The U.S. Men’s National Team’s January camp roster was one filled with surprises, and one created with a clear eye toward the future. Just how far into the future remains to be seen.
Teenagers like Ulysses Llanez and Bryang Kayo were surprising inclusions, to put it mildly, but seeing Gregg Berhalter call up prospects so young had to excite some USMNT fans who may have feared a January camp roster loaded with all the same faces we have seen Berhalter call up many times before.
Sure, there are plenty of familiar veteran faces, but there was more than enough new blood to feel as though Berhalter was serious about taking a deep and thorough dive into the talent pool, even if it means looking at some prospects who might be several years away from being USMNT contributors.
Of course, we don’t know what sort of roster Berhalter would have called in if no MLS teams balked at releasing players (Atlanta United confirmed that it rejected call-up requests for Miles Robinson, Brad Guzan and Brooks Lennon), but if those missed opportunities opened the door for some younger options, it could wind up being a blessing in disguise.
Here are some more thoughts on the USMNT January camp roster:
Courting the dual nationals
It is no coincidence that 18-year-old prospects Ulysses Llanez and Julian Araujo are being called into USMNT camp even though Llanez has yet to make a first-team appearance for Wolfsburg and Araujo only just broke through with the Galaxy first team in 2019. Along with both being members of last summer’s U.S. Under-20 World Cup team, they are both dual nationals sure to be on the radar of the Mexican national team.
Llanez has already spent time in Mexican youth national team setups before, and Araujo has reportedly been approached by the Mexican federation, so it is smart of Berhalter to have a look at both and take the opportunity to establish stronger connections with them. It shows them both that they are taken seriously as prospects, and moves the USMNT well ahead of El Tri, which isn’t about to give either of them a look at this point in their budding careers.
Of course, the call-ups aren’t exclusively about their dual national status. The winger position is one in dire need of new blood and Llanez is one of the most exciting wing prospects in the pipeline. As much as he may not necessarily be close to breaking through with Wolfsburg’s first team, he’s an 18-year-old with bags of talent and potential, and it isn’t far-fetched to believe Llanez can break through and see first-team minutes in 2020.
As for Araujo, he heads into 2020 with a chance to try and stake his claim to a starting role with the Galaxy. He made 10 starts in 2019, but never quite earned the full faith of Guillermo Barros Schelotto, even with the Galaxy’s well-publicized defensive struggles. With another year under his belt, and now with a chance to go through a USMNT camp, Araujo could be poised for the type of year Reggie Cannon had in 2018, when he broke through at FC Dallas.
Hamid’s return long overdue
It doesn’t matter that it may have come only because of Atlanta United’s unwillingness to release Brad Guzan, what matters is the fact that Bill Hamid finally has his chance to fight for a place in Gregg Berhalter’s USMNT setup.
Hamid was arguably the best goalkeeper in MLS in 2019, but he continued to be overlooked by the USMNT last year, with the excuse being that his poor distribution was keeping him behind other candidates. Berhalter’s possession-based system requires the goalkeeper to be able to pass the ball well and Hamid has never had to develop that part of his game playing at D.C. United.
So what has changed? At a certain point you can’t overlook Hamid’s strengths. His shot-stopping and ability to cover his penalty area have few rivals in the USMNT pool, and we have seen with players like Sean Johnson and Brad Guzan that it is possible for a goalkeeper to strengthen their passing ability by joining the right team, or playing for the right coach.
That change may not be coming for Hamid at D.C. United just yet, but he has done more than enough to have Berhalter take a closer look.
Atlanta United’s stonewalling could prove costly
Can anybody really blame Atlanta United for balking at USMNT call-up requests for the January camp? Nobody in Atlanta has forgotten how the injury suffered by Miles Robinson while on national team duty last fall may have single-handedly derailed Atlanta United’s quest to repeat as MLS Cup champions.
Could it come back to haunt Atlanta’s players? Absolutely. Robinson heads into 2020 as a good candidate to push for minutes with the USMNT, but missing January camp will give some of his competition a leg up in that race. Lennon is the kind of prospect Berhalter surely wants to look at in a right back/wingback role, but now he will look at a younger prospect in Araujo, who could be in line for a breakout 2020.
Then you have Guzan, who finished 2019 as the number two goalkeeper behind Zack Steffen. Sean Johnson was already likely to push Guzan to regain the number two spot, but now Guzan’s absence opens the door for both Hamid and Matt Turner to show Berhalter he can start thinking about younger options.
Guzan is 35, and it was probably already time to start looking at some new options, but Atlanta United’s call-up rejection just might wind up helping speed up Guzan’s exit from the national team picture.
Young attacking midfielders take their shot
Paxton Pomykal and Brenden Aaronson represent a rare breed of American playmaker, having both enjoyed breakout 2019 seasons in MLS. They head into January camp ready to face a pair of veterans in Sebastian Lletget and Cristian Roldan in a depth chart battle that will be one of the storylines of 2020.
Berhalter needs attacking midfielders for the dual 10 roles in his system, and with Christian Pulisic looking more and more likely to spend most of his time deployed on the wing for the USMNT, the race is on to fill the central void. Weston McKennie’s injury, and recent shift into a centerback role at Schalke has only added to the sense that there is a growing need for more number 10 options.
There are European-based options on the radar, from Duane Holmes to Julian Green, as well as the fast-rising Richie Ledezma, but this January camp will offer both Pomykal and Aaronson the chance to show Berhalter they’re capable of fitting well into his system.
Among the big questions for both players is can they strengthen their defensive contributions to be true two-way players? Pomykal showed real improvement in his work rate in 2019 so his defensive qualities aren’t as much of a question mark, but if he is going to close the gap on Sebastian Lletget and Cristian Roldan on the depth chart, then he will need to show that willingness to cover ground when the team doesn’t have the ball.
One of the big knocks against Aaronson is that he is a defensive liability, but his creativity and clever movement has helped make him a valuable player for the Philadelphia Union, and intriguing prospect for Berhalter. The January camp will be Aaronson’s chance to show he can handle the kind of two-way work required on the international level.
The camp isn’t just important for the young playmakers. Lletget made real progress in 2019 in terms of staying healthy and showing himself to be an effective USMNT option. Roldan struggled to make a similar impact, and there is a growing sense that he is probably better-suited for a defensive midfield role than attacking midfield role. If he’s going to remain in the attacking midfield picture for Berhalter then he will need to have a strong January camp to fend off the youngsters coming for his spot.
Planting some defensive midfield seeds
Two of the more surprising call-up inclusions were Bryang Kayo and Christian Cappis, and it isn’t a coincidence that they are both promising defensive midfield prospects.
Michael Bradley’s days with the USMNT are winding to a close and as much as Tyler Adams is clearly the future of the defensive midfield position, Berhalter has to be looking at the overall pool at the position and this camp should give him a good long-term look.
Cappis is 20, but has already amassed a good amount of experience with Danish club Hobro, and while he has seen a good amount of time in attacking roles, he spent a good amount of time in his formative years as a defensive midfielder, and recently showed well in that role with the U.S. Under-23 team.
Kayo is only 17, but showed Berhalter some very promising signs when he was a guest player in the USMNT preparatory pre-Gold Cup camp last May. The 6-foot-1 D.C. United academy product is expected to sign with Wolfsburg in the summer, and is another important member of the next Under-20 cycle.
The camp should be an important one for Jackson Yueill who closed 2019 with momentum as a rising defensive midfield prospect. He heads into the January camp with a chance to solidify his place, and continue adapting to Berhalter’s system.