Concacaf’s first three World Cup–qualifying windows have gone by in a flash. With the rapid cadence of international and club windows alternating throughout the fall, there are suddenly just two three-game windows left to determine which three teams in the region will head directly to the 2022 World Cup (and which fourth team will go into a one-game playoff vs. Oceania's qualifying winner for a final spot). Now comes the wait—kind of.
With more than two months in between World Cup qualifiers, the U.S. will go from having an established rhythm—amid a spate of injuries—to needing to find ways to maintain the focus and contact with abroad-based players now fully back in club mode, and domestic-based players either already into their offseasons or on the cusp of beginning them.
So the U.S. has, for a second straight year, created a December camp, one where an almost exclusively MLS-based contingent will train in warm weather before closing with a friendly. This year’s opponent is Bosnia-Herzegovina, the 61st-ranked team in the world, which, like the U.S., will be calling on an atypical assortment of players due to the Dec. 18 match’s falling outside the FIFA international calendar. Nevertheless, the camp isn’t about the result of the game, and its reasons for existing are two-fold, according to U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter.
“If we’re going to use MLS players in the January window, we need to keep these guys moving,” Berhalter said on U.S. Soccer’s podcast Tuesday. “If you think about Ricardo Pepi, Jesús Ferreira, some of the guys that their teams didn't make the [MLS] playoffs, their last game will have been the Jamaica [World Cup qualifier on Nov. 16], and that’s a long time ago. We need to keep them moving, and then so the objective is to use that time to train and keep these guys fit, and the second objective is to look at some players we haven’t seen yet. Incorporate two different objectives into the same camp.”
With that said, who might fit the bill for either objective? Here’s a closer look at who Berhalter could bring to Southern California, with his roster due to be revealed this week:
Sean Johnson (NYCFC), Gabriel Slonina (Chicago Fire), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
Johnson’s and Turner’s immediate involvement will come down to Tuesday night’s MLS playoff game between NYCFC and the Revolution. Whoever loses could find himself on a plane to Los Angeles soon after, and, if either makes it to the Dec. 11 MLS Cup final, he could join for the second week of camp. The 17-year-old Slonina, meanwhile, has Polish eligibility as well and is coming off a bright debut season with Chicago. The U.S. would otherwise gain little from bringing in aging keepers whose utility for the top U.S. crew is likely diminished.
George Bello (Atlanta United), Justin Che (FC Dallas), Kyle Duncan (New York Red Bulls), Jonathan Gómez (Louisville FC), Aaron Herrera (Real Salt Lake), Henry Kessler (New England Revolution), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), James Sands (NYCFC), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)
Duncan is headed abroad in January to Belgium’s Oostende, while Gómez, an 18-year-old Mexican American left back, is headed to Real Sociedad. But Berhalter could sneak a peek at both of them before they head abroad and still leave them with a couple of weeks off before the opening of the January transfer window. Like with the goalkeepers, Sands’s and Kessler’s involvement hinges on the MLS playoffs, as does Herrera’s, whose RSL has surprisingly made it to the Western Conference final. There’ll be more clarity on Sunday, the eve of the U.S. camp and the night the MLS Cup final matchup is set.
Robinson and Zimmerman started together at center back vs. Mexico this month and could benefit from further reps as a tandem. Now that both of their MLS clubs have been eliminated from the playoffs, the runway is clear for that to happen.
Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids), Caden Clark (New York Red Bulls), Leon Flach (Philadelphia Union), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Djordje Mihailovic (CF Montreal), Kevin Paredes (D.C. United), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
There’s bound to be a mix of established regulars and new faces in the midfield. Acosta, Lletget and Roldan have been staples of the U.S. throughout qualifying, and with Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams entrenched as well, the top of the depth chart is pretty well stocked. But there's always a need for more depth, in case of emergency, injury (such as McKennie’s current knee ailment) or simply having an eye on the more distant future, and so now is the time to go in search of it—at least from the domestic-based pool. Clark, before he heads to RB Leipzig in January, is a prime candidate to take on an attacking role, as is Mihailovic, who featured prominently earlier in Berhalter’s tenure only to drop on the depth chart but enjoyed a 16-assist season in Montreal (second most in MLS behind MVP candidate Carles Gil’s 18).
There are a couple of possibilities for South America–based players, as well, with Johnny Cardoso (of Brazil’s Internacional, who has two caps) and Alan Soñora (of Argentina’s Independiente, uncapped) having their club seasons wind down with time to spare before the Bosnia friendly. If granted their releases, they could be late additions.
Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes), Daryl Dike (Orlando City), Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas), Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)
This is the group that features the most familiar set of names. Berhalter’s name-checking Pepi and Ferreira would indicate their involvement (not that it comes as any surprise), while Dike’s resurgent form down the stretch for Orlando (goals in eight of his last 10 games, including one playoff match), should send him higher up the pecking order.
Morris’s return from an ACL tear puts him in frame for a comeback with the national team, while Lewis’s seven-goal season in Colorado makes him a candidate to return on the wing.
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