The U.S. men’s national team’s 28-player group for three massive, upcoming World Cup qualifiers can be split into two camps. There’s the 13-player MLS-based contingent, the one that’s been gathered together for over two weeks looking to stay in shape while in the middle of its extended offseason. Then there’s the 15-player European-based part, which has crossed the Atlantic following another weekend of club matches to complete the puzzle.
In assessing form of individuals coming into this camp, there are more variables than usual, given the timing of the international window. The U.S. is accustomed to playing games at the end of January, but they’re usually friendlies against experimental squads to bring a lower-intensity camp to a close. They’re not World Cup qualifiers with everything on the line. So how players are entering the next two weeks, especially the nucleus whose clubs are based abroad, matters a great deal, considering their play will determine how much work is left to be done to punch that all-important ticket to Qatar.
The most notable performance by a U.S. player abroad over the last few days came from someone not included for the upcoming trio of qualifiers. Josh Sargent has had a rough go of it in his first season at Norwich City, but his timing was impeccable, as his first two Premier League goals of the season came just as U.S. Soccer was unveiling its roster for the coming week. If nothing else, it served as a reminder that U.S. squads are fluid, nothing is set in stone and the right run of form—especially for a forward—can put you right back in the mix.
As for Sargent’s countrymen who are based overseas and will be suiting up in the red, white and blue this week in the frigid conditions of the U.S. and Canada, here’s how they fared in their final matches for their clubs before the international window:
Zack Steffen was omitted from Man City's match-day squad entirely, not even backing up Ederson in the club’s draw vs. Southampton, which snapped a 12-match winning streak in the league. On Tuesday, U.S. Soccer disclosed that he has experienced back tightness and has not yet traveled to join the team, putting Matt Turner, who started the U.S.'s first five qualifiers before taking a back seat to Steffen, back in line for the starting role (U.S. Soccer called Steffen day-to-day). In a bit of an oddity, the U.S. carried four goalkeepers into camp, but given Steffen's injury status, it makes more sense. Sean Johnson and untested 17-year-old Gabriel Slonina are the alternatives.
It's a mixed bag for the Europe-based defenders. Antonee Robinson has done everything possible to ensure he remains a first-choice left back, as he is playing at an extremely high level for a Fulham side that is soaring atop England’s second tier. A midweek goal and assist vs. Birmingham marked the highlight of his week and underscored his current form.
While there is no direct competition at left back, with the other options all primarily right-sided players, one who could operate there is Sergiño Dest, and he finally made his way back to Barcelona’s starting lineup this week. He made his first league start since Dec. 4 in Sunday’s win vs. Alavés just days after coming off the bench in extra time of Barça’s Copa del Rey defeat to Athletic Bilbao.
Reggie Cannon and DeAndre Yedlin, the top two candidates to start on the right if Dest is pushed to the left, have had differing fortunes. Cannon has reclaimed his regular starting berth at Boavista in Portugal after being a bystander at the start of the season, while Yedlin is reportedly on the cusp of a potential return to MLS (Hull City is also reportedly interested) after leaving Seattle to go abroad seven years ago. He played two minutes off the bench for Galatasaray on Sunday after having started a midweek match.
In the center, Mark McKenzie returned to Genk’s starting lineup after Sunday being held out of its first match back from a three-week winter break earlier in the week, while Chris Richards got the experience of lining up against Erling Haaland and Borussia Dortmund in his fourth straight 90-minute performance since returning from the German winter break. It still would not surprise if both are backups to a preferred tandem of Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman, despite the MLS players’ lack of recent match time.
The U.S. should be happy with the state of all three of its core, Europe-based midfielders.
Yunus Musah scored his first league goal of the season for Valencia after having a pair against lesser competition in the Copa del Rey. This one was a lovely strike, and it opened the scoring vs. Atlético Madrid, which ultimately dealt Musah's side a heartbreaking 3–2 defeat. But for Musah on a personal and individual level, it’s a nice way to stride into camp. He displayed a great first touch to take down the cross and then a killer instinct to not hesitate in having a go at goal.
Weston McKennie, meanwhile, has scored twice recently for Juventus, and according to U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter, “he’s probably in the form of his life, playing at a really, really high level.” He’s also coming off a yellow-card suspension, which means he has a clean slate and should be expected to play the lion’s share of minutes in the midfield.
The same would ideally be the case for Tyler Adams, who has maintained a core place at RB Leipzig after Jesse Marsch's exit as manager, but he is carrying a yellow into Thursday night’s match vs. El Salvador and another at any juncture would result in a one-match suspension.
Luca de la Torre returns for the U.S., having started 19 of Heracles’s 20 matches in the Eredivisie this season. Someone who can progress the ball upfield, de la Torre joins the MLS-based Sebastian Lletget, Cristian Roldan and Kellyn Acosta as secondary options in the center. He has 13 qualifying minutes under his belt, helping the U.S. see out an Oct. 7 win over Jamaica in the fourth match of the Octagonal.
Ricardo Pepi has at least hit the ground running from a playing-time standpoint at Augsburg, where he has started the last two matches following his debut off the bench with the Bundesliga club. Whether it remains a Bundesliga club remains to be seen, though. Augsburg is currently in the relegation playoff place, one point clear of the automatic drop and two away from safety. That Pepi hasn’t scored yet in Germany isn’t all that noteworthy as he finds his bearings, but it is notable that his last goal remains his second vs. Jamaica in the October window. That's a long time for a player who remains the U.S.’s top center forward in camp and will be counted on to produce goals.
On the outside, Brenden Aaronson may be the subject of intense transfer interest from Leeds United, but his current club, RB Salzburg, has been out of competitive action since Dec. 11. Save for a few club friendlies, Aaronson hasn’t played a meaningful match in six weeks, which could be problematic given his increased stature on the U.S.
Aaronson, however, doesn't see it being an issue. "I'm always ready to play 90 minutes, Aaronson said Monday. "I feel really fit."
Christian Pulisic also remained unused this weekend, and he was also kept on the bench for a midweek match vs. Brighton, meaning it’s been a week since his last on-field action. Considering his injury history, that’s not necessarily a bad thing from a U.S. perspective, with the player entering fresh and rested, ready to be deputized at his most dangerous position as opposed to filling the needs elsewhere for Chelsea, as he has been in recent weeks.
Tim Weah’s return to fitness and the field is one of the more important developments for the U.S. attack. He has been a vital player out wide for the Americans, especially with Gio Reyna out since being hurt in the first qualifier on Sept. 2 and after suffering a thigh injury in early December, Weah’s participation in this window was not a given. But a midweek stint off the bench and a start and 67 minutes in defeat to Brest on Saturday should put him in position to be a key contributor once again.
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