How Champions League Final, Preferences Could Shape USMNT’s Nations League Squad

Squad rotation is going to be a theme of the next few months for the U.S., as Gregg Berhalter divvies up his player pool among the Nations League, Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying.
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The summer of squad rotation is nearly here.

Later this month, the U.S. men’s national team will gather in Switzerland for a friendly before crossing the Atlantic for a pair of matches with stakes and then another friendly to finish the window. It’s been long expected that the group gathering in June for the Concacaf Nations League final four in between those two friendlies will be more representative of whatever an "A team" U.S. looks like, while the Gold Cup in July will rely more heavily on domestic-based players. 

Despite the Gold Cup carrying more prestige as a regional title than the Nations League, it makes logistical and logical sense. The Europe-based players have been going nonstop amid a congested fixture calendar, and at some point they'll need to have a break while also not compromising their 2021–22 preseason preparations for their clubs—while U.S. Soccer does its part not to compromise its working relationship with those clubs. World Cup qualifying is what truly matters most this year, and having the top-tier crew in the best possible shape come September is the priority. 

With some of the qualifying windows featuring three matches instead of the customary two, though, there's going to be a need for a bigger go-to group than usual, which is not lost on U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter.

“We’re trying to hone in on a best XI, but if you can imagine now with the qualifying window having three games, we're going to have to rotate,” Berhalter told CBS Sports this week. “There’s no chance that we're going to be able to play the same XI for three games straight. So for us it’s about using Nations League and using Gold Cup, two very important tournaments, to see what our group is about and to see who can step up and play part of the role.”

The U.S. has already been hit with a good kind of problem: Two of its starters won’t be available for the Switzerland game at the very least due to the small fact that they're going to be consumed by the Champions League final that's happening a day earlier. Zack Steffen and Christian Pulisic are two players who could be written into the USA's "best XI" in ink, but their presumed absences for that friendly—if not beyond—will put the depth at Berhalter's disposal to an immediate test. If the final remains in Turkey, where another coronavirus surge has caused the U.K. government to add it to its "red list" for travel, then that would require a lengthy quarantine upon return and complicate matters even further.

So who might be called upon to try to win the first Concacaf Nations League title—where a final vs. Mexico is possible—while trying to cement their positions as first-choice talent? Here’s a look at the possibilities (with some possible club commitments beyond the Champions League final complicating matters and the possibility left open that not all players will be sticking around for all four matches):

The USMNT will play in the Nations League final four

GOALKEEPERS

Zack Steffen (Man City), Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), Chituru Odunze (Leicester City), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)

Steffen, as mentioned above, won't be available to face Switzerland on May 30 due to his Champions League final commitment, even though it's a long shot that he'll play in Istanbul. The depth behind him is a bit odd. Horvath has made just three club appearances all season while backing up Simon Mignolet, while Odunze, 18, has been brought into camp multiple times before but never as a serious contender for match minutes. That could open the door for Turner, who saved a penalty kick in his only cap for the U.S. back in January.

DEFENDERS

John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Reggie Cannon (Boavista), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Matt Miazga (Anderlecht), Tim Ream (Fulham), Bryan Reynolds (Roma), Chris Richards (Hoffenheim), Antonee Robinson (Fulham)

Brooks’s Wolfsburg has tumbled down the stretch and is clinging to life as it vies for a place in next season's Champions League, but he's the anchor of the U.S. back line when healthy. Long is probably the top choice to fill out the starting center back tandem as of now and should be one of the few MLS-based players to be included in this camp.

Beyond them, Miazga (whose parent club is Chelsea and whose coach is ex–Man City captain Vincent Kompany—talk about some Champions League final training ground banter), McKenzie and Richards are in the mix, while Ream has remained in the picture due to his versatility and leadership.

The top outside backs are pretty clear for now, though with Reynolds hardly getting his feet wet with Roma (and who knows what José Mourinho's arrival means for his outlook), he's still a cut below Dest and Cannon.

USMNT's Brenden Aaronson and Yunus Musah

MIDFIELDERS

Brenden Aaronson (Salzburg), Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Luca de la Torre (Heracles), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Owen Otasowie (Wolves)

Playing in the Nations League would officially cap-tie Musah to the U.S., even though he's made his commitment clear in what's a big recruiting win for the U.S. He’s part of a complementary midfield trio with Adams and McKennie, while Aaronson has made obvious strides since arriving at Salzburg. Lletget, meanwhile, has been a constant for Berhalter since the U.S. reconvened last fall. 

FORWARDS

Daryl Dike (Barnsley), Nicholas Gioacchini (Caen), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Jordan Siebatcheu (Young Boys), Tim Weah (Lille)

If Barnsley advances to the May 29 promotion playoff final, then Dike won’t be available for the U.S. vs. Switzerland, but his ascent overseas has been among the most important developments for the player pool. More and more he's looking like a viable starter at a center forward, though Sargent may yet have something to say about that. If Werder Bremen gets sucked into the Bundesliga's relegation playoff (the second leg of which is May 29), then he won't be available immediately either.

That would open the door for Siebatcheu, who's fresh off a Swiss league title and is already local for the opening friendly, and Gioacchini, whose goal-scoring production has been nonexistent since January. Weah, who is trying to help Lille end PSG’s reign in Ligue 1, could be a candidate for some minutes centrally as well.

If Dike, Pulisic and Sargent are all unavailable, then this group could be supplemented even more.

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