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Breaking down the USMNT December squad: Dual-national strikers, MLS breakout players, and more

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The U.S. Men’s National Team roster for the December training camp just might be the most promising collection of young talent ever put together for an MLS-dominated camp, and the reason there is a different feel about this group than past MLS-heavy squads is because of how many of these prospects have tantalizingly high ceilings.

From Brenden Aaronson, who is headed to Red Bull Salzburg in January as a 20-year-old on a $6 million transfer, to Mark McKenzie, who is coming off an MLS Best XI-caliber season as a 20-year-old central defender, and Ayo Akinola and Daryl Dike, a pair of young strikers who have the combination of speed and power scouts rave about, the December USMNT squad is stacked with blue-chip prospects who just might be ready to start pushing older players on the national team depth chart.

Above all, Gregg Berhalter is looking for options, and looking for players to help fill the long list of roles that will be available for an impossibly busy summer ahead.

There are some players missing from this group, but before we start talking about snubs we should consider that a January camp still seems likely, so players like Jackson Yueill and Miles Robinson are good bets to be part of that group.

Here is a closer look at the top takeaways from the USMNT December camp roster:

Boosting the striker pool

Daryl Dike and Ayo Akinola were two of the MLS season’s breakout attacking players, emerging as dominant goal-scoring strikers, thriving on two top teams in Orlando City and Toronto FC.

They are also both eligible for multiple national teams, with Akinola reportedly listening to overtures from the Canadian national team program, and Dike, whose older brother Bright Dike played for Nigeria.

The duo could help answer the question of who will step forward to fill the void when Jozy Altidore’s USMNT career ends, and while there is a growing list of promising European-based strikers, like Josh Sargent, Nicholas Gioacchini and Sebastian Soto, Dike and Akinola boost the speed-strength combo that generates closer comparisons to Altidore.

Berhalter wants strikers who can be effective at holding up the ball, and distributing to runners, but those are skills both Akinola and Dike need to continue to develop after making strides in that area during the year.

Breakout seasons rewarded

Chris Mueller was one of the 2020 MLS season’s biggest breakout players, emerging as an elite-level attacker and one of the driving forces behind Orlando City’s impressive first season under Oscar Pareja.

What should have Berhalter excited is the dynamism Mueller displayed on the wing, and just how good a fit he could be operating as a wide forward in Berhalter’s 4-3-3 formation. Mueller isn’t known for his crossing, but his overall passing and selectivity with his passing improved considerably in 2020, and he set new highs in goals and assists.

Mark McKenzie was in last January’s USMNT camp, and made his national team debut after that camp, but he now returns to the national team setup having established himself as one of the best defenders in MLS and a top transfer target.

The 21-year-old could make a transfer move this winter, but his focus in the coming days will be making a case for the starting centerback role next to John Brooks with the full USMNT. That spot is up for grabs, and with Aaron Long entering the December camp as a leading candidate to retain the role he held at the 2019 Gold Cup, McKenzie has a chance to show he is the

Cole Bassett emerged as one of the more promising young American playmakers in MLS as one of the standouts on Colorado’s run to the playoffs. The U.S. Under-20 national team standout is being pursued by European clubs, and could leave MLS this winter, but his playmaking ability and nose for goal making a great fit for one of the attacking midfield roles in Berhalter’s midfield setup. The 19-year-old will be a leading option on the U.S. Under-20 team in 2021, and could play himself into the Olympic qualifying picture if he continues to impress.

Comments

  1. Tonight we will see how John Nelson does against the Seattle attack. If he performs as well as I expect, he will be in the conversation for LB.

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    • If he was a LB in 1996, he might make it. He’s a good positional defender but he’s more a young Lovitz. He’s probably a little more athletic than given credit for but his not going to wow with speed or strength. Hopefully he can solidify his starting spot next season.

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  2. I am glad we are belatedly earnestly getting in the dual national fight. We have been talking about this game for weeks so I find it somewhat goofy we’ve not gotten Perea and Alvarez officially switched if they will be in camp. I do not like the whiny GB approach where we let players try out nationality and the coach talks like they still have a choice. Even if legally true that they have a loophole, we should reward commitment — you can come to camp if you choose us — and then talk about them like they are one of us. Why does the coach have to talk like a lawyer?? Talk like they are American now. Acting like Perea or Alvarez can come try out and keep their options open only seems to encourage or leave open a negative choice.

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    • At least one thing worth noting is if a player still has a choice to make — particularly with a regional rival — why are they in our camp being taught our tactics? One reason coaches usually demand a commitment is I am not going to hand them the playbook before they commit and then have to play Holland or Mexico later on.

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  3. I like the players he picked for form up top and the dual nationals, the waste to me was Mihailovic, who proved a flash in the pan. Had a goal in a tepid January camp game and never looked good other than that. A decent coach would realize that any pro could score that once and the real test is playing well all 5 games. To me he looked over his head in games like the Jamaica loss. I was glad to see Dike Mueller Efrain Akinola, both to try and nail some down on nationality, and to experiment. But will they sub in for 20 minutes after I predictably watch DM struggle? And the thing is they are all kids so it’s like why does one get preferred just for being capped before if he didn’t do much?

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  4. Pretty happy with the roster given the MLS playoff and champions league restrictions. Call me crazy but would have liked to see lovitz called in, he’s nothing exciting, but he’s the most solid MLS based LB we have.
    I’m interested to see if Bradley and Altidore will be involved going forward, I happen to think they should be, and assuming we have a camp next month, I’d like to see them there.
    A couple other guys I would have liked to see get a shot: Donovan Pines, Khiry Shelton, Jackson Yueill

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    • Lovitz had his chances last year, we have younger, better options now but his service to the NT is acknowledged and respected. Khiry Shelton is in the playoffs with Kansas City, otherwise I think we’d have seen Busio called in too!

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      • Might be more to Ebobisse then just his recent concussion? He subbed in to the Timbers playoff match and did notlook that good. Prior to Ebobisse injury/concussion he played in something like175 straight matches. Dude showed up every match and continued to compete and improve. I suspect he had a leg injury when he suffered his concussion as well.

        Also surprised Eryk Williamson was not named to the list? Williamson had a breakout year and played a ton of minutes. Physically he can hold his own with the grown ups and dish it out as well. However, his skill on the dribble and driving the ball is outstanding. Williamson can also play in tight spaces and pick out a long unlocking pass. He is suspect to careless play in his own defensive third

    • This article was written about camp invites. Ebobisse is still in the convo, he just wasn’t called up in this camp. He’s solid, and I’m confident Ebobisse will be on the Olympic squad. Whether Kreis has him starting is another question.

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  5. Of the players mentioned, I like what I have seen lately from Mueller. At the beginning of the season he was a surprising scorer. Now in the playoffs I see a more rounded player who is passing well and setting up others as well as being a threat himself. Based on what I have seen, both Akinola and Dike look promising, but they seem kind of raw and inconsistent to me. They may be another year or two away from being important additions to the National Team. Still, good to try and get them involved now rather than wait.

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    • I think both Ayo and Dike were significant risks of taking their skills elsewhere and may still be. Ayo talked openly about playing for Canada and Daryl’s brother and sister both represented Nigeria.

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    • Hopefully bringing them both in can be a jump start to refining their skills. Iron sharpens iron, hopefully. First time in a while where I’ve been excited and hopeful about an MLS pool in a while.

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    • GP, remember Ayo is part of that U17 ‘17 WC India and ‘19 U20 Concacaf Champion. If not for an injury, in the U20 tourney, he would’ve started over De la Fuente at RW in Poland. Some of his birth year teammates are playing in Europe (Weah, Dest, Sargent, Durkin, Ledezma, Mendez, Llanez, Gloster). James Sands, McKenzie, back from injury Jaylin Lindsey, injured Pomykal, Servania, Amaya have been starting, or getting consistent minutes. Ayos younger teammates like Konrad & Soto are in Europe. Bello is starting for Atl United. Araujo for Galaxy. Ayo is just now playing & starting?! I’m no expert, or genius but I think, if he starts, especially @ RW, he balls out!! Unless Andrew Carleton ,or Chris Gosling miraculously, gain elite form, Ayo is the last one, (of the last 2 youth cycles), some have been waiting to see on the Senior team. IMO, He shows up and shows out big time. “Well, it’s only El Salvador!” I can already hear someone poo-poo-in, the opponent. Like Soto, Reyna & Ledezma, I believe, he wants to be in the Stars & Stripes, playing with this generation of players.

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  6. All around- I’m very happy w/ the list.

    Very hopeful re Dike, Mckenzie as I think both have the goods-are very close to ready to make a jump/have a role. Hope Mckenzie steps up as his game matches very well to what Berhalter wants to do and his speed/power would make him a good match alongside Brooks.(Zimmerman will get caught out holding a high line- Long doesn’t have the chops w/ his distribution) Dike as well has eye popping explosiveness that can make something out of nothing and we don’t really have from other young strikers.

    Very happy too see Efrain and Araujo invited/accept and hope to see them stick. Alvarez has developing to do but sure appears to have ingrained creative wizardry in his dna.

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