The U.S. men’s national team already found out how much initial plans can go awry in World Cup qualifying. A positive COVID-19 test kept Christian Pulisic out of its opening match in El Salvador earlier this month. An in-house transgression kept Weston McKennie out of the subsequent matches against Canada and Honduras, while Gio Reyna missed those two games as well with an injury. Planning ahead for these windows is unlikely to ever truly be straightforward with the amount of variables in play.
There’s already another variable to contend with ahead of the October window, thanks to the U.K.’s list of travel restrictions. While the U.S. will play Jamaica and Costa Rica at home sites, the match that those games sandwich, Oct. 10 against Panama (coincidentally, it'll be the four-year anniversary of that Trinidad & Tobago game), comes with a big caveat. Panama is on the U.K.’s “red” list for travel, meaning that players based in the U.K. would have to go through extreme measures upon return to be available for their clubs again—or, more practically, their clubs won't permit them to play in Panama. It’s the same situation that prevented a number of top South American players from returning to their national teams for CONMEBOL's World Cup qualifiers, and it’s why Mexican forward Raúl Jiménez remained with Wolverhampton despite initially being called in by El Tri for September's matches. The U.S. dodged the “red” list last time but isn't so fortunate this time around.
In short, it means that even if Pulisic, Antonee Robinson, Tim Ream, Zack Steffen, Josh Sargent and Ethan Horvath are called into U.S. camp again, as they were for the first three Concacaf Octagonal games, they'll almost certainly be left behind in the U.S. while a separate group travels to Panama.
There are other considerations as well. Reyna hasn’t returned for Dortmund yet, and coach Marco Rose hinted at it being a monthlong absence, which would keep the young star out for the U.S.’s window. Pulisic hurt his ankle against Honduras and still hasn’t returned for Chelsea yet, with the clock ticking for him to return to full game shape before camp convenes. There’s the question surrounding McKennie and whether he’ll be brought back in immediately after being disciplined by coach Gregg Berhalter for breaking team protocol in Nashville. And then there's the yellow card accumulation situation, with five players (McKennie, DeAndre Yedlin, John Brooks, Tyler Adams, Jordan Pefok) seeing yellow in the opening window and two yellows resulting in an automatic one-game suspension.
All of these aspects are part of the puzzle, and it'll require additional depth to be fully prepared. Fortunately for Berhalter, a number of other players appear ready to answer the call. While injuries and assimilating to new clubs kept some from being called in for the first three games, those same players could very well be part of the next-man-up solution to fill the void. Here are some who could do just that as the coach assesses the big picture and how best to go about both expanding his squad and constructing it for three important games:
Tim Weah: The Lille winger made his return from a thigh injury as a 62nd-minute substitute over the weekend. He had initially been called in for the opening window before suffering his injury, but it wasn’t of the long-term variety, and with the U.S. hurting for contributions from out wide—especially if Reyna and Pulisic are not available for any or all of the window—the 21-year-old should be ready to suit up this time.
Yunus Musah: Still not cap-tied despite verbally pledging his international allegiance to the U.S. in the spring, Musah was largely impressive in 75 minutes off the bench for Valencia vs. Real Madrid on Sunday, forced into extended action as in injury replacement for Carlos Soler. He may not be 90-minutes-fit just yet—his activity this season after overcoming an injury had previously been limited to eight minutes in two appearances off the bench—and Berhalter alluded to it being Musah’s fitness that kept him from taking part in the Nations League final four in June, but it’s hard to argue with his ability and quality. And with McKennie’s status not yet known and Adams sitting on a yellow and having already played every minute of the September window, central midfield reinforcements are likely to be needed.
Matthew Hoppe: After emerging as a valued contributor during the run to the Gold Cup title and then earning a transfer from Schalke to Mallorca before the summer deadline, Hoppe played 30 minutes off the bench in his debut in La Liga on Sunday, and he very nearly scored a late winner, only for it to be disallowed on a tight offside call. Everything about the sequence showed what he is capable of: The off-ball movement, some physicality and hand-fighting to get into it with a defender, the peel-off run to create space for himself, the confidence to call for the cross and then the ability to clinically finish. He can clearly be an asset to the U.S. attack, whether it be out wide or as a central figure.
Matt Miazga: Staying in Spain, Alaves is in last place, with four losses in four games and 10 goals conceded. It's not pretty. But Miazga returned to the starting XI and went the distance over the weekend, and, with Ream likely unable to face Panama and Brooks on a yellow card, the depth in the center may need some replenishing. Miles Robinson, Mark McKenzie and Walker Zimmerman figure to remain the first three names off the teamsheet for Berhalter, but another could be necessary to fill out the ranks. Chris Richards, who secured a loan back to Hoffenheim from Bayern Munich and has started the last two matches, also fits the bill here.
Nicholas Gioacchini: Gioacchini’s move from Ligue 2 to Ligue 1 has raised his profile some, and he’s already proved to be an impact player off the bench for the U.S., with three goals and two assists in eight appearances total. Now that the forward's transfer from Caen to Montpellier has been sorted, a bit more playing time (he’s come off the bench for 38 minutes total in two games over the last week and assisted on the late game-tying goal in Sunday's draw) should put him in line for a recall.
Joe Scally: With Sergiño Dest operating as a left back not quite looking like a definite way forward and Antonee Robinson not necessarily available to face Panama, might Scally get his first senior call? It’d surely be a gamble to introduce a new piece on such an intense stage (then again, doing that with Ricardo Pepi paid off vs. Honduras), but the 18-year-old has been a constant for Borussia Mönchengladbach and already held his own vs. Bayern Munich. Plus, he can feature on both sides and would reinforce the depth chart on the right behind Dest with club playing time currently either hard to come by or nonexistent for Reggie Cannon, Bryan Reynolds and Shaq Moore.
Gianluca Busio: The 19-year-old has begun to get his feet wet with Venezia in Serie A, making three starts and contributing his first assist off a set piece this past weekend. He showcased the pros of his game and what still needs work at the Gold Cup, and while a month in Italy won't serve as a cure-all, the need for midfield depth could result in his return.
Gyasi Zardes: While Pepi made a name for himself vs. Honduras, depth at center forward will always be welcome, and Zardes has long been a go-to under Berhalter. Now that he's healthy and back in action—and scoring—for the Columbus Crew, it shouldn't surprise to see the veteran back in the mix.
Paul Arriola: Arriola is another Berhalter favorite. He's name-checked even when he's not in camp and is typically brought in when healthy. Now that he's back to fitness with D.C. United, making three straight starts in a week's span, he should be expected to be part of the solution on the wing.
Sean Johnson: Steffen has been out of action since missing the U.S.’s last games with back spasms and then a positive COVID-19 test, and Horvath has played sparingly for Nottingham Forest (and had a rough go of it in his first Championship start). That leaves the potential need for goalkeeper depth behind Matt Turner, who is in line to be the No. 1 for another window. Johnson was called in as a replacement for Steffen ahead of the Honduras match.
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