There will no Under-20 World Cup and no Olympic men's soccer for the USA this summer. But it will be all hands on deck for the senior national team, which will play upwards of 10 games over nine weeks (May 30-Aug. 1).
It will start with four games mimicking what's in store for the USA in the Octagonal -- one four-game window, two three-game windows in addition to two two-game windows -- to get in 14 games over less than seven months.
Even with all the U.S. stars now based in Europe, head coach Gregg Berhalter acknowledges that World Cup 2022 qualifying will be unlike anything the USA has ever faced before, and he'll have to rotate his squad.
He will likely stick with his A-list of mostly European-based players for the four games in May and June -- two Concacaf Nations Cup matches in Denver sandwiched between friendlies against Switzerland and Costa Rica -- and then send them off on much-needed vacations.
The Gold Cup will be Berhalter's opportunity to work on expanding his player pool. It will also serve to provide competition for players who might have otherwise been headed to the Olympics or U-20 World Cup in 2021.
Here are five MLS players, all uncapped at the senior level and all U-23s or U-20s, who might get a shot this summer:
1. Caden Clark (New York Red Bulls, 17). Clark is off to quite a start to his MLS career: five goals -- several of them golazos -- in his first 11 games (regular season and playoffs). Red Bulls coach Gerhard Struber has coached the Red Bulls for four games, and Clark has scored in three of them. After Clark's volley in the 2021 opener, Struber said, “Caden has the abilities to score these goals. This is not the first one and not the last one. We hope that he can score again and again and for me it’s not a surprise." Clark has never been in a national team camp above the U-16 level, but Berhalter has not been afraid to give young players a chance. How long Clark is in MLS remains to seen. He turns 18 on May 27, making him eligible to move abroad during the summer transfer window. The assumption is he will end up at Red Bull Leipzig, where former Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams plays and former Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch will coach next season. If Clark moves his summer, that would put him out of the Gold Cup. More likely, he'll move in January, like Adams did in 2019.
2. Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes, 17).Cowell, who is eligible to play for the USA or Mexico, was the youngest player at the U-23 camp in January by a wide margin -- 15 months -- but didn't join the senior national team when it moved from Bradenton to Orlando for the friendly against Trinidad & Tobago. He said the camp make him realize how hard to needed to work and he set as a goal earning a starting spot with the Quakes. All he has done in the last two weeks is register a goal and an assist against FC Dallas (3-1 win) and goal and two assists against D.C. United (4-1 win), more than doubling his 2020 production (one goal and one assist in 17 games). San Jose coach Matias Almeyda doesn't want the Cowell band wagon to get moving too quickly. "He’s a humble player," said the Argentine. "Humble from his heart. He listens, he wants to learn, he asks questions. That makes me think he’s going to be a great player. But you have to understand this takes time.”
3. Leon Flach (Philadelphia Union, 20). The Union's sporting director, Ernst Tanner, has quite a knack for plucking players out of Europe's minor leagues: Kacper Przybylko at Kaiserslautern (now in Germany's 3. Liga, in 2018), Kai Wagner (Wurzburger Kickers in 3. Liga in 2019) and Jamiro Monteiro (Metz in France's Ligue 2). Flach was acquired from St. Pauli (2. Bundesliga) for a transfer fee and has immediately stepped into the Union lineup, starting on the left side of the diamond and now at defensive midfield with Jose Martinez serving suspensions in both the Concacaf Champions League and MLS. Flach, who was born in Houston and raised in Hamburg, is no stranger to the national team program. He was called into the lone camp the 2021 U-20s had and impressed in Anthony Hudson's January 2020 camp in Florida.
4. David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake, 20). Ochoa has the biggest upside of any young keeper in the national team pool, putting him in line behind Matt Turner and Sean Johnson for the third spot on the Gold Cup roster. He started three of four Olympic qualifiers and was outstanding in the opening game against Costa Rica (1-0 win), which more than made up for his gaffe in the deciding semifinal match against Honduras (2-1 loss). He also started RSL's opening two MLS games -- both wins. The Californian was the center of attention after the RSL's opener at Minnesota United when he kicked the ball into the Wonderwall supporters' section at Allianz Field, incurring the wrath of opposing players and coaches. Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath described Ochoa as a "kid who's not that good." RSL coach Freddy Juarez tried to use the incident as a learning experience. “I don't want to ever take away his fire,” he said, “but you got to be smart about situations. He's developing."
5. Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake, 24). Glad was at the senior national team's January camp in 2019 and 2020 but didn't play. He wasn't named to this year's double January camp (senior and U-23 teams) in Bradenton, Florida, but ended up starting for the U-23s in Olympic qualifying and being named to the tournament's Best XI. The top three spots at center back on the Gold Cup team will likely go to Aaron Long, Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman, but Glad is in line to claim the fourth spot unless Berhalter looks to Europe to bring in a player like Erik Palmer-Brown, whom he had in camp in March but did not use.