The U.S. men's national team is a few weeks away from getting back to work, with the opportunities for experimentation and trial and error dwindling at last.
U.S. Soccer announced Monday that coach Gregg Berhalter's side will face Jamaica in Austria on March 25, followed by a previously announced friendly at Northern Ireland on March 28. While another friendly will take place on May 30, it'll precede the Concacaf Nations League final four and include the group that will look to be the first to win the nascent competition. The Gold Cup will then run from July 10 to Aug. 1 before World Cup qualifying triple-headers in September and October and another pair in November. All that being said, the time for running a comb through the player pool to get a more complete picture of who can do what before results become more consequential is running short.
By virtue of the March friendlies taking place during a FIFA window—unlike the previous two games the U.S. has played—the whole player pool is, by definition, available to Berhalter. At least in theory. COVID-19 protocols limit the scope, as clubs are able to deny the release of players if there are quarantine measures that would need to be taken upon their return. The same stipulation kept Werder Bremen from releasing Josh Sargent in November and could become a factor again.
Another caveat is the concurrent Concacaf Olympic qualifying competition, which will be the destination for a number of U-23 players who might otherwise be under senior national team consideration. Since clubs do not have to release players for youth competitions, the USA's top U-23-eligible players won't all be heading to Mexico to compete for a place in Tokyo this summer, but that doesn't include everyone. Players like Norwich City's Sebastian Soto and Internacional's Johnny Cardoso, for instance, find themselves in the U-23 bucket as opposed to that of the senior team.
Finally, there are injuries and timing. Jordan Morris's loan from Seattle to Swansea City turned into a nightmare, with the U.S. forward unavailable for the foreseeable after tearing his ACL. His brethren back in MLS are just starting preseason. Will a few noncompetitive weeks be enough of a runway to hop into national team camp? For some, it's likely, but perhaps the lack of form and full fitness keeps others from getting the call.
So what does that leave for Berhalter? Here's who could be in frame for the final tune-up camp before the matches really start to count:
Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), Zack Steffen (Manchester City), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
Steffen has performed well when called upon for Manchester City, and he'll want to stay sharp in this camp with it likely his last opportunity for game minutes prior to the League Cup final vs. Tottenham on April 25. (Pep Guardiola has often given domestic cup minutes to his backup goalkeeper, even the final.) Horvath's availability, meanwhile, will depend on being cleared after recently testing positive for COVID-19 with Club Brugge. There should be enough time between now and camp, but when it comes to COVID-19 matters and athletes returning to action, there's no one-size-fits-all guideline to go by.
Turner saved a penalty in preserving the clean sheet for the U.S. vs. Trinidad and Tobago to close January camp, and would be the favorite to join from the MLS contingent of goalkeepers.
John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Reggie Cannon (Boavista), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Matt Miazga (Anderlecht), Chris Richards (Hoffenheim), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)
Brooks is helping lead Wolfsburg's charge to a Champions League berth and is the rock in central defense, while Dest enjoyed a bounce-back performance for Barcelona vs. Sevilla after enduring some rocky times. (He's not alone in being torched by Kylian Mbappé, to be fair.) Richards seeing consistent minutes on loan with Hoffenheim bodes well for his development, while the Belgium-based McKenzie and Miazga can continue to jockey for positioning on the center back depth chart, along with Zimmerman, the reigning MLS Defender of the Year.
Robinson hasn't had the most consistent season for Fulham but remains the beneficiary of a left back pool that remains rather shallow, and has some top candidates off on U-23 duty—though Dest could always shift left and allow someone like Cannon or Yedlin, who has performed well since his transfer to Galatasaray, to slot in on the right.
Brenden Aaronson (Salzburg), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Sebastian Lletget (L.A. Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Owen Otasowie (Wolverhampton)
Adams is coming off arguably his best match of the season for Leipzig, in its riveting comeback from 2–0 down to beat Borussia Mönchengladbach, while McKennie remains a valuable piece for Juventus since arriving from Schalke over the summer. They're automatic call-ins as long as they're healthy and not suspended (or restricted due to COVID-19 protocols), at this point. Should Musah return, it would indicate a greater connection between the 18-year-old midfielder (who remains eligible to also play for England, Ghana and Italy) and the U.S. program that gave him a first-team shot in November.
Aaronson has transitioned well to life in Europe and was left out of the U-23 training camp squad, making it more likely he'd link up with the senior team.
Lletget was the only U.S. player to appear in all four of the team's 2020 matches and also took part in January camp, continuing to hold a special place on Berhalter's radar. Otasowie has played just 10 Premier League minutes since Christmas, but he remains a prospect with plenty of potential worth tapping into as this young group grows together.
Paul Arriola (Swansea City), Daryl Dike (Barnsley), Matthew Hoppe (Schalke 04), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Jordan Siebatcheu (Young Boys), Tim Weah (Lille)
There's a lot to sift through here. First, there's Hoppe, whose club is in complete disarray as it desperately tries to avoid relegation. Since his three-game scoring binge, Hoppe, who turns 20 prior to camp, has been held without a goal, but his play and skill set—a hardworking, always-running frontman—would figure to fit in well with Berhalter's approach.
Reyna and Pulisic are the two most dynamic players here, but both have been quiet for their clubs for an extended period of time, with Reyna yet to score in the new year and Pulisic consistently having a place on the bench since Thomas Tuchel became Chelsea manager. The latter's injury concerns have also remained a constant throughout this season in London. There's little reason to doubt either's talent or ability, but the most recent runs of form leave much to be desired. Perhaps a new setting and a national team camp can spark both back to life.
Sargent delivered a valuable game-winning goal for Werder Bremen on Friday, and if he's not held back by his club again would be an obvious candidate to appear in camp.
Arriola scored twice vs. Trinidad and Tobago in January and has a shorter distance to travel after heading on loan with Swansea City, while Dike is also a good bet to make a repeat appearance after making his debut in January. He's fresh off his first goal since joining Barnsley on loan from Orlando City (and that first cap played a significant role in being able to complete that loan).
Weah, meanwhile has been productive—and most importantly, healthy—with Ligue 1–leading Lille and is deserving of a recall.
With it being a numbers game, there's not room for much more. Nicholas Gioacchini, 20, impressed in his November bow with the U.S. but has scored just twice in France's second tier since his double vs. Panama on Nov. 16. Siebatcheu, meanwhile, is intriguing, having scored three goals vs. Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League round of 32 to help send Young Boys through. The 24-year-old, D.C.-born forward has yet to represent the U.S. at any level, but he has 11 goals in all competitions on loan with his Swiss club from France's Rennes, and if there's ever a time to get a glimpse of him up close, it's in friendlies where there's a bigger margin to experiment.