There’s plenty of reason to be both somber and hopeful for the U.S. Men’s National Team. The sting of missing the 2018 World Cup still looms large, and all of the promising young talent in the world won’t guide the U.S. to Russia next summer.
Although that opportunity was missed, another now begins as the U.S. now formally turns the page towards 2022.
The process officially begins against Portugal next Tuesday as interim head coach Dave Sarachan called in a youth-heavy roster for the final match of 2017. It’s a squad that is made up of mostly players under the age of 24, players that will be vital in what is now a five-year push towards 2022.
Sarachan won’t be around for that push, but he knows that the U.S. can now begin to lay some sort of foundation for the years to come as new faces come into the fold.
“The one word that I would use in reference to all of this is opportunity,” Sarachan said after naming his 21-man squad. “It’s an opportunity for many players who haven’t been in the picture that we feel have a bright future with the National Team to get to measure themselves in a game against a quality opponent. It’s an opportunity for our National Team to finish out 2017 in a positive way.
“It’s also just an opportunity to move on. As much as we’re still gutted from how things turned out with qualifying, we have to look ahead and finish out the year the right way.”
While there is a focus on young stars, there is some balance to the USMNT squad. In total, 10 players on the 21-man roster were a part of this summer’s Gold Cup run, including veterans like Alejandro Bedoya, Tim Ream and a returning Danny Williams. Sarachan says it was important to have some players around to offer veteran leadership for a match against a Portugal team loaded with talent. Of the veteran crop, Williams is likely the most intriguing. He’ll be 33 when the next World Cup rolls around, but the Huddersfield Town midfielder’s long-awaited return could put him in the picture for the qualifying cycle.
Still, the most anticipated factor of this squad is the youth movement. You can certainly see it in defense, where 24-year-old John Brooks is suddenly the elder statesman of the centerback pool. Following plenty of action at Vitesse, Matt Miazga looks set to lock down a more consistent place while Cameron Carter-Vickers returns to the national team following a successful start to his loan spell with Sheffield United. With those three pieces in place, the U.S. could experiment with the three-at-the-back setup that was used at times in 2017. There are also options like Justen Glad and Erik Palmer-Brown in the pipeline, but the first test is to integrate and develop chemistry between Brooks, Carter-Vickers and Miazga, three players currently playing in solid leagues in Europe.
In midfield, Weston McKennie is the headliner as the Schalke midfielder would have likely been a part of any World Cup roster the U.S. assembled. McKennie has been a frequent part of the Bundesliga club’s midfield setup and should provide a vital central midfield presence for a USMNT group looking to integrate a new spine. McKennie is a player that provided a presence in the heart of midfield and he has shown well against some of the world’s top teams in the Bundesliga. He’ll have to adjust to being more of a focal point with the national team but, at 19 years old, he has plenty of time.
Tyler Adams, listed as a midfielder by U.S. Soccer, can play either centrally or at right back after shining for the Red Bulls throughout 2017. Lynden Gooch is also involved once again after earning two caps towards the end of 2016. There’s a major changing of the guard in midfield, although players like Michael Bradley, Paul Arriola and Darlington Nagbe will almost certainly still be in the picture in the years to come.
And then there’s the youngest player of the group, Josh Sargent. The forward, who is set to join Werder Bremen on his 18th birthday, is fresh off runs at the U-17 and U-20 World Cup. At just 17, Sargent would be just the eighth player under the age of 18 to make his USMNT debut if he was to earn an appearance against Portugal. The jump from the U-20 and U-17 teams to the senior team is a big one, and Sargent may be a prospect that matures further down the line. However, it doesn’t hurt to give him an experience he’s certainly earned with his play on the youth levels.
There are notable absences. Sarachan says the decision was made to leave Christian Pulisic with Dortmund for a bit of rest. Bobby Wood’s absence is justified by injury issues as the forward is battling a lingering knee ailment, and giving him a week off to heal is important, especially following a cold spell that could see him relegated to Hamburg’s bench.
Finally, there’s one of the more anticipated midfield prospects: Jonathan Gonzalez. With Monterrey firmly focused on a strong finish ahead of the Liga MX Liguilla, the young midfielder will not join the USMNT squad.
Overall, the focus remains on building some sort of chemistry for the years to come. It’s about getting new faces integrated and exposed to the national team and all of the factors that go along with it. The Portugal friendly, in the grand scheme of things, is pretty inconsequential, but it could end up being a match that proves vital to kickstarting the national team careers of the spine of the 2022 team.
“The message is two-fold,” Sarachan said. “First, it’s important to use the week to establish a relationship with each other on and off the field and to build that so by the time we play on Tuesday we have a good understanding of what this particular group is about.
“Secondly, for a lot of the younger players coming in this is the start of a new era in our program and so it’s important to set the right tone and make sure they all really get a grasp of what this means and the honor that comes with playing for your National Team. It’s not something to be taken for granted. It’s not a right, it’s a privilege. That understanding will be important for all the players that come into camp.”