It’s almost that time again for the U.S. men’s national team.
When we last saw the Americans—at least the first-choice batch—they were wrapping up a four-point November World Cup qualifying window, which included a familiar 2–0 home win over Mexico before a satisfactory if not unimpressive 1–1 draw at Jamaica. That left the U.S. in second place in Concacaf's eight-team table, where the top three automatically go to the World Cup and the fourth-place finisher goes to Qatar in June for a one-game playoff against Oceania's representative for a final spot in the 32-team field.
There’s plenty at stake when qualifying resumes next week, with the U.S. continuing its second lap through the regional pool by hosting El Salvador in Columbus, Ohio, facing Canada in Hamilton, Ontario, and then returning home to St. Paul, Minn., for a date vs. Honduras. It's the reverse fixtures of the opening three-game window of qualifying in September, and the points that could nudge the U.S. closer to Qatar are there for the taking, with the two home matches coming against the worst two teams in the table. First-place Canada will be weakened some following the word that Alphonso Davies is out while recovering from a case of myocarditis discovered following his recent experience with COVID-19.
But what about the state of the U.S.? For the last 10 days, 20 MLS-based players have been training in Phoenix, where they’ll wrap up the first portion of camp Jan. 21. Some of that group will stay on and move to Columbus, where they’ll be joined by the U.S.’s abroad-based contingent. Given the time of year on the club calendar, all are in a different place when it comes to form and fitness. Winter breaks or offseasons for some leagues coupled with recent injuries, fresh transfers, the omicron coronavirus variant and other variables make for one unique set of player circumstances.
“What we’ve learned is expect the unexpected,” U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said recently. “You never know who is going to be available to play in each game. You have to be willing to adapt.”
With a roster reveal for the looming matches in the offing, here’s a positional look at the U.S. player pool and where things currently stand:
Zack Steffen may still be second choice at Man City and relegated to domestic cup duty, but he’ll enter this camp finding himself in a rare position: having played a competitive match more recently than Matt Turner. Not like it has mattered even when Turner was in season with the New England Revolution. After watching the reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year start the first five qualifiers, Steffen has gotten the call ever since and should be expected in goal vs. El Salvador. NYCFC’s Sean Johnson appears to be in the lead for the third GK spot, though that’s not set in stone for the long haul; it’s just a product of the current state of the competition.
Nations League final hero Ethan Horvath hasn’t played a minute for Nottingham Forest since Sept. 15, while 17-year-old Gabriel Slonina projects as a longer-term prospect. Including the Chicago Fire youngster as part of the team going to qualifiers could be a chip to play as he weighs his options between the U.S. and Poland, but Berhalter hasn't typically dangled roster spots in that way and would keep Slonina for the trio of qualifiers only if he earns it through his play in camp—where he's been with Turner and Johnson—over the last couple of weeks.
In the center, Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman were the big winners of the fall, emerging as the top-choice tandem as John Brooks struggled for form at Wolfsburg. But the former two have been out of season since their teams were eliminated from the MLS playoffs in November, and Brooks could find himself back in the mix—even if it’s not a starting role—along with Chris Richards and Mark McKenzie from the Europe-based contingent.
The accelerated return of Aaron Long is another piece of the puzzle. Brought into camp in November and December to continue his rehab from a torn Achilles suffered last May, Long seems to think he’ll be ready to contribute as soon as next week.
“I feel great. I mean, I’m not even eight months out yet, but I feel really good,” Long said late last week. “Just got to keep getting fit and hopefully—and I got [two] more weeks until the qualifier, so yeah, should be good to go.”
“Good to go” might be overstating it, especially with Berhalter indicating earlier last week that Long was more likely to be match-fit for the three final qualifiers in March, but if he really is back and can feature at his previous level, it’s an unexpected bonus.
Out wide, things may be ironically more settled on the left than the right. Antonee Robinson is a lineup fixture again for Fulham—he had a goal and an assist on Tuesday—which is in first place in England’s second tier and chasing promotion. Sam Vines has made 10 starts for Antwerp since making the move to Belgium, while the versatile Joe Scally and George Bello are the other alternatives. Vines and Scally took part in camp for the last two qualifiers but did not play.
