A Concacaf Nations League title, the trophy itself, may be of limited prestige and importance. It’s sort of the international equivalent of England’s League Cup. But the timing of the new competition, which will conclude with the semifinals and finals on June 3–6 in Denver, makes it crucial for a young but ambitious U.S. men's national team. This year it’s timing, not trophies, that is everything.
The ultimate goal is qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, so work backward from that. Concacaf’s octagonal kicks off in September. The USA’s core plays in Europe and, having just finished lengthy club campaigns, those players will need a break over the summer. That means U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter will leave most of those men off the Concacaf Gold Cup squad in July. And that, in turn means the Nations League is the last opportunity before qualifying commences to bring the country’s top talent together, to test them under competitive circumstances and to practice and play in a scheduling cadence that will be similar to World Cup qualifying.
As a result, the 23-man Nations League roster announced Monday afternoon represents just about the best team Berhalter can put together, barring a couple of injuries. It’s a snapshot of the top tier of the player pool that Berhalter and his staff have spent two years building.
“We are excited to gather this group together as we compete to win the Nations League trophy,” Berhalter said in a Monday statement. “It’s been a great year for our player pool and the unprecedented successes of winning multiple league and cup championships [in Europe]. Our focus now becomes continuing this success with the national team.”
The USA currently is gathering in Switzerland for some high-altitude training ahead of Sunday’s friendly in St. Gallen. The conditions will lay a foundation for playing in Colorado, while the game, then transatlantic flight, then game rhythm will be similar to what most of Berhalter’s players will experience when heading overseas for World Cup qualifiers come the fall. There will be three-game qualifying windows in both September and October. The USA will face Honduras in the June 3 Nations League semifinal, either Mexico or Costa Rica in the final or third-place game on June 6 and then Costa Rica in a June 9 friendly, thus completing a four-games-in-11-days stretch.
"We’ve been looking at this carefully and what we’re seeing is that this is going to replicate the cadence of a player playing for his club team on the weekend, flying across the ocean and then preparing for a three-game block in World Cup qualifying,” Berhalter said last week. “This is really going to help us gather information on what the players are going for and what the load is going to be. We’re going to use all four games to be able to test that out, and I think it's going to be unrealistic to expect all the same players to play in each game. So what we’re going to have to do is we’re going to have to be balancing. It’s going to have to be a squad effort.”
Berhalter called up 27 players for camp ahead of the Switzerland friendly but was limited to 23 for Nations League competition. Six will be left off the squad after Sunday, while Christian Pulisic and Zack Steffen, consumed by Saturday's Champions League final, will join to round out the group. Among those dropped were Orlando City striker Daryl Dike, who just finished a successful loan spell with Barnsley; Greuther Fürth midfielder Julian Green, who helped his club win promotion to the Bundesliga; and defender Bryan Reynolds, who recently signed with AS Roma.
Midfielder Yunus Musah, from Valencia, has committed to the U.S. program but finally will be cap-tied if and when he appears in a Nations League match. The presence of Tyler Adams also is noteworthy. The midfielder missed RB Leipzig’s final four games with a back injury, but it seems unlikely that Berhalter would reserve a Nations League spot for Adams unless there was at least some chance he could play (pretournament injury substitutions are permitted). Adams, Weston McKennie and Pulisic, perhaps the three most prominent players of their generation, haven’t played together in more than two years.
Despite that, Berhalter believes the building and learning portions of this cycle are nearly complete. His communication, tactics and approach have been consistent, and players know what to expect. Now the games that really matter are approaching, and so the killer instinct must be refined. The Nations League not only affords Berhalter access to his best players, it will allow him to gauge this group’s ability to close out competitive games.
“Now is the time. When you go into a summer where you have two trophies, and then you have World Cup qualifying and then the World Cup, we're talking about in a year and a half's time, one cycle is going to be done, basically," Berhalter told U.S. Soccer. "This group is going to define itself based on how we do in this year and a half. And so for us, I think this group is highly talented. I think this group has a ton of potential. But now it's about going out and showing it. I think we laid the groundwork and the guys are comfortable with who we are as a group, and now it’s about performing.”
Here’s the USA’s Nations League squad:
GOALKEEPERS: Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake), Zack Steffen (Manchester City)
DEFENDERS: John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Reggie Cannon (Boavista), Sergiño Dest (Barcelona), Mark McKenzie (Genk), Matt Miazga (Anderlecht), Tim Ream (Fulham), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray)
MIDFIELDERS: Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)
FORWARDS: Brenden Aaronson (Red Bull Salzburg), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Jordan Siebatcheu (Young Boys), Tim Weah (Lille)
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