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After World Cup Qualifying Attrition, USMNT Stars Turn to Champions League

There’s little time to rest for the weary. Fresh off a demanding World Cup qualifying window, the Champions League returns, and a dozen U.S. internationals are set to be involved.

It’s either a feature or a glitch of the global soccer calendar, depending on your perspective, that the opening matchday of the UEFA Champions League group stage comes less than a week after a grueling World Cup qualifying window ended.

The three-match windows, a necessity brought on by the pandemic, are brutal for players before even taking the travel into consideration. Three high-intensity matches in seven days—that's a bit much for anyone. But the travel—before, during and after the window—is a considerable consideration. Never mind the restriction lists that nations may have due to COVID-19 and require differing levels of quarantine and protocols, but the sheer taxation of flights halfway across the world, which are a must for players from the Americas who feature for clubs in Europe, compound what's already being asked of stars at the top level.

That attrition was made quite apparent when assessing those who recently suited up for the U.S. men's national team and their availability for their clubs just days after an important 4–1 win over Honduras, which salvaged the September window.

Christian Pulisic, playing in his second straight match after missing time following a positive COVID-19 diagnosis, suffered an ankle injury vs. Honduras and returned to Chelsea on crutches (and was subsequently ruled out for 10 days by manager Thomas Tuchel). Gio Reyna suffered a hamstring injury vs. El Salvador, missed the U.S.’s final two games and was then ruled out for "a few" matches by Dortmund manager Marco Rose, with some reports suggesting his availability for the U.S. next month may be in jeopardy. 

Norwich City manager Daniel Farke detailed the travails of forward Josh Sargent, who was on a flight back to London two hours after the U.S. win and was carrying a hamstring knock, which kept him from playing in the club's loss to Arsenal on Saturday.

Even those who emerged unscathed from the international break were still hardly able to contribute right away. Tyler Adams, who played all 270 minutes for the U.S., was left on Jesse Marsch's bench for RB Leipzig’s telling early-season defeat to Bayern Munich. John Brooks, who played only half the U.S. minutes, was relegated to late-substitute status for Wolfsburg. Brenden Aaronson wasn't available for Salzburg, and Sergiño Dest (ankle) likely would not have been for Barcelona, had the club had a match scheduled.

It wasn't a completely useless weekend abroad for those who had been in U.S. camp. Antonee Robinson and Tim Ream both went the full 90 for Fulham, while DeAndre Yedlin did the same for Galatasaray. Jordan Pefok started and played 76 minutes for Young Boys, Mark McKenzie came off the bench at halftime for Genk and Konrad de la Fuente saw out the last 11 minute of Marseille's win. But by and large, the key and core figures were left to rest, and for good reason. Aside from exhaustion levels, matches of more vital importance are on the immediate horizon.

With the Champions League group stage beginning Tuesday, it's time for the U.S. contingent that's taking part to take stock of the opportunity at hand. After all, last season, one U.S. international (Pulisic) won it, while another (Man City's Zack Steffen) had his team finish as runner-up. 

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This time around, a record 12 U.S. players are on rosters for the group stage, eclipsing the mark of 10 set last season. Of those 12, 10 were part of the group that opened World Cup qualifying. Only Malmö's Romain Gall (whose only U.S. cap came in the form of a seven-minute cameo off the bench in a Nov. 2018 friendly vs. Italy, coached by Dave Sarachan; he ever-so briefly featured for Gregg Berhalter with the Columbus Crew earlier in his career) and Club Brugge's Owen Otasowie (who was called in for camps in November 2020 and March 2021 but played just three minutes vs. Wales in his one friendly appearance) did not.

So what is this dozen up against—even though nearly half, at least, are set to miss the first matchday—on Europe's premier stage? Here's a closer look:

USMNT's Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams

Christian Pulisic, Chelsea

Pulisic will miss Tuesday’s opener vs. Zenit St. Petersburg, and it remains to be seen when he’ll make his return for the Blues. He had already missed a pair of matches due to COVID-19, and he’s missed another due to his injury suffered with the U.S. Tuchel’s 10-day timetable is up in a week, but that doesn't necessarily mean Pulisic will jump immediately back into the fold for a Chelsea team that has played rather sensationally since Romelu Lukaku’s arrival. After Zenit, Chelsea has a significant stretch to close the month, which includes league matches vs. Tottenham and Man City and a Champions League clash at Juventus, so it would behoove Pulisic to return to match fitness in time.

Gio Reyna, Dortmund

Reyna won’t be joining Dortmund at Beşiktaş, and it’s possible he’ll miss the second matchday at home vs. Sporting CP as well as he nurses his hamstring injury. Dortmund remains the favorite in its group, which also features Ajax, but seeing how only two clubs in the Bundesliga have conceded more than the nine goals that Dortmund has (and both are in the relegation zone), the Black and Yellow are anything but a safe bet and could use Reyna’s ability if it’s going to proceed with the “best defense is a good offense” kind of approach.

Zack Steffen, Man City

Steffen likely wouldn’t have been starting for Man City vs. RB Leipzig on Wednesday anyhow, but he won’t be backing up Ederson either, after the back spasms he felt in U.S. camp were followed by a positive COVID-19 test. Pep Guardiola indicated that Steffen would require 10 days of isolation and two negative PCR tests before he could return to England, which means there’s no guarantee that he’ll be available for a match he would otherwise be starting, in the League Cup on Sept. 21. When he does receive clearance to return, he’ll presumably go back to being the No. 2 for Champions League play. A group with PSG, Leipzig and Club Brugge awaits last season’s runner-up, and anything less than a top-two finish would be a catastrophe. 

Weston McKennie, Juventus

McKennie started for Juve on Saturday in his first action since being banished from the national team for breaking protocol, and he’ll look to do the same Tuesday in Sweden vs. Malmö. All McKennie can do to get back in Berhalter’s good graces is perform well for Juve while avoiding any disciplinary issues, and the Champions League stage is as good a place as any to continue. Provided both are healthy, match-fit and selected, McKennie and Pulisic could share the field on the second matchday, when Juventus hosts reigning champion Chelsea.

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Jordan Pefok, Young Boys

Young Boys, coached by German-American manager David Wagner, welcomes Cristiano Ronaldo and Manchester United to Switzerland for the opener before subsequent matches against Atalanta and reigning Europa League winner Villarreal. It’s a difficult group and one where Young Boys will be the clear underdog, both to go through or to secure a third-place finish and a spot in the Europa League knockout round. On the flip side, it presents Pefok with ample opportunity to build his résumé against quality opposition.

Brenden Aaronson, Salzburg

Salzburg is in arguably the most wide-open group in the competition, along with Sevilla, Wolfsburg and Lille. It’s a group that features three U.S. internationals and offers the in-form Aaronson a chance to make an even bigger name for himself after he already helped punch Salzburg’s ticket to the group stage and then went on to score in consecutive World Cup qualifiers. Salzburg’s quest starts at Sevilla, the lone club in the group without a U.S. player. 

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig

Adams’s reaction to Leipzig’s group draw said pretty much all you need to know about the task at hand for his side, which revolves around taming financial and star power behemoths PSG and Manchester City.

The quest to do just that starts at the Etihad on Wednesday, but it won’t be easy. Marsch’s side is off to a 1-3-0 start in the Bundesliga and saw star midfielder Marcel Sabitzer waltz to Bayern Munich before the transfer deadline. The two matches vs. Brugge are must-wins if Leipzig is to entertain any thoughts of a knockout-stage berth.

Sergiño Dest, Barcelona

Dest's ankle injury could keep him from Tuesday’s match vs. Bayern Munich, which could be a blessing in disguise. The U.S. fullback has seen just about enough of Alphonso Davies after the Bayern star got the best of him on multiple occasions in the U.S.’s 1–1 draw vs. Canada. Beyond Bayern, though, Dest’s Barcelona should still be expected to advance to the knockout round. Lionel Messi may be gone and Benfica and Dynamo Kiev may be topping their respective domestic leagues early on, but it would still be a shock to the system were Barcelona to miss out on the knockout stage.

Tim Weah, Lille

Weah was forced to withdraw from the U.S. qualifying team due to a thigh injury, and he remained out for Lille over the weekend, which would figure to put his status for Tuesday’s home bout vs. Wolfsburg on the unlikely side. His club’s Ligue 1 title defense is off to a brutal 1-2-2 start, which does not bode well for its return to the Champions League stage.

John Brooks, Wolfsburg

Brooks had a poor showing for the U.S., getting beaten for both of the goals the Americans conceded over the window, but he’s a much better center back than what he showed and can build back toward that starting Tuesday at Lille. Should Weah and Aaronson wind up featuring, his task would be to help prevent his countrymen from performing in one of the quirks of the competition.

Owen Otasowie, Club Brugge

Brugge is a massive underdog in its group, yet for Otasowie, who has made the club’s bench only once and has yet to make his debut, it could be a proving ground. Naturally, he needs to actually be selected, but PSG, Man City and Leipzig is as good of a litmus test as there is in the group stage.

Romain Gall, Malmö

Gall hasn’t played for Malmö this season (he was on loan to Örebro for the first four months of it), but he was included on its squad list for the Champions League. A group with Chelsea, Juventus and Zenit is a daunting one for the Swedish side.

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