The extremely busy and pivotal year for the U.S. men's national team is upon us. For months, as the international calendar kept getting altered, all logistical signs pointed to a 2021 stacked with competitions that will test the depth of the player pool at the senior and U-23 levels (sadly but understandably, the FIFA U-20 and U-17 World Cups scheduled for 2021 have been canceled on account of the pandemic).
Things will begin to sizzle in March, when the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament commences a year after it was initially supposed to. They'll heat up in June with the Concacaf Nations League final four and then go into overdrive starting in July and continuing on through November, with the Gold Cup, the Olympics (qualification pending) and first three windows of 2022 World Cup qualifying.
All of this is taking place with the backdrop of a congested club calendar around the globe and a looming labor conflict between MLS and its players. What that all means is it will require more players than ever and more coordination between clubs and country than usual to fill out the dance card with complete, competitive squads. It also means ample opportunity for those on the fringe of the top tier to break through and play their way into the most important matches of the year.
It all kicks off with the annual January camp exercise, one largely limited to players based in the U.S. who are in the middle of their offseason, given that it's outside of the FIFA calendar and European clubs are not compelled to release players. So who might we see at the first camp of 2021? There are a number of determining factors.
Firstly, last month's camp outside of the FIFA calendar gave a glimpse at who in the U.S.-based contingent is highest on manager Gregg Berhalter's radar, though the MLS Cup semifinals and final and the Concacaf Champions League's final eight prevented a number of players who would otherwise be considered from taking part. Now that there are no other competitive conflicts, the pool of potential participants has expanded.
There's also the matter of transfers to take into account. Brenden Aaronson has left the Philadelphia Union for Salzburg and is now with his new Austrian club. His former teammate, Mark McKenzie, is expected to depart Philly for Europe as well (Belgium's Genk, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer), while FC Dallas's Bryan Reynolds is reportedly the subject of a transfer tug of war abroad, too. His teenage teammate, Tanner Tessmann, is reportedly set to train with Bayern Munich, though that wouldn't necessarily preclude him from taking part in either a U.S. senior or U-23 camp.
The fact that there will be two simultaneous camps also creates another layer to sift through, with Berhalter and U-23 coach Jason Kreis needing to divvy up the available talent as they see fit. Given that this will be Kreis's only pre-Olympic-qualifying camp, there's an expectation that those who are U-23-eligible will, for the most part, fall in his bucket as opposed to Berhalter's.
All of this is to say that it's complicated, not entirely straightforward and quite emblematic of the year to come. Here's a look at some of the most viable candidates for inclusion this month, at both the senior and U-23 levels:
Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (NYCFC), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
Hamid started vs. El Salvador last month, but that was with Turner unavailable due to his participation in the MLS Eastern Conference final. They'd battle it out for top honors this month along with Johnson, who has been a mainstay under Berhalter as a depth piece.
U-23 candidates: CJ Dos Santos (Benfica), Matt Freese (Philadelphia Union), David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake), JT Marcinkowski (San Jose Earthquakes)
Chase Gasper (Minnesota United), Nick Lima (Austin FC), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Mauricio Pineda (Chicago Fire), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)
Long and Zimmerman are the MLS-based anchors in central defense, with the U-23-eligible Robinson able to return after being part of Atlanta's CCL ouster in Florida last month. The fullback and center back positions are otherwise largely down to players who are U-23-eligible, and given the expected training overlap between the two sides, there could be some squad sharing. With overseas reports suggesting the USMNT will face a less-than-full-strength Serbia to close camp, it's feasible that a "U-23" player or more is involved.
U-23 candidates: Julian Araujo (LA Galaxy), George Bello (Atlanta United), Kyle Duncan (New York Red Bulls), Marco Farfan (LAFC), Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake), Aaron Herrera (Real Salt Lake), Sam Vines (Colorado Rapids)
Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Memo Rodriguez (Houston Dynamo), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Keaton Parks (NYCFC), Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)
Roldan and Lletget are at the top of Berhalter's domestic-based midfielder depth chart, while another veteran MLS talent, Acosta, made his return to the national team last month. Williamson, Parks and Yueill could fall into the U-23 group, and if Kreis does not opt to bring in some of the younger, less-tested names listed below, then it's likely they will. Paxton Pomykal's season-ending injury and recovery would figure to keep him out of the camp for either group.
The big question at this position is whether Darlington Nagbe re-emerges in 2021 after having turned down call-ups in previous years due to prioritizing spending his international break time with his family. Berhalter has left the door open for his return, and he's fresh off earning an MLS Cup title with a third club (though he was forced to miss Columbus's triumph over Seattle with COVID-19).
U-23 candidates: Frankie Amaya (FC Cincinnati), Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids), Gianluca Busio (Sporting Kansas City), Caden Clark (New York Red Bulls), Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes), Hassani Dotson (Minnesota United), Aidan Morris (Columbus Crew), James Sands (NYCFC), Tanner Tessmann (FC Dallas)
Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Efrain Alvarez (LA Galaxy), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Chris Mueller (Orlando City), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)
Ayo Akinola, who appeared in the atypical U.S. December camp and scored in the friendly vs. El Salvador, has accepted a call up to Canada's January camp (he's eligible for the USA, Canada and Nigeria), which doesn't necessarily mean his allegiances are trending to the north, but it does keep his options open.
His elder teammate, Altidore, last played for the U.S. in the 2019 Gold Cup final, but the 31-year-old remains very much in the mix in the striker pool and would benefit from a re-introduction, no matter if Berhalter has openly questioned whether he's a 90-minute player for the national team anymore.
Morris and Zardes, who were unavailable last month due to their clubs making runs to MLS Cup, are the likeliest ones to lead the line.
Alvarez, should he take part, would remain ineligible to play in a camp-ending friendly for the U.S. unless he files for and secures a FIFA one-time allegiance switch from Mexico (he has represented Mexico at a youth World Cup).
U-23 candidates: Daryl Dike (Orlando City), Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers), Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas), Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids), Djordje Mihailovic (Montreal Impact), Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas), Mason Toye (Montreal Impact)