Skip to main content

USMNT's MLS-Based Contingent Gets a Head Start on World Cup Qualifying Prep

With three qualifiers on the horizon, this year's January camp carries a bit more significance than the average annual winter exercise.

For the U.S. men's national team's Europe-based contingent, preparations for the next set of World Cup qualifiers are still a couple of weeks away. But for others, that process begins Friday in Phoenix.

U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter has called on 20 MLS-based players to get camp started before three vital qualifiers that will go a long way toward determining whether the U.S. will have to sweat out the final steps on the road to Qatar or if its 2022 World Cup ticket will be all but in hand. Not all will proceed to the final stages of camp, when those whose clubs are based abroad will be released to join. But Berhalter has stressed the importance of keeping those whose MLS seasons finished as early as Nov. 7 in shape, and last month's camp outside Los Angeles and this month's head start before qualifying resumes are how he's hoping to accomplish that. There won't be any official matches during this two-week gathering, though U.S. Soccer says it will include "several closed-door scrimmages" against unspecified opponents.

“Our focus for the next two weeks is to prepare the domestic-based players to be included in the World Cup qualifying training camp,” Berhalter said in a statement. “This upcoming window presents an opportunity to move closer to our ultimate goal of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in Qatar.”

Entering this penultimate qualifying window, the U.S. sits in second place in Concacaf's Octagonal table, which has split into a top four of haves and a bottom four of have-nots. Through eight of 14 matches, Canada leads the table with 16 points, with the U.S. right behind on 15, while Mexico and Panama are level on 14. The top three teams automatically qualify for the World Cup, while the fourth-place team goes into a one-match playoff against Oceania's representative in June for a final World Cup berth.

For this triple-match window, the U.S. will return to Columbus, Ohio, to host El Salvador on Jan. 27 before heading north to face Canada in Hamilton, Ontario, on Jan. 30. The window closes at Minnesota United's Allianz Field vs. Honduras on Feb. 2. Given that El Salvador and Honduras are the two worst teams in the table and will be welcomed to what are expected to be frigid conditions, it's a golden opportunity to ensure that qualification doesn't come down to getting results in Mexico and Costa Rica—two notoriously difficult sites for the U.S. to accrue points—in the final window.

USMNT's Cristian Roldan, Jordan Morris and Walker Zimmerman

As for the group that's been called in through Jan. 21, 14 of the 20 took part in last month's exercise, which concluded with a 1–0 win over an experimental Bosnia-Herzegovina side. Cole Bassett, the scorer of the late match-winner, is one of the returning players.

Some January transfer window moves have significantly altered the available player-pool calculus for Berhalter, as some previously U.S.-based talents have new employers overseas and are thus not free to take part for the early portion of training. Ricardo Pepi (Augsburg), James Sands (Rangers) and Daryl Dike (West Brom) have all secured moves abroad in the last week, removing them from contention, while Mexican-American left back Jonathan Gómez, who earned his first cap vs. Bosnia, left USL Championship's Louisville City for Real Sociedad in a move that had been arranged since September. 

Here, however, is who was chosen from the available allotment of players on Berhalter's expanded radar before the scene shifts to Columbus:

GOALKEEPERS

Sean Johnson (NYCFC), Gabriel Slonina (Chicago Fire), Matt Turner (New England Revolution)

SI Recommends

Johnson rejoins the group after winning MLS Cup (and match MVP honors) with NYCFC during the last U.S. camp, while Turner aims to get his starting job back after marshaling the U.S. for the first five qualifying matches. The two should be expected to progress in camp before presumably being joined by Man City's Zack Steffen. For the 17-year-old Slonina, it's another opportunity to show out to the staff. He maintains Polish eligibility as well.

DEFENDERS

George Bello (Atlanta United), DeJuan Jones (New England Revolution), Brooks Lennon (Atlanta United), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), Auston Trusty (Colorado Rapids), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)

Zimmerman and Robinson are the two locks to move on to the pre-match portion of camp, as they could well form the starting center back duo vs. El Salvador. Long is a wild card in the long run, given how significant a piece of the puzzle he was before tearing his Achilles last May. He has been close to the U.S. in recent months, continuing his rehab as part of the November camp while fully integrating with the squad last month (he did not play vs. Bosnia). Trusty was a late addition to what was originally a 19-player camp. He's uncapped but did take part in last month's exercise.

As for the outside backs, Lennon is the only right fullback in camp and performed well last month, albeit at a position where the U.S. is well-stocked, while Bello will contend with first-time call-up Jones on the left. The latter had three goals and five assists in a breakout season with the Supporters' Shield–winning Revolution last season. His club teammate, center back Henry Kessler, was not called back in after appearing last month.

MIDFIELDERS

Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids), Sebastian Lletget (New England Revolution), Djordje Mihailovic (CF Montreal), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes) 

Acosta, Lletget and Roldan have long been constants in Berhalter's rotation and should be expected to stay through the end of the window, while Bassett returns after his late-game heroics off the bench vs. Bosnia. Mihailovic is back in camp for the first time in a year, on the heels of a 16-assist season in Montreal (second-most in MLS), while Yueill gets another call-up but remains a bit lower down on the midfield depth chart.

FORWARDS

Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)

Morris's progression will arguably be the most notable development to watch in this camp. His rapid comeback from an ACL tear crested with his national team return last month, and he impressed—all factors considered—in extended duty. Whether he can ascend to that peak level will determine whether he is reintegrated into the full squad later in the month or remains on the cusp as qualifying continues. He had been a core player prior to his long-term injury.

More Soccer Coverage: