit [at right back] because of his speed, his dynamic, his ability to process the ball," Berhalter conceded about Adams, before adding "We see him primarily as a central midfielder. We always have seen him as a central midfielder. But we know that when we when we need to be flexible, he can play [fullback] as well. We think right now the right back position is filled with depth, and he'll be most suited in our system in central midfield."
Ahead of Adams and McKennie when all are fit will be Pulisic, though he's been out for Chelsea since New Year's Day and initially wasn't expected back until after the Premier League's brief February break and a Feb. 17 showdown vs. Manchester United. Frank Lampard's most recent update is that Pulisic will return to training this week but will not necessarily be available for Saturday's match vs. Leicester City.
The 21-year-old Pulisic has developed a history of muscle injuries in his brief professional career, but Berhalter did not relay any heightened concern over the pattern.
"We're always concerned when a player gets injured," Berhalter said. "We're constantly getting the medical reports. One thing about Christian is he's adapting to the Premier League. He played a lot of games in a short period of time over Christmas. "He's a young player playing at an extremely competitive level, and it takes a physical toll on your body. And him coming to terms with that is something that's normal for the process of adapting."
Adapting is something teenage forward Josh Sargent has had to do at Werder Bremen. The club has slumped into the relegation zone in the Bundesliga, and while Sargent has encouragingly started the first two games since the winter break, chances have been limited and goals have been nonexistent. He has two in 15 appearances (10 starts) across all competitions.
“We reviewed his game on the weekend and the team is going through a dip in form,” said Berhalter, who added that he had spoken with Sargent on Sunday. “They’re in the relegation zone right now. This is what happens in pro sports, this is what happens at a high level.
“With Josh in particular, I see it as some of the team function, and how they’re creating chances ... They haven’t been creating a lot of chances, and that’s difficult for a striker at times. For him it’s hanging in there, continuing to do the things that got him to that level. Continuing to think about his movement off the ball, how he’s moving in the penalty box, and when he gets opportunities making the most of them.”
Berhalter also addressed the possibility of another American going abroad. New York Red Bulls and center back Aaron Long was the subject of a bid from West Ham for a second straight transfer window, and while it's unclear whether he'll be moved before Friday's Premier League transfer deadline, the topic has come up in January camp. Long is a veteran member of the team and a regular under Berhalter, and a club change of that magnitude could have a multi-layered impact.
"It obviously could be a potential big change in where he's competing and what level he's playing at," Berhalter said. "So that would be a step up for him."
The next time Berhalter will be able to have the entire player pool available for selection will be during the FIFA window at the end of March, for a pair of friendlies at the Netherlands and Wales.