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How USMNT's November Camp Pieces May All Fit Together

Recent injuries, a late curveball and a slew of uncapped players add a bit more intrigue to the puzzle manager Gregg Berhalter must piece together for the USA's first matches since Feb. 1.

The U.S. men's national team as currently constructed is an exciting and promise-filled list of names. The average age for the upcoming camp and friendlies against Wales and Panama is a shade under 22, players are competing at more elite European clubs than ever before, and the potential is tantalizing. As is always the case, though, a list of names on paper and how it will all come together in practice are two entirely different things, and when 10 uncapped players are thrown into the mix—not to mention injury and pandemic curveballs to take into account—there's a growth process that needs to take place. Expecting that to be carried out to completion in the few days between camp starting and the Nov. 12 friendly vs. Wales is asking a bit much.

For starters, there's already been a change to the list of names available to manager Gregg Berhalter. Forward Josh Sargent won't be taking part in camp after all due to coronavirus restrictions in Werder Bremen's region that would have required him to quarantine for five days upon return from international travel. Werder Bremen announced Thursday that only two of its players would be released for the upcoming international window, as those two are not leaving Germany for their respective camps. U.S. Soccer confirmed that Sargent would not be joining and that LA Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget would take his place.

That removes the top candidate to feature at center forward from the mix and opens up opportunity for the uncapped likes of Sebastian Soto and Nicholas Gioacchini to step in among a group that is flush with wide players but less so on central-based forward figures.

Christian Pulisic, one of those leading wide players, may not be available. His injury before last weekend's game vs. Burnley wound up not being serious, but he missed Chelsea's Champions League win over Rennes on Wednesday, and he'll miss this weekend's game vs. Sheffield United, too. As Berhalter said Tuesday, Pulisic's on-field availability would depend on how his hamstring responded in the days that followed. "Christian is a 1-v-1 phenomenon, a guy that can put players on the back heels easily," Berhalter said. Whether Wales and Panama will get to find that out remains to be seen.

Gio Reyna, who will be experiencing his first senior camp, presuming he emerges unscathed after Saturday's Dortmund-Bayern Munich showdown, will likely feature in a wide position based on Berhalter's comments. He's "a different type of attacking player," Berhalter said of Reyna, who turns 18 the day after the Wales game. He "can give a final pass, final cross."

“I don’t think we need to necessarily define where he’s going to be playing," he added. "What we want him to do is impact the game offensively. We want him to score goals and make assists. I think that’s important. We’re going to put him on the field to do that. I don’t think it’s really important to get specific about where, I think it’s what he’s doing on the field. We want him making goals and assists.”

The midfield construction is where there is plenty of intrigue. The days of "Tyler Adams, right back" are long gone, with an experiment borne out of necessity being tempered by the rise of Reggie Cannon and Sergiño Dest at the position. Berhalter described the complementary qualities that his top tier of midfielders have.

"When you look at Tyler, you have a controlling midfielder with a lot of range, can easily play the No. 6 position, can give you that cover in transition, but also can give you the mobility to make good plays defensively and put pressure on the opponent," he said.

“When you look at Weston [McKennie], he’s a box-to-box midfielder who likes to arrive in the penalty box. He’s strong in tackling, but has that extra offensive edge to him."

USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter

It's interesting to note how little Pulisic, Adams and McKennie have actually played together with the senior national team, largely due to injuries. They've only started together once, and in that game, a March 2019 match vs. Ecuador, Adams was at right back, McKennie in a defensive midfield role and Pulisic as a central No. 10 figure. Beyond that, Pulisic and McKennie have started the same match 11 times. McKennie's role in the midfield has been rather consistent, while Pulisic has shifted between starting as a forward (three times), left wing (two times), right wing (one time) and central midfield (five times). Adams and McKennie have started together without Pulisic in the lineup on five occasions, but not since a Sept. 2018 friendly vs. Mexico, which was the last of three times they've both featured in central midfield roles.

With Adams recovering from recent back and knee injuries, though, his availability in this camp might be limited. Enter, potentially, Yunus Musah, the 17-year-old Valencia winger eligible to play for the U.S., England, Italy and Ghana. Despite playing out wide for his club, Berhalter said he viewed him more as a central figure with the U.S., though the way he describes what he sees in him overlaps more with McKennie's attributes than those of Adams.

“When you watch his games [at Valencia] he’s playing wide right in a 4-4-2, and he’s taking on the outside back, and he’s running by the outside back and he’s done a good job defensively. But we still see him as a player that can potentially be better centrally—a box-to-box midfielder a little bit in the style of Weston in terms of covering ground," Berhalter said. 

“What we have to remember, and I think all of us are getting ahead of ourselves just little bit, because he’s 17 years old. We’re going to bring him into camp and we’re going to play him probably centrally and there’s going to be some growing pains with that, I can tell you right now. But he has so much talent that to me, it’s worth it. It’s worth looking at that."

In the back, the big question mark surrounds Sergiño Dest and on which side he'll be deployed. He's played on both for the U.S., for Ajax and now for Barcelona and seems perfectly capable of handling either challenge. The right is his stronger side, though, and with Antonee Robinson beginning to emerge as more of a fixture on the left for Fulham, the need to shift Dest over to that side isn't as great. Between Robinson, Cannon and Dest, there are three options for two starting nods.

The whole point of this camp is to start discovering the answers to some of the outstanding questions. Getting these players together—the first U.S. camp with the top-level, European-based players available in a year—is the opening Berhalter has been yearning for, but there are steps to take before any final answers emerge.

"There's a lot of question marks, but you have to start sometime," Berhalter said. "Our first objective is to qualify for the World Cup, and then the next objective is to play well at the World Cup and then we go from there. But we realize we do have some bit of time. Qualifying doesn't start until next September. There is a window that we have, but we have to start somewhere and we're excited to get this group together and start working with them.”