By the end of the week, players will begin arriving in Columbus, Ohio, ahead of the USA's first game in the crucial winter window of three World Cup 2022 qualifiers.
The roster for the matches against El Salvador, Canada and Honduras is expected to be announced on Friday, the day the national team breaks camp in Phoenix, where MLS players have been training.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter has the experience of having taken the national team through two three-game windows in which it picked up five and six points. But this third three-game window is unlike anything the national team has ever played, being held in the middle of the winter, almost two months since most MLS teams finished their seasons, in a raging pandemic to boot.
How many players will be called up? In the first two three-game windows, 22 and 23 U.S. field players showed up in camp and all but one played. Walker Zimmerman didn't play in the first window and wasn't initially called in for the second window, though he ended up starting four of the last five qualifiers.
The bottom line: Berhalter isn't going to call up extra players just to have them be "passengers," as he has described extras. (In the November window with just two games and an extra day between games, seven of the 22 field players brought in didn't play in either match.)
The January window is different for several reasons. First of all, there's the highly contagious omicron. Berhalter won't know until players clear Covid testing who if any arrived from Europe carrying the variant and will need to isolate. (He said some players called into the training camp in Phoenix tested positive.)
The window will be different for two other reasons: Many players have been on break and will be playing in what are expected to be sub-freezing temperatures for all three games.
"We'll be ready to adapt, we'll have a contingency plan in place," Berhalter said of the omicron threat. "We're not exactly sure how many extra players we'll take. But we're going to be thorough and make sure we have a roster that can compete."
Will Sergino Dest be ready to go? Sergino Dest has not played since being taken to the cleaners by Canadian Alphonso Davies in Bayern Munich's 3-0 win over Barcelona that knocked the Spanish club out of the UEFA Champions League. That was on Dec. 8, almost six weeks ago.
Dest missed the November window with back problems that continued to bother him and then he was out due to Covid-19 protocols, but he clearly is not part of Barcelona's plans under new coach Xavi. Dest says he wants to remain at Barcelona and prove his value to the club of his dreams but if he decides to leave this month there aren't a lack of suitors.
That does not solve the issue at hand for Berhalter, who will want Dest's situation resolved pronto. How much does he play Dest in the winter window? Dest was instrumental in the victories over Jamaica and Costa Rica in October, and the USA will need his attacking spirit, especially in the home games against El Salvador and Honduras.
Complicating matters at right side is the fact that DeAndre Yedlin, who started in Dest's place against Mexico and Jamaica in November, isn't playing at Galatasaray. The other options at right back are Reggie Cannon, who has won back his starting job at Boavista, and Joe Scally, who played 29 minutes for Borussia Moenchengladbach on Saturday after sitting out its first game of the month due to Covid-19 protocols. (Neither played after being called in for the November qualifiers.)
Will John Brooks be recalled? John Brooks started the second and third qualifiers but hasn't been with the national team since then. He was culpable on the goals the USA gave up against Canada and Honduras and struggled for most of the fall at Wolfsburg, at least until Dutch coach Mark van Bommel was fired.
"I don’t assume that this is going to be his last time in the national team," Berhalter said in November, noting Brooks' performance against Salzburg in the UEFA Champions League the week he revealed his roster. "I’m sure he’ll be back, and it’s just about regaining your form and performing at a high level when you get the opportunity.”
Brooks went the distance for Wolfsburg in its first two games in January, though it is now winless in its last eight Bundesliga games and faces a relegation fight after starting the season at the top. He is the USA's best passer out of the back, and could have been helpful in the 1-1 tie at Jamaica when the USA struggled to break down the Reggae Boyz over the game's final 60 minutes.
Miles Robinson, Chris Richards and Zimmerman are Berhalter's top three choices in the middle of the USA's back, but both Robinson and Zimmerman are coming off their MLS breaks, so Brooks could be needed. The fourth center back called in for the November window was Mark McKenzie, who is viewed as more of a one v one defender and effective when the U.S. backline needs to press high.
Who will be the backups in midfield? The good news is that Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah are all starting with their clubs in Europe. The USA has won all three games in which it started its "MMA" midfield, but they were all at home where it would be expected to win. McKennie missed the last two road games in which the USA picked up only one point.
With a home-away-home schedule, like in October, Berhalter will have to decide whether to try to stick with his first string for all three games or rotate heavily in the second game, at Canada, where all players will need to be vaccinated if they want to enter the country.
Gianluca Busio started in McKennie's place at Jamaica but has played just 11 minutes in Venezia's last two games. Kellyn Acosta, whom the Colorado Rapids traded to LAFC on Friday, has been the first player off the bench in midfield in the last two qualifiers. Luca de la Torre was not called back in November but continues to play well for Heracles, whose form has improved after a terrible November and December. MLS veterans Christian Roldan (used by Berhalter more on the wing) and Sebastian Lletget are considered Berhalter favorites, but neither player played in November. James Sands, who has moved to Rangers, was called in for the Jamaica game after McKennie was suspended but he hasn't played for the USA since the match at Honduras. One long-shot: 20-year-old Tanner Tessmann, who has been starting at Venezia in midfield.
Who will start with with Christian Pulisic on the wings? Christian Pulisic missed the October window with an ankle injury suffered in the 4-1 win at Honduras but came off the bench to scored the winning goal against Mexico in Cincinnati and play the last 25 minutes at Jamaica. He has been starting regularly for Chelsea and should be an automatic choice for the USA up front if he remains healthy.
Brenden Aaronson and Tim Weah started in the last three qualifiers, but Aaronson hasn't played a competitive match for the last five weeks — he played the second half of a scrimmage at Salzburg on Friday and has two more this week — and Weah hasn't dressed for Lille since injuring his quad on Dec. 3. Gio Reyna resumed training with Borussia Dortmund late last fall after being injured in the 0-0 tie at El Salvador on Sept. 2, but he did not dress for Dortmund in its first two games in January.
Berhalter said last week and this week would be important for Weah and Reyna. After being off for almost two months, Pulisic played briefly in two games before being brought into the November camp. Both Lille and Dortmund have two games this week, so if Weah and Reyna return to play this week, they could get called in. But don't count on either player playing significant minutes in the winter window.
Who are the other options on the wings? Paul Arriola (two starts, one good, the other bad, in October) and Jordan Morris (out for the entire fall Octagonal) are in Phoenix with the MLS group. Konrad de la Fuente hasn't been called in since the September window and has played just 16 minutes for Marseille in January, sidelined first with Covid-19 and then what was described as a muscle injury. Matthew Hoppe has played 25 minutes in Real Mallorca's last two games after being sidelined for about three months.
Two alternatives would be Josh Sargent and Dest. Sargent looked very uncomfortable when he started on the wing and exited at halftime of the 4-1 win over Honduras, but he set up the first goal -- an own goal -- from his position on the right wing in Norwich City's 2-1 win over Everton on Saturday, his first game back after becoming a father.
Dest was starting on the wing at Barcelona for Ronald Koeman before the Dutchman was fired. When asked in the fall about using Dest on the wing, Berhalter did not rule out the possibility but said the USA has used its wingers differently than Barcelona used Dest, as vertical players, like Weah did effectively in recent qualifiers, but he also noted that the USA had other options on the wing at the time. Without Weah or Reyna, Berhalter might look at the situation differently.