On the right, Sergiño Dest hasn’t been playing for Barcelona, which presents a bit of a problem. Dest’s last minutes were in the first half of Barça’s Champions League group finale against Bayern Munich on Dec. 8. He’s been hurt and had a case of COVID-19, which hasn’t helped his cause, but it adds a wrinkle for Berhalter as he considers how—and whether—to use one of his most dynamic players entering the final third. Behind Dest, dependable veteran DeAndre Yedlin hasn’t gotten off the bench in Galatasaray’s last four games, while Reggie Cannon, on the flip side, has reemerged as a starter at Boavista but has yet to play a minute in qualifying.
Brooks’s and Yedlin’s carrying yellow cards into the three-match window also necessitates more depth at their respective positions, given that one more yellow for either would mean a one-match suspension.
Weston McKennie is in his best form of the season for Juventus, with goals in consecutive games and Tottenham transfer rumors swirling as the January window hits its second half. He, Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams are in line to command the midfield, though Adams needs to be wary of missing any time given his yellow-card status.
Beyond them, of the reliable MLS trio of Sebastian Lletget, Kellyn Acosta and Cristian Roldan, two have been traded (Lletget to the New England Revolution, Acosta to LAFC), and, digging a little deeper, James Sands secured a loan from NYCFC to Rangers. Save for Sands, who made his debut for Rangers on Tuesday, all have been inactive since their clubs’ seasons ended, leaving them with only U.S. camp time to stay fit.
Gianluca Busio came on strong in the fall but has made just one start in Venezia’s last four matches in all competitions. Luca de la Torre remains a lineup fixture for midtable Dutch side Heracles, but Berhalter hasn’t shown much of an affinity for him during qualifying. Perhaps that will change with the second line of central midfielders out of season.
There’s a lot to unpack here, especially in the wide areas. Christian Pulisic is fit, but he has recently been spending time on the field for Chelsea pigeonholed into wingback and false-nine roles instead of operating more exclusively in his accustomed attacking spot on the wing. Gio Reyna, who hasn’t played for club or country since the U.S.’s first qualifier, on Sept. 2, is likely to be held out until the international break, according to Dortmund coach Marco Rose. Tim Weah has also been out injured for Lille—though he returned to full training Tuesday—and is an injury doubt for the upcoming camp as well. Brenden Aaronson isn’t hurt, but Salzburg has been off since Dec. 11 for the Austrian Bundesliga’s winter break, and save for club friendlies, he won’t have had any match time in the six weeks leading into the El Salvador game. (The Athletic reported Tuesday that Leeds United is looking to buy him during the transfer window and had a $20 million bid rejected.)
Those are the U.S.’s four top attacking talents out wide, and there are questions of a varying nature about all of them and their readiness for the intense matches to come. A wild card to watch is Konrad de la Fuente, the Marseille winger who started in El Salvador in the first qualifier but hasn’t returned for either of the subsequent windows.
In the center, Ricardo Pepi is getting settled at Augsburg, where he has looked rather comfortable in his first matches in Germany, even if he hasn’t scored just yet (and hasn’t scored for anyone since his stellar fall for the U.S. and goal vs. Jamaica). The competition there isn’t all that fierce at the moment. Josh Sargent continues to struggle for Norwich City, while Daryl Dike just moved to West Brom and is getting acclimated. Jordan Pefok, like Aaronson, has his club on winter break, though his final impression before the stoppage was a four-goal performance for Young Boys in Switzerland. Matthew Hoppe just returned from a long-term injury for Mallorca, earning his first minutes since Sept. 22 in back-to-back brief stints off the bench. It remains Pepi’s place to lose.
The four MLS forwards currently in camp—Jordan Morris, Paul Arriola, Jesús Ferreira and Gyasi Zardes—could all proceed to the next phase, especially considering the expectation of an expanded squad and the need for more options. Arriola, for what it's worth, has been linked with a move from D.C. United to Mexico's Club América.
More Soccer Coverage